THE FORDS An American Epic By Peter Collier and David Horowitz Summit. 496 pp. $22.95

THAT THIS BOOK should be published barely two weeks after the death of its principal subject, Henry Ford II, is an unhappy coincidence, to be sure, but an illuminating one as well. "Hank the Deuce," as Ford was widely known within the company he led for four decades, was often the victim of a bad press, especially in his later years when his messy domestic life drummed up more publicity than his business affairs. So it is good to have on hand a book that offers a balanced view of this complex man, and it is even better that the balance leans to the positive side.

In this respect as in many others The Fords is similar to Ford: The Men and the Machine, the encyclopedic study by Robert Lacey that was originally published a year ago and is now available in a mass-market paperback edition. Peter Collier and David Horowitz have covered the same ground that Lacey did and have reached much the same conclusions, about the Fords themselves and about the Ford Motor Company. To say this is not to suggest that Collier and Horowitz have merely retraced Lacey's footsteps -- to the contrary, they seem determined to demonstrate the independence of their own research -- but to note that when two quite discrete books arrive at the same judgments about the same subjects, those judgments probably are correct.

There seems little point in a lengthy recapitulation of the Ford story, both because it is so familiar and because it has been retold so recently in Henry II's obituaries. It is all quite literally the stuff of American legend: the original Henry Ford's long, seemingly quixotic effort to make a horseless carriage; his success, and his subsequent determination to create a cheap automobile for the masses; his early championing of the working man, followed by his decline into meanness and anti-Semitism, and his contemptuous treatment of his gifted son, Edsel; the near-collapse of his empire under the shadow rule of the despicable Harry Bennett, and the dramatic ride to the rescue by the youthful and inexperienced Henry II (grandson of Henry I); the Whiz Kids, the Thunderbird, the Edsel, the Mustang, and the bitter warfare between Henry II and Lee Iacocca; the startling transformation of Henry II from an obsessive company man into a transatlantic playboy.

It's a story we know as well as any in our national mythology, because the daily presence of the Fords in our lives is so great as to be incalculable. The Fords gave us the automobile; when Collier and Horowitz say of Henry Ford that "he, perhaps more than any other man, had made" the modern world, there is no exaggeration. Though of course the auto would have been invented had there been no Henry Ford -- he in fact did not invent it, but devised and perfected its mass production -- it remains that he established the terms of its manufacture and distribution, and thus fixed its place in our lives. Beyond that, by giving his own name to the first successful large-scale manufacturer of autos, Henry Ford identified himself with the car to a degree no one else ever came close to matching. When you say Ford you say car, and in that you say modern America.

Yet there is still more to it than this. Though neither Lacey nor Collier-Horowitz comes right out and says so, it is clear from both books that one of the reasons the Fords occupy so large a place in our national legend is that they came by their fortune honestly. Yes, Henry I countenanced abusive labor policies and Henry II resisted public control over auto pollution and safety, and, yes, the family has lived at a level of opulence that quite exceeds the bounds of reason and taste; but for all of that, the Fords got where they are through diligence, imagination and determination, and they manufactured at a reasonable price a product that people wanted and needed. Contrast this with the fortunes exacted by the oil and railroad barons or the wizards of Wall Street, and you will understand why, after all the years and all the opportunities for disenchantment, the Fords are still widely regarded with affection and admiration.

BUT THIS IS not to cloud them in sentiment. The Fords also got where they are by being ruthless when they deemed it necessary, and their behavior was not infrequently odious. As Collier and Horowitz repeatedly observe and illustrate, both Henry I and Henry II were men of deep inner conflicts; Henry I was two men, "one sunny and mild, the other with hidden inclinations toward paranoia and ruthlessness," and Henry II was "a man of masks -- complex and cunning, energetic and ambitious." They mince no words in describing Henry I's ignorance and naivete, his nostalgia for an idyllic past that never was, his bizarre infatuation with Bennett, his cruel and destructive treatment of his only child; neither do they scant Henry II's boozing and philandering, his autocratic manner, his tolerance of vicious bickering and infighting at the highest levels of the company, his constipated emotional life. In all respects, their account is candid and unromanticized.

Which gives even more weight to their conclusion that, in the all-important balance, both Fords were men of worth. Old Henry could be a fool, and his mean streak was indeed as deep as it was dangerous, but at his best he was a "representative American" who "stood for the populist values grass roots Americans believed in, values which were increasingly under assault in the modern world," and his triumph was one of pluck and ingenuity that all Americans could admire and aspire to. As for Henry II, "beneath the inarticulate, roisterous persona he had adopted, there was someone able to deal with the truths about himself without flinching"; he seems to have been, in the most important sense of the word, an honest man.

All of which leads to the obvious question: Given the availability of two new books about the Fords, which is to be recommended? The answer is not easy. Both the Lacey and the Collier-Horowitz are thoroughly researched and smoothly written, and both cover essentially the same ground -- though Collier and Horowitz, perhaps in order to distinguish themselves from Lacey, give stronger emphasis to certain events and individuals than he does. Lacey's book is far longer and more inclusive; his account of Edsel Ford's relationship with the Mexican artist Diego Rivera, for example, is much more detailed and revealing than the few paragraphs that Collier and Horowitz devote to the subject. So readers looking for a comparatively brief rendering of the Ford saga can turn to The Fords with full confidence in its intelligence, candor and thoroughness; but for those wanting to peek into every nook and cranny of this endlessly fascinating story, nothing will do except Ford: The Men and the Machine. ::