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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

#1 Cars at The Henry Ford

September 22, 2015

Records don’t survive to tell us whether our 1965 Ford Mustang was actually the first off of the assembly line, but there’s no question that its VIN ends with “00001.”

Museums have a habit of collecting “first, last and only” artifacts. Think of things like the ceremonial “First Stone” of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad at the B&O Railroad Museum. Or the 1966 Cruiser, the last Studebaker automobile ever built, at the Studebaker National Museum. Or the singular airplane Spirit of St. Louis at the National Air & Space Museum. Generally, The Henry Ford’s collection is not marked by “firsts, lasts and onlys.” Don’t get me wrong, we have many unique items (there’s only one Wright Cycle Shop, after all), but Henry Ford concentrated on collecting objects of everyday life. It’s a trait that carries over into our automobile collection. Yes, there are things like the “Sunshine Special” presidential limousine, but ordinary cars like the 1984 Plymouth Voyager or the 1986 Ford Taurus are more typical in the museum – because they were more typical on the road.

With all of that said, we do have several “first” cars. Some of them are famous (looking at you, Mustang Serial #1), while others are less well-known (like the first Mercury). To bring more attention to these pioneers, we’ve gathered them into a new Expert Set on our Online Collections page.

A first car is highly symbolic – especially when it’s the most anticipated debut in the automotive industry. When Henry Ford ended Model T production in the spring of 1927, industry followers and would-be customers waited eagerly for their first look at its replacement. When the Model A finally appeared in showrooms that December, people came out in droves. An estimated ten million Americans saw the car within 36 hours of its release. And where did the first Model A go? Ford gave it to the man whom he admired most, Thomas Edison. A new body was fitted at the inventor’s request, and Ford made subsequent updates, so Edison’s car now has a mix of early and later parts. But the engine still bears the stamp “A-1.”

The first Zephyr – a less expensive Lincoln for hard times.

Some firsts come just in time. Lincoln Motor Company, like all luxury carmakers, was hit especially hard by the Great Depression. Model year production fell from 7,641 for 1929 to just 1,411 for 1935 – a drop of more than 80 percent. Drastic measures were needed, and they came in the form of the 1936 Lincoln Zephyr. Tastefully streamlined, the car was both modern and, at a third the price of a Lincoln Model K, more affordable. Zephyr sales carried Lincoln through the economic crisis.

Some firsts represent more than just a new car line. Yes, that 1949 Ford in our Driving America exhibit is the first of its kind – and, by extension, the first all-new postwar car from a Big Three automaker – but it’s also the first new Ford introduced during Henry Ford II’s tenure. Ford Motor Company was in rough shape after World War II, but the fresh-looking 1949 model promised new hope under new management.

Not all firsts lead to long runs. No automobile brand is more notorious than Edsel, and our 1958 Citation is, indeed, Edsel Serial #1. While our 1965 Mustang inaugurated a half-century (and counting) of success, that poor old Edsel launched just three model years and an endless stream of business seminars on product failure.

An import? Not really. The first Japanese-badged automobile built in the United States.

There are firsts that represent broad industry changes. The “Escort” name appeared on European Ford models since 1968, but oil crises sparked interest in compact cars among American consumers. Escort Serial #1 marked the model’s 1980 debut in the United States. Japanese automakers were already benefiting from small cars’ appeal. Honda challenged the very notion of “Japanese import” when it opened an assembly plant in Marysville, Ohio, in 1982. The first car built at that plant, a 1983 Honda Accord, is on loan to us courtesy Honda of America Manufacturing, Inc.

One first in our collection is, in fact, an 11th first. The Ford Thunderbird enjoyed a lengthy, unbroken run from the 1955 to 1997 model years, evolving through ten distinct styling generations before Ford ended the line. Five years later, the Thunderbird made a dramatic return in an 11th generation. The 2002 Ford Thunderbird, of which ours is the first, recalled the original 1955-1957 T-Birds, complete with porthole windows and a two-seat layout. Praise was high (Motor Trend named it car of the year), but the $40,000 price tag hurt sales. Ford retired the Thunderbird name once more in 2005. Until it returns, our car is “the first of the last of the Thunderbirds.”

Firsts? We’ve got ’em. They’re a reminder that all automobile nameplates, whether lasting legends or marketing misfires, start with a single car.

Matt Anderson is Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

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