Fashion: In the driving seat of the American Dream: A Ford model used to be a way of getting from A to B. Now it's a byword for creating images and making millions, says Marion Hume

MENTION the name 'Ford' to an American schoolgirl and she is just as likely to think in terms of models (fashion models, that is) as cars. Ford, Eileen not Henry, started a model agency in 1946 and she now enjoys a place alongside that other Ford for her contribution to the American dream.

Eileen Ford, who has just handed over the reins of what is now the world's biggest model agency, billing in excess of dollars 42m (pounds 27m) a year, is as significant for her contribution to promoting fashion's image as many designers are for their clothes.

She set up the agency as a stopgap, looking after a couple of model friends while she was pregnant. By the time her first child was born she had 12 girls on her books and a reputation for sending the right girl to the right job and getting the right amount of money for both model and agency in the process.

Before Ford, modelling was something society girls did until they married and poor girls did but were hardly ever paid for - Lauren Bacall thought she was lucky the day she earned dollars 25.

After Ford, modelling became a career. This was the time when Seventh Avenue, centre of the American garment business, was growing beyond its 'second sister to Paris' status and becoming the confident, American fashion business. It needed faces to sell its clothes - Ford found them.

At the same time, the highly competitive and lucrative American beauty business had emerged. And beauty, too, needed faces. It got them in the shape of Suzy Parker, the Ford girl of the late Fifties and early Sixties; then Lauren Hutton, who won a dollars 400,000 contract from Revlon in the mid-Seventies.

And America, and beyond, needed cover girls to sell increasing numbers of women's magazines. Jean Shrimpton came from London to Ford, then there was Jerry Hall, then Brooke Shields . . .

The current Ford star, Christy Turlington, has moved beyond the one big contract, thanks to Ford negotiations which sold - separately - her smell (Calvin Klein Eternity), her skin (Camay soap) and her make-up (Maybelline).

'We are looking to sign Christy's hair,' says Ford negotiator Joey Hunter, who joins Marion Smith, head of the female model division, and Eileen's daughter, Katie, as the new co-chairmen of the company.

With her national 'Girl searches' - which have now become 'Supermodel of the World' searches - and the strict terms and conditions she introduced, Eileen Ford turned cheesecake into a respectable industry, just as other American industries that rely on image were themselves taking on the world. They knew they had conquered it when their products, and the Ford faces that went with them, started to become international household names. Each model pays the agency 20 per cent - and the client pays the same percentage on top.

The perceived glamour of modelling has now overtaken that of the movies - once the destination of many models including Ali MacGraw, Kim Basinger, Cybill Shepherd and Sharon Stone. Now actresses want to be models and growing numbers are taking a turn on the catwalk. Ford has established a celebrity division. Sofia Coppola and Iona Skye are already signed to advertise Donna Karan's DKNY line; Sandra Bernhard is on the books, as is Steven Seagal, the muscle-bound actor of Under Seige, who, Hunter predicts, will soon be promoting 'soft drinks, or maybe milk, or a fragrance'.

Ford receives 10,000 letters each year from unknowns, sees 7,000 young hopefuls, signs 100, makes careers for 30 (including the unsung but wealthy catalogue queens) and makes stars of no more than three a year.

Some models complain that it is like a strict finishing school; certainly in the Seventies it lost out to racier practices when John Casablancas opened Elite, now Ford's main competitor. In 1977 Casablancas poached two top bookers and the financial controller from Ford. Eileen sent them copies of the Bible with Jesus's words to Judas underlined in red and then lodged a dollars 7.5m lawsuit. She lost, prompting stories of Ford girls being banned from going to the nightclub Studio 54, a Casablancas hangout, in case they didn't come back. Some went and didn't.

Not that Eileen has always been an angel. She has stood accused of poaching from smaller agencies and Casablancas has described her as 'a snake with seven heads - you cut off six and she still has one there to bite you with'.

Rivals are bad enough, but fake Ford reps are much harder to handle. The FBI was called in after girls were promised stardom by seedy individuals posing as Ford scouts.

Under its new chiefs, Ford plans to promote its name around the world. It already has offices in New York, Miami, Paris, Tokyo and Sao Paulo. Katie Ford wants the family business of beauty to go global.

Eileen Ford in the Forties and today (inset), who started her modelling agency as a 'stopgap' in 1946. Today it is the world's biggest. Ford receives 10,000 letters each year from unknowns and makes careers for just 30, of whom no more than three will become stars. Top faces the agency has represented include: (clockwise from top right): Jean Shrimpton, Jerry Hall, Brooke Shields, Ali MacGraw, Suzy Parker, Cybill Shepherd and the young Jane Fonda.

(Photographs omitted)