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Museum display with open car with mannequin behind wheel; other displays visible nearby
The original “Sweepstakes,” on exhibit in Driven to Win: Racing in America in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation.


Auto companies often justify their participation in auto racing by quoting the slogan, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” When Henry Ford raced in “Sweepstakes,” it was a case of win on Sunday to start another company on Monday. On October 10, 2021, we commemorate the 120th anniversary of the race that changed Ford’s life—and ultimately changed the course of American automotive history.

In the summer of 1901, things were not going well for Henry. His first car company, the Detroit Automobile Company, had failed, and his financial backers had doubts about his talents as an engineer and as a businessman. Building a successful race car would reestablish his credibility.

Ford didn’t work alone. His principal designer was Oliver Barthel. Ed “Spider” Huff worked on the electrical system, Ed Verlinden and George Wettrick did the lathe work, and Charlie Mitchell shaped metal at the blacksmith forge. The car they produced was advanced for its day. The induction system was a rudimentary form of mechanical fuel injection, patented by Ford, while the spark plugs may have been the first anywhere to use porcelain insulators. Ford had the insulators made by a Detroit dentist.

Side view of very basic open automobile
1901 Ford "Sweepstakes" Race Car. / THF90168

The engine had only two cylinders, but they were huge: bore and stroke were seven inches each. That works out to a displacement of 538 cubic inches; horsepower was estimated at 26. Ford and Barthel claimed the car reached 72 miles per hour during its road tests. That doesn’t sound impressive today, but in 1901, the official world speed record for automobiles was 65.79 miles per hour.

Ford entered the car in a race that took place on October 10, 1901, at a horse racing track in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. The race was known as a sweepstakes, so “Sweepstakes” was the name that Ford and Barthel gave their car. Henry’s opponent in the race was Alexander Winton, who was already a successful auto manufacturer and the country’s best-known race driver. No one gave the inexperienced, unknown Ford a chance.

When the race began, Ford fell behind immediately, trailing by as much as 300 yards. But Henry improved his driving technique quickly, gradually cutting into Winton’s lead. Then Winton’s car developed mechanical trouble, and Ford swept past him on the main straightaway, as the crowd roared its approval.

Early open automobile on street with one man behind wheel and another crouching on running board
Henry Ford behind the wheel of his first race car, the 1901 "Sweepstakes" racer, on West Grand Boulevard in Detroit, with Ed "Spider" Huff kneeling on the running board. / THF116246

Henry’s wife, Clara, described the scene in a letter to her brother: “The people went wild. One man threw his hat up and when it came down he stamped on it. Another man had to hit his wife on the head to keep her from going off the handle. She stood up in her seat ... screamed ‘I’d bet $50 on Ford if I had it.’”

Henry Ford’s victory had the desired effect. New investors backed Ford in his next venture, the Henry Ford Company. Yet he was not home free. He disagreed with his financiers, left the company in 1902, and finally formed his lasting enterprise, Ford Motor Company, in 1903.

Ford sold “Sweepstakes” in May of 1902, but eventually bought it back in the 1930s. He had a new body built to replace the original, which had been damaged in a fire, and he displayed the historic vehicle in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. Unfortunately, Ford did not keep good records of his restoration, and over time, museum staff came to believe that the car was not an original, but a replica. It was not until the approach of the 1901 race’s 100th anniversary that the car was closely examined and its originality verified. Using “Sweepstakes” as a pattern, Ford Motor Company built two running replicas to commemorate the centennial of its racing program in 2001.

Ford gifted one of the replicas to us in 2008. That car is a regular feature at our annual Old Car Festival in September. Occasionally, it comes out for other special activities. We recently celebrated the 120th anniversary of the 1901 race by taking the replica to the inaugural American Speed Festival at the M1 Concourse in Pontiac, Michigan. The car put on a great show, and it even won another victory when it was awarded the M1 Concourse Prize as a festival favorite.

