WHAT I'VE DONE with my life," says Henry Ford II on the last page of Robert Lacey's new book, Ford: The Men and the Machine, "is nobody's business." The author has a nose for irony. If it wasn't before, the life of the grandson of the founder of America's fourth largest industrial concern and the biggest company controlled by a single family, has now become practically everybody's business.

Lacey, biographer of the British and the Saudi royal families, has written a richly anecdotal and wonderfully readable book on Henry II and the rest of the Fords. It weighs in at 778 pages, and all but the first 50 or so ("The first Fords had settled in Dearborn," etc., etc.) make irresistible reading. Understand that financial analysis is not Lacey's strong suit. He's at his best telling stories, skewering people he doesn't like (Lee Iacocca comes immediately to mind), and providing remarkable insight into personalities. We learn little about the automobile industry and its boom-or-bust cycles -- though Lacey's views on subjects like Detroit's aversion to small cars and Iacocca's genius for " 'packaging,' the art of taking a sound basic product and adding the quick, easy trimmings which not only increased the car's attractiveness, but added real profit," are exactly right. We learn a lot about the lives of the brilliant, tragic, and eccentric Fords, especially about Henry II.

Young Henry (now 69) is a fascinating character who, unlike his father Edsel, who died young "of a broken heart," took the legacy of Henry I and vastly improved upon it, saving a company that had been taken over in the '30s by hoods and numbskulls. In middle age, Henry II became dazzled by beautiful young women, drink and celebrity. Lacey quotes a Ford family member who blamed it all on Henry's meeting Gianni Agnelli, the owner of Fiat: "Here was this man, who was just about the same age -- handsome, macho, suntanned, dynamic -- running a successful major business, but also jetting from St. Moritz to St. Tropez, with hot and cold running blondes. And suddenly Henry Ford realized, 'Christ! This is what running a family car company is all about.' "

In his later years, Henry won a long battle of attrition with Iacocca, then president of Ford, and fired him. But the fight took its toll. Lacey called the final confrontation a "skull-jarring encounter between two bull males, each so potent, so talented, and so raging mad." Henry gave this explanation for firing Iacocca: "Well, sometimes you just don't like somebody." But Lacey shows there was more to it. He hints strongly that Iacocca, while still at Ford, was the source of material that Roy Cohn used in his legal persecution of Henry II, in unsuccessful attempts to discredit and humiliate him. LACEY ALSO questions parts of Iacocca's memoirs. In his book, for example, Iacocca claims that Henry used a company Boeing 727 as his personal luxury cruiser for trips to Europe. "In reality, the plane was earmarked for Iacocca's use," writes Lacey. "Gene Bordinat, who was given the job of redesigning the aircraft, remembers working specifically to Iacocca's instructions, so that the plane ended up a very definite reflection of the president's own taste -- down to the gold-plated plumbing. 'It was,' remembers one passenger who saw Iacocca's bedroom in the aircraft, 'pure French bordello.' "

Lacey also argues that being fired by Henry was the best thing that could have happened to Iacocca. He quotes a colleague: "Getting sacked shocked Lee. It drove him back to being the lean, tough, car man he was when he started out."

But the author's most valuable insight into Iacocca is that he was "a better Henry Ford than Henry Ford" -- that is, he was more like the founding grandfather than Henry II was: "a great carmaker of humble birth, the son of immigrants, who was snubbed by the establishment, who was apparently quite defeated, at one stage, by the privileged and the mighty, but who fought back with anger, with talent, and with sheer hard work, and who provided, in the process, a lot of jobs, not to mention inspiration, for humble people." (Lacey does have fondness for the comma.)

But Henry Ford I, as two dozen biographers before Lacey have shown, was one of a kind. He may have been America's greatest industrial genius, but he was also a vicious anti-Semite ("Jewish Jazz -- Moron Music -- Becomes Our National Music" was a typical headline in his oddball weekly newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, an ignoramus who had to admit during a libel trial that he knew he didn't know the cause of the American Revolution and had never heard of Benedict Arnold (Ford won his case against the Chicago Tribune, but the jury awarded him a humiliating six cents), a paranoiac, a philanderer, and a lunatic on the subject of diet. ("He inveighed against the evils of fresh dough: all bread stood in the Ford pantry for a full day before it was consumed.")

Lacey has a convincing analysis of Ford's eccentricities: "He was the Great Simplifier. Seeing the obvious solution which lay at the heart of a complex problem was his particular talent, and since it worked so well with cars, he did not see why it should not work equally well with the 'mystery of life': the complex, discouraging realities of existence . . . For the great carmaker, anti-Semitism was the intellectual equivalent of vanadium steel or the moving assembly line."

Lacey himself probably doesn't simplify enough. An entertaining cast marches across the pages -- Al Capone, Truman Capote, Robert MacNamara ("He wore granny glasses, and he put out a granny car" -- the Falcon), Thomas Edison, S.E. "Bunkie" Knudsen, and the gorgeous Christina Ford, Henry's second wife, who explained that her husband had limited his drinking to wine: "Just two bottles a night, with dinner. That, for Enery, you know, really is not very much." But there's no theme to this story, just acres of anecdotes and observations -- many of them vicious, but almost all of them bathed in a curious sympathy.

"With any luck," Henry Ford told Lacey during their first meeting, "I'll be dead by the time your book comes out." No such luck.

James K. Glassman is the "Money Culture" columnist for The New Republic and financial editor of The Washingtonian.