Ford’s Model T: A Car for the Great Multitude
When Ford Motor Company introduced its new Model T automobile on October 1, 1908, the car was the culmination of Henry Ford’s quest to develop an inexpensive, efficient and reliable vehicle that would put automobile ownership within the reach of far more people.
Yet even an inveterate optimist like Henry Ford could not predict the vast success and the far-reaching changes that this rather homely new vehicle would produce.
When introduced in 1908, Ford’s Model T was thoroughly modern and, at $850, cheap for its day.
Ford dealers were sure the new car would be a winner. After seeing the initial announcement one dealer wrote Henry Ford, “It is without doubt the greatest creation in automobiles ever placed before a people and it means that this circular alone will flood your factory with orders.” He was right. Even before the factory had produced a single car, dealers had 15,000 orders—nearly twice the previous year’s total sales.
Ford soon found that he could sell as many Model Ts as he could make---but he wanted to be able to make as many cars as he could sell. Demand for the Model T quickly outstripped the capacity of the Piquette Avenue plant in Detroit, which had been built in 1904. Ford constructed a vast new plant in Highland Park, just north of the Detroit border, and moved there in 1910. At Highland Park, Ford Motor Company engineers relentlessly pursued the twin goals of increasing production and decreasing cost. By the end of 1913, this drive had led them to create a moving assembly line, a development that was as important as the Model T itself. By October 1922, a new Model T could be had for less than $300 and Ford had 50% of the American market.
The ruggedness, low cost, ease of maintenance, and ability to navigate bad roads that made the Model T a success in the United States meant that it was suited to other countries as well. By the time it reached the end of its production in 1927, Model Ts were being made in 19 other countries—Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Denmark, England, France, Germany, India, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Malaya, Mexico, South Africa, Spain and Uruguay—and the only continent without a Model T assembly plant was Antarctica. The “Tin Lizzie,” as the Model T was nicknamed, was truly the first world car.
In the end the Model T was the victim of its own success. Buyers pushed for better roads and were even willing to pay a tax on gasoline to finance them. As the roads improved the ruggedness that characterized the Model T gradually ceased to be necessary. As drivers became accustomed to the freedom and mobility offered by the Model T, they began to want what customers always want—more. More power, more comfort, more speed, more colors. Henry Ford so loved his great creation that he stayed with it too long. Sales fell off and market share declined.
By the time the 15 millionth Model T came off the Highland Park assembly line on May 26, 1927, it looked contemporary, but underneath it was not fundamentally different from the original car built in 1908. The Model T was obsolete technology, rapidly being superseded by more powerful, more comfortable, more stylish competitors. But the Model T had nothing to apologize for. It had done enough.
By Bob Casey. Bob is a former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.
manufacturing, Model Ts, Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford, cars, by Bob Casey