Man sits in boxy open early car on racetrack; a woman stands nearby being filmed by a cameraman
The “Sweepstakes” replica caught the attention of Speed Sport TV pit reporter Hannah Lopa at the 2021 American Speed Festival. / Photo courtesy Matt Anderson

The original car, one of the world’s oldest surviving race cars, is proudly on display at the entrance to our exhibit Driven to Win: Racing in America presented by General Motors. You can read more about how we developed that display in this blog post.

Specifications

Frame: Ash wood, reinforced with steel plates

Wheelbase: 96 inches
Weight: 2,200 pounds
Engine: 2-cylinder, horizontally opposed, water cooled
Bore: 7 inches; Stroke: 7 inches; Displacement: 538 cubic inches (8.8 liters)
Horsepower: 26 @ 900 rpm (estimated)
Drivetrain: 2-speed planetary transmission, with reverse; chain drive to rear axle

 


Bob Casey is Former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post was adapted from our former online series “Pic of the Month,” with additional content by Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford.

#Behind The Scenes @ The Henry Ford, Michigan, making, design, Henry Ford, race car drivers, Henry Ford Museum, Driven to Win, racing, race cars, car shows, cars, by Matt Anderson, by Bob Casey

Page with hand-written text and painting of people on horseback, pedestrians, and carriages in a park

Pennsylvania folk artist Lewis Miller documented an 1864 scene in New York’s Central Park, with pedestrians, people on horseback, and horse-drawn vehicles. / THF221834

City people have always craved escape from crowds, noise, and their own busy lives, even if only for an afternoon. This is how early picnic grounds and later trolley parks and amusement parks evolved. In the mid-19th century, the recognition of this need for escape in the city led to the development of city parks.

Parks were the perfect place for a refreshing, rejuvenating, and often invigorating outing. City parks like New York’s Central Park, created in 1858, were designed to encourage the urban public to socialize and at the same time to refresh and calm their “hurrying, workaday lives” with beautiful and “reposeful” sights and sounds. Central Park had designated places where people could walk, drive horse-drawn vehicles, ride, row, skate, and engage in various other sports and recreational activities. During its first decade, a substantial majority of Central Park’s regular visitors arrived by carriage or horse to take advantage of the nine miles or so of carriage and bridle paths.

Inspired by this and other great urban parks, the public demand for formal outdoor recreation areas gained momentum during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Other early parks with special pathways, as well as new parkways around cities, were designed for people to take out and show off their vehicles.

Dirt road along a river, with open lawn and trees on either side
In this colorized image from 1900, a horse-drawn vehicle travels down River Drive in Fairmount Park in Philadelphia. / THF104695

In the winter, a sleigh ride could provide some of the same exhilaration and fresh air. Sleighing was not just for the upper class. Grocers and butchers would affix runners to their wagon boxes and employ their draft horses to take their families for rides.

Horse-Drawn Outing Vehicle Highlights from The Henry Ford’s Collection

 

Horse-Drawn Brougham, 1893


Black-and-white photo of an enclosed carriage with curved lines
THF80569

This carriage was used for outings in Central Park by Byram L. Winters, a lawyer, politician, and newspaper publisher; it was made by Brewster & Company of New York City and originally made to exhibit at the 1893 Chicago Columbian Exposition. When driven in Central Park, this brougham was likely one of several thousand stylish carriages circling the park during an afternoon’s horse-drawn “promenade.”

Pony Wagonette, circa 1900


Black open carriage with red wheels and beige rattan (?) sides, displayed in a room with other vehicles
THF75669

This wagonette, made by Eagle Carriage Company of Cincinnati, Ohio, and other similar vehicles were designed to be drawn by ponies, so they were well-suited for use by governesses in taking children for drives. This particular pony wagonette, which could accommodate several children, was equipped with brakes, which transferred most of the effort of stopping away from the light animal. The fitting at the back is a holder for an umbrella top.

