The little magazine with a big mission

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For most of Ford Motor Co.'s century, it published a monthly magazine that was part employee news outlet, part marketing tool, part dealer-loyalty program, part literary and artistic medium, part chronicle of Americana. Ford Times was launched in 1908 as an employee publication, but it soon morphed into a general-interest magazine specializing in travel and popular culture. It was published until 1993, except for parts of World War I and World War II.

As it flourished, the magazine was read by millions and featured articles by noted authors such as William Faulkner, John Steinbeck, Ogden Nash, E.B. White and Erle Stanley Gardner. The content dealt primarily with travel destinations, food, interesting pastimes, places and people in America. An occasional article on Ford products or Ford owners was published, but the publication never was a hard-sell tool.

To illustrate its covers and main articles, Ford Times commissioned paintings, mostly evocative watercolors, from contemporary artists-Charles Culver, Arthur Barbour, Harvey Kidder, Roscoe Misselhorn and others.

Over the years, the magazine's audience varied. At times, only Ford employees and dealers received the publication; at other times, Ford Times was distributed to millions of Ford owners and likely prospects (names were provided by dealers). From the late 1940s on, it remained a consumer publication.

The magazine's format varied, too, shifting from tabloid newspaper size to standard magazine size, back to tabloid format, then to pocket size in the 1940s (Henry Ford decreed it should fit into the pocket of a man's suit) before finally settling on a slightly larger size in the early 1980s.

As a consumer publication, its purpose was "to present a view of America through the windshield." Its corporate missions were to solidify the carmaker's relationship with its dealers and to be a monthly reminder to customers and prospects about their Ford dealer. Subscriber lists were supplied by local dealers, and an imprint on the back cover told readers that "Ford Times is sent to you by" followed by the dealer's name and address. Dealer fees helped defray the magazine's production costs.

Ford Times' heyday was the mid-1970s, when circulation topped 2.1 million and readership was estimated at 8 million. But by 1980, interest flagged, and circulation had dropped to 1.2 million. Corporate executives decided the magazine needed a more modern look and approach.

So in 1981, it was relaunched in a larger format (an unconventional 7 in. by 10 in.), primarily for better display of photos, which replaced artwork as article illustrations. In addition, editorial content was perked up with more articles on celebrities and popular culture. Features on personalities (William Shatner, Minnie Pearl, Jimmy the Greek) and articles on trends (Thai cooking, exotic flower-growing, historic re-enactments, home uses of personal computers) joined the magazine's traditional articles on travel destinations, adventure trips and recipes.

[In the interest of full disclosure, this writer created several articles for Ford Times back in the '80s and early '90s on such disparate subjects as the manufacture of Jelly Bellies (Ronald Reagan's favorite snack food), collectors of miniature furniture and houseboating trips on U.S. waterways.]

For a short time, the publication accepted outside advertising as well as its usual page or two of Ford ads. Advertisers included Berlitz, Cross pens, the Bradford Exchange and even Olympia beer.

In 1988, production of the magazine was outsourced to PR firm Hill & Knowlton, with Ford's Arnold Hirsch, the longtime editor, becoming publisher to maintain continuity and corporate editorial control over the publication.

But by the early 1990s, times had changed, and Ford decided to fold the magazine. The final issue appeared in January 1993. It carried a message to readers from the Ford Division's general manager stating: "Ford Times has been our continuing bridge of communications-for us, the Ford Motor Co. and your dealer-and you, our very important customer," and promising that the company would continue to communicate, but in different ways.

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