Albany Cutter, circa 1865


Yellow and maroon sleigh with beige upholstered seat, displayed in a room with other vehicles
THF87339

This pleasing design was developed by James Goold of Albany, New York, over a period of years between about 1813 and 1836. Its design was widely copied by other builders and retained its popularity to the end of the horse-drawn era.


Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

nature, by Bob Casey, horse drawn transport

In the latest installment of our series examining horse-drawn vehicles, we take a closer look at a couple of vehicles in the collections of The Henry Ford related to P.T. Barnum and the circus.

P.T. Barnum, Entertainer to the World


Portrait of man in suit with receding hairline
Phineas Taylor Barnum, aka P.T. Barnum, circa 1891. / THF277050

During the early and mid-19th century, education was considered a primary responsibility of all citizens. The urge for self-improvement manifested itself in libraries, public lectures, and the creation of public museums.

P.T. Barnum emerged as the key figure in developing, promoting, and popularizing museums. He recognized the potential market in the restless urban masses, sensing what they wanted (or could be made to want), and gave it to them. In 1841, he purchased the American Museum in New York and transformed what had been considered an unimpressive collection of historical and scientific curiosities into an entertaining diversion that was patronized by viewers of all classes and ages.

Small child in elaborate costume plays a large drum with drumsticks
Four-year-old Willie Bagley performed at Barnum’s American Museum in 1864, billed as the “Wisconsin Infant Drummer.” / THF226454

At a time when the theater was still widely regarded as somewhat disreputable, Barnum marketed his Grand Colossal Museum and Menagerie as highly educational and strictly moral. In its 3,000-seat “lecture room,” dramatic performances and variety acts were staged under the guise of “chaste scenic entertainments.” By 1850, Barnum claimed to have amassed more than 600,000 curiosities in his museum, including living serpents, waxwork figures, models of new machines and of Niagara Falls, and fortune tellers. His offerings were infinitely varied and always changing. They were “democratic,” geared to everyone at a time when this idea was highly esteemed.

Barnum also sent major exhibitions out on the road, and he promoted such personalities as General Tom Thumb and singer Jenny Lind to the status of national (and even international) celebrities.

Man and woman in formal suit and dress stand beside large chair
General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren, 1863–1870. / THF212034

General Tom Thumb, a little person, was born Charles Sherwood Stratton in Bridgeport, Connecticut. He was taken under Barnum’s wing at the age of four, and Barnum renamed him. He learned to sing, dance, and do impersonations. When fully grown, he was slightly more than three feet tall. General Tom Thumb appeared at Barnum’s American Museum and toured through part of the United States and then Europe, creating a sensation wherever he went. In 1863, Stratton married another little person employed by Barnum, Lavinia Warren, at a much-publicized wedding in New York City.

P.T. Barnum Vehicle in The Henry Ford’s Collection: General Tom Thumb’s Brougham, circa 1875


Small enclosed black carriage
THF87340

This carriage was made in England; it was said that Queen Victoria presented it to General Tom Thumb and his wife when they were visiting Aberdeen, Scotland. It was drawn by small ponies and was one of at least six miniature horse-drawn vehicles used by Tom Thumb during his lifetime. It was used in Barnum & Bailey circus parades until Thumb’s death in 1883.

The Circus


Poster with text and image of sleeping child, surrounded by smaller images of circus performers and animals
This 1896 Barnum & Bailey circus poster captures a child’s exotic dreams of a circus. / THF81696

The formal circus, which evolved into a distinct entertainment form in the mid-19th century, combined three different types of traveling performances: staged equestrian shows, animal displays, and acrobatic performances. When the three finally merged, the more prominent troupes set up large tents that provided seating for their audiences and used specially constructed wagons for transportation and parades. Circuses would continue to grow in number and scope during succeeding decades. P.T. Barnum entered the circus business around 1870.

Circus Vehicle in The Henry Ford’s Collection: 1917 Circus Calliope


Large red wagon with colorful wheels, elaborately carved gold figures, and an open cut-out on either side
THF152350

This calliope was made by Bode Wagon Works of Cincinnati, Ohio, for Mugivan and Bowers’s American Circus of Peru, Indiana. The “steam organ” or calliope, which made its first appearance in American circuses in the 1850s, attracted tremendous crowds to circus parades with its colorful appearance and resounding musical productions. The keyboard and whistles at the top of this calliope were originally inside the vehicle.


Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

by Bob Casey, horse drawn transport, popular culture

Triangular yellow pennant with portrait of horse and textThe website for Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, home of the Preakness Stakes, notes that its 1870 founding makes Pimlico the second-oldest race track in the United States today, after Saratoga. / THF239341


Horse racing was America’s first popular spectator sport, dating back to colonial days. The fashionable standards and sporting traditions established by wealthy Southern planters influenced the future acceptance and organization of many American sports. Further, of the wide variety of sporting diversions in which they engaged, horse racing was the most popular. Subscription races were held in larger towns in Virginia and South Carolina (sponsored by the gentry, but spectators came from every class), while quarter-races (informal quarter-mile matches) were a universal feature of Southern country life at the time.

The Southern planters’ enthusiasm for horse racing in the mid-17th century was soon matched by that of the wealthy gentry living along the Eastern Seaboard. The popularity of horse racing in the East, especially the spontaneous quarter-races between neighboring settlers’ horses, also spread rapidly to the frontier. By 1788, a circular race track had been constructed as far west as Lexington, Kentucky. English thoroughbreds were imported in large numbers during this time, establishing new and dominant bloodlines. Heavy betting accompanied these races, which is why horse racing was widely prohibited in many areas until well into the 19th century.

Silver bowl with decorative markings and two handles
Engraved on one side of this cup, dating to 1699, are the initials of Jacob and Mary Van Dorn of Middletown, New Jersey. Family tradition claims that the cup was won by one of their slaves, racing a colt in a one-mile race. If true, this is the earliest unaltered American racing trophy. / THF159561

People working and living in the growing cities craved diversion. In the 1820s, highly organized horse-racing meets took place in cities as new courses and larger grandstands were built for paying customers. Rules were standardized, schedules published, and racing times recorded. Early sporting periodicals—including the most popular of this era, The Spirit of the Times—spurred the growing enthusiasm. Although betting continued, horse racing had achieved some degree of respectability by the 1850s. It flourished in all parts of the country (except New England) and was especially popular in the South, the West, and on Long Island in New York State. Horse racing also became a major feature of agricultural fairs, to the annoyance of those who had supported the earlier, noncommercial character of these events.

Two jockeys on horses running on a racetrack
The front of this trade card for "The Big Fair" in New Castle, Indiana, in August 1890 depicts a horse race, while the reverse promises “the fastest races.” / THF225118

During the mid-19th century, the distinctive American sport of trotting (also called harness racing) largely replaced thoroughbred racing at fairs. This sport gained popular support because of its “democratic” nature—a trotting horse with a rig was far less expensive to buy, train, and maintain than a thoroughbred racehorse. It was considered “common to all … open to every one who keeps a horse for his own driving … the butcher, the baker, or the farmer,” and was “the people’s sport, the people’s pastime” (Frank Forester’s Horse and Horsemanship of the United States and British Provinces of North America, 1857).

Man in open cart harnessed to two horses, running on track with spectators watching
This circa 1891 trade card for a Detroit carriage and buggy manufacturer shows a harness racer on the track. / THF225366

Moreover, many people considered harness racing more respectable than thoroughbred racing since it was not as closely associated with gambling. Thousands upon thousands who cared not a whit for running horses were eager spectators of trotting matches—it fascinated a wide general public, and commercialized trotting races became thoroughly entrenched features of county and state fairs. A National Trotting Association, formed in the 1870s, brought uniform rules, national contests, and the publication of statistics and records.

From 1905 to 1909, undefeated trotting horse Dan Patch became a national celebrity, with a speed so fast that other owners refused to race their horses against him. Dan Patch’s fame subsequently led to his appearance in endorsements of numerous products, including toys, cigars, washing machines, and automobiles. It was decades before his record was broken.

Metal sculpture of horse with crimped mane and tail
Race horses often became celebrities in their own right—like Lady Suffolk, depicted on this mid-19th century weathervane from our collection, as well as in prints. / THF186729

Harness racing remained a popular spectator sport at county fairgrounds and at specially lit race tracks that made night racing possible. Meanwhile, horse racing remained popular with both the wealthy and the gambling “sporting fraternity.” The number of metropolitan courses increased, and races were highly organized. The Kentucky Derby, first held in 1875, gave national prestige to thoroughbred racing and encouraged the construction of race tracks across the country.

Leisure offers an exceptional opportunity for the display of wealth and the assertion of social importance. Horses were expensive, and some of the great industrialist fortunes of the post–Civil War years went into breeding thoroughbreds for racing. Especially during the 1880s and 1890s, the wealthy joined exclusive country clubs where they might attend horse races at ultrafashionable courses, play polo, or go fox hunting in the English manner. The first of these social spots is believed to be the Brookline Country Club, near Boston, but it was soon followed by the Westchester, Essex, Tuxedo, Philadelphia, Meadowbrook, and Chicago clubs.

Two women and one man crane to watch off-page action; grandstands of fans in background
This 1885 trade card for a tailor in Amsterdam, New York, depicts two well-dressed ladies and an equally well-dressed gentleman, presumably quite well-to-do, watching a horse race. / THF224642

During the 1930s, the hope of great fortunes combined with the publicity surrounding colorful thoroughbreds (like Seabiscuit) and new technical advances (like automatic gates and electric timers) to help revive the sport of horse racing at rebuilt and new courses. Horse racing and harness racing continue to be popular spectator sports today.

Gold and white metal ornament depicting Santa and a flag reading "Season's Greetings" in a wagon harnessed to a horse
This Hallmark Keepsake Ornament from 1984, “Santa Sulky Driver,” demonstrates the ongoing appeal of horse- and harness-racing. / THF181752

Horse- and Harness-Racing Vehicle Highlights from The Henry Ford’s Collection

 

Horse-Drawn Sulky, High-Wheeled, circa 1865


Minimal conveyance with two large wheels, rudimentary seat, and bars for attaching to a horse
THF87347

This sulky was used for trotting. It was reportedly used by harness racehorse Guy Wilkes and brought to California in the 1880s. High-wheeled sulkies were lightweight, strong, and efficient, allowing the racehorse to move as swiftly as possible.

Horse-Drawn Sulky, Low-Wheeled, 1892–1893


Minimal conveyance with two wheels, rudimentary seat, and two bars for attaching to a horse
THF80562

This sulky was used for trotting and was made by A. Bedford of Coldwater, Michigan. The low-wheeled sulky, introduced in 1892 by the Massachusetts bicycle factory of Sterling Elliott, created a revolution in the sport of harness racing. The low wheels and pneumatic tires reduced friction, especially around turns, and enabled horses to improve their speed dramatically. These sulkies were also lightweight, to help the horses increase their speed around the track.

Breaking Cart, circa 1890


Simple open cart with two large wheels, in a room with other carriages
THF80578

U.S. Senator Leland Stanford (who helped build the Central Pacific Railroad and was also governor of California) trained and exercised two of his finest trotting horses, Sunol and Palo Alto, with this breaking cart. At his 11,000-acre ranch in Palo Alto, California, Stanford developed original methods of training horses that were later adopted by other breeders. By the mid-1880s, he had achieved recognition as the foremost trotting-horse breeder in America. The speed of his two- and three-year-old horses startled the world of harness racing.

Perren Speeding Cutter, after 1895


Open sleigh with curving lines and bells attached to harness posts
THF80572

This speeding cutter was made by A. E. Perren of Buffalo, New York. Speeding cutters (sleighs) were hitched to trotters and pacers for horse-racing enthusiasts who found winter no obstacle to their activities. This cutter was used by Everett L. Smith of Westborough Massachusetts, for trotting races, then by Frank P. Knowles, who built a private track at his cattle farm in Auburn, Massachusetts, upon his retirement from his position as vice president at Crompton & Knowles Loom Works.


Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

by Bob Casey, sports, horse drawn transport

Man in overalls and hat sits on driver's seat of an open wagon hitched to a horse

Farm wagon with horse and driver, 1911–1915. / THF200478

During the Carriage Era, while large American cities were crowded with horses, rural areas had fewer animals—but horses were just as important. In the country, horses were much less likely to be used for hauling people and more likely to pull farm equipment, such as plows and reapers, or to haul wagons loaded with hay, grain, cotton, or freight.

In large parts of the South, mules (the offspring of male donkeys and female horses) were preferred over horses. Mules are sterile and so cannot reproduce on their own, but live longer than horses. Southerners believed that mules withstood heat better than horses, though they are smaller and weaker than the large draft-horse breeds. Unlike horses, mules will refuse to be overworked. Their famous “stubbornness” is in reality a self-preservation method—when tired, they simply stop and will not resume their labor until their energy is restored.

Uses for Horse-Drawn Vehicles in the Country


At the beginning of the 19th century, rural horses were primarily employed in tilling the soil, pulling plows, harrows, and cultivators. But later in the century, inventive minds rolled out a steady stream of new farm equipment—reapers, rakes, binders, mowers, seed drills, and manure spreaders. Implements that could be pulled with one or two horses gave way to four-horse plows, eight-horse disc harrows, and giant combines pulled by 25 mules. In addition, every farmer needed one or more wagons for hauling crops to market or supplies from town.

For much of the 19th century, most farmers could not afford vehicles whose only purpose was hauling people. The family could always ride in a wagon. But by mid-century, light people-hauling buggies were cheap enough for some to afford. Mechanization caused their price to fall steadily, so that by the end of the century, one could mail-order a buggy from Sears or Montgomery Ward for $25. Well before Henry Ford’s Model T automobile, cheap carriages whetted people’s appetites for inexpensive personal transportation that did not depend on public conveyances running on fixed routes and fixed schedules.

Man in suit and hat with child in an open buggy hitched to a horse, in front of a field
Milton Bryant with his nephew, Edsel Ford, in a typical farm buggy, 1894. / THF204970

A good deal of commercial transportation also moved through the countryside. Stagecoaches carried passengers between towns and cities. Freight wagons hauled goods from depots to towns not served by railroads. Commodities like kerosene were distributed by wagon.

Horse-Drawn Country Vehicle Highlights from The Henry Ford’s Collection

 

Fish Brothers Farm Wagon, 1895-1902


Boxy wooden wagon with text on side and driver's seat on top
THF80599

This is a typical, all-purpose farm wagon with a basic square-box body and a seat mounted on leaf springs. Wagons like these were usually drawn by two horses, and thousands were made by many companies across the country. Franz Eilerman of Shelby County, Ohio, bought this particular wagon, which is on exhibit in Agriculture and the Environment in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, in 1902 for his son, Henry.

Hay Wagon, circa 1890


Large open wagon harnessed to two horses in front of a white picket fence and buildings
THF80616

This wagon, used in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia, is an example of a special purpose wagon. It has flared sides to increase its load-carrying capacity and includes tall end racks, called “hay ladders,” to assist in tying down large loads of hay. In a horse-powered world, hay was an essential crop. While much hay was used on farms, huge quantities were also transported to cities on wagons like this and sold at central hay markets.

Buckboard Used by the Dr. George E. Woodbury Family, circa 1885


Minimal wooden transport with two seats atop a wooden platform with four large wheels
THF87328

The buckboard is an American innovation. It is essentially a pair of axles connected by springy floorboards mounting a seat. The floorboards provide a springing action in place of a heavier, more complex spring system. Buckboards were developed in the first third of the 19th century and could carry both people and goods. This rather elaborate buckboard with a pair of seats was used by a Massachusetts physician, Dr. George E. Woodbury, and was drawn by two horses.

Mail Wagon Used for Rural Delivery in Missouri, circa 1902


Small, boxy carriage with open doorway and text "U.S. MAIL" on side
THF75675a

One of the major innovations that helped break down rural isolation was Rural Free Delivery (RFD), instituted by the Post Office Department in 1896. Prior to 1896, farmers had to pick up their mail at the post office. Rural mail carriers were required to provide their own vehicles, and many chose light mail wagons like this one. Its wood and canvas construction keeps its weight down, and it features pigeonholes for sorting mail. It is even outfitted with a coal-burning stove to keep the mail carrier warm in winter. This wagon was used by August Edinger to deliver mail in Kimmswick, Missouri, from 1902 to 1925. In 1925, he bought a Model T Ford and retired his horse-drawn wagon.

Oil Tank Wagon for Standard Oil Company, circa 1892


Two dappled horses hitched to a wagon with a black tank containing text for a body and four red wheels
THF80588

Standard Oil of Indiana used wagons like this one to distribute kerosene and lubricating oils throughout the Midwest. By 1902, some 6,000 such wagons plied the rural roads. This two-horse wagon served the region of Michigan between Chicago and Detroit.

Pleasure Wagon, circa 1820


Open woden wagon painted with decorative pattern in green and other colors, with two large rear wheels and two smaller front wheels
THF75657

The pleasure wagon is an American innovation developed in the early 19th century. The idea was to create a light wagon suitable for carrying both people and goods. The seat is mounted on long pieces of wood that serve as springs; the seat can be removed to increase the carrying capacity. The wagon is suspended on leather thoroughbraces and is highly decorated with paint. It was drawn by a single horse.

Skeleton Break, circa 1900


Minimal wagon with just a seat and four wheels, hitched to two horse mannequins
THF148858

Horses had to be trained to pull vehicles and farm implements. A whole class of vehicles called breaks was created for this purpose. Individual farmers would likely not have breaks, but breeders would have them so they could break their animals to the harness before selling them.

This vehicle takes its name from its purpose—to break, train, and exercise pairs and teams of carriage horses. Heavily built, to give animals the feel of a heavy carriage, it can also stand the abuse that unruly horses might give it. An unbroken horse was usually matched with a steady, reliable horse during training.

Julian Stage Line Stage Wagon, circa 1900


Red wagon with black cover, open sides, and several rows of seating; also has text on side
THF75679

Lighter and less expensive than the more famous Concord coach, stage wagons served much the same purpose. They carried passengers and mail over designated rural routes on a regular schedule. This one ran between Julian, a California mining town, and Foster Station, where passengers caught a train for the 25-mile trip to San Diego. This wagon was pulled by two, possibly four, horses.

Two-Horse Treadmill-Type Horse Power, circa 1900


Red treadmill with wooden sides and large wheels in back; also contains text on side
THF32303

Not all horse power was used to pull vehicles. With the aid of treadmills, sweeps, and whims, horses could become portable motors for powering sugar cane mills, threshers, corn shellers, small grain elevators and so forth. This two-horse model of treadmill, on exhibit in the Soybean Lab Agricultural Gallery in Greenfield Village, is typical: The horses walked on an endless belt, turning wheels that could power machines.

Runabout, 1876


Minimal carriage with low tray-like structure containing padded seat atop four large wheels
THF87349

An example of the light, relatively cheap passenger vehicles that appeared in the last quarter of the 19th century, this runabout features James B. Brewster’s patented sidebar suspension and extremely light, steam-bent hickory wheels. It exemplifies the light construction that came to characterize American carriages, weighing just 96 pounds. It was pulled by a single horse.


Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

farming, farm animals, by Bob Casey, horse drawn transport

City street scene with buildings, horse-drawn carriages, and pedestriansIn the years before automobiles, American cities relied on horses and horse-drawn vehicles to move people, freight, money, and information. In this photograph, taken around 1875, horses pull carriages, buggies, and wagons along a commercial Detroit street. / THF98844


American cities in the 18th and 19th centuries, the height of the Carriage Era, were horse- powered. Relatively few individual city dwellers owned horses because the animals were expensive to keep, but freight and passengers moved through cities pulled by horses. By the 1840s, American cities were filled with horse-drawn omnibuses, street railways, stagecoaches, and delivery vehicles. Census data for the 19th century did not include horses, but as late as 1900, Manhattan had 130,000 horses; Chicago, 74,000; Philadelphia, 51,000; and St. Louis, 32,000.

The Impact of Urban Horses


The life of horses in the cities was not pleasant. One traffic analyst estimated that a city horse would fall on average every 96 miles it traveled. In the 1880s, the New York City Sanitation Department was removing 15,000 dead horses from the street each year. Living horses deposited between 800,000 and 1,300,000 pounds of manure each day, along with thousands of gallons of urine. The filth made city streets unpleasant and unhealthful.

City street scene in which a group of children sit and stand by a street curb; a dead horse lies near them at the side of the road
Dead horses, like this one in New York City in the first decade of the 20th century, were not uncommon on urban streets during the Carriage Era. / THF100882

Disease was also a problem for the horses. In 1872, a flu-like epidemic swept through northern cities, killing horses by the thousands and bringing commerce to a virtual standstill. The conditions led to the creation of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA), led by the crusading Henry Bergh.

A perhaps surprising result of the importance of horses in urban life is that cities, not farms, gave rise to modern veterinary medicine. In 1850, only 46 Americans called themselves veterinarians, but 26 of those lived in New York City. Most of these individuals were not trained in schools but were folk practitioners who relied on traditional methods. A series of equine epidemics during and after the Civil War that swept through crowded urban stables spurred efforts to improve veterinary knowledge. The American Veterinary College, affiliated with Columbia University, was the first scientific veterinary school in the United States. Veterinarians adopted Louis Pasteur’s new germ theory of disease more quickly than did doctors who practiced on humans. By 1890, there were 6,954 veterinarians, almost all located in big cities.

In the end, the combination of electric streetcars and gasoline-powered motor vehicles drove the majority of horses from cities.

Transporting People


Two horses pull a large carriage loaded with people along a street lined with large buildings
Residents of New York’s Fifth Avenue opposed streetcar lines, claiming the vehicles were too quick and quiet to safely share the street with pedestrians and horse-drawn traffic. As an alternative, the Fifth Avenue Coach Company ran omnibuses like this one, pictured circa 1900–1906. / THF203322

Horse-drawn omnibuses were the first great public conveyances in American cities. The first omnibus was used in New York in 1831, and within a few years, omnibuses had been adopted in Philadelphia, Boston, and other cities. Omnibuses were generally highly decorated to make them visible to potential riders. They were functional, but the rough nature of city streets made them hard on both horses and passengers. A contemporary observer in the New York Herald noted that “modern martyrdom may be succinctly described as riding in a New York omnibus.”

The great improvement over the omnibus was the horse railway. Iron wheels on iron rails provided an easier pull for the horse and a smoother ride for the passengers. Again, New York led the way in 1832, and by the 1850s, horsecars had spread to Boston and other cities. Horse-powered railways helped reshape American cities, allowing people to move farther from their place of work, which then facilitated the growth of suburbs. As city centers gradually emptied of residences, they became devoted to business. The modern pattern of separate business and residential neighborhoods can be traced to the horse railway.

Alternatives to the crowded omnibuses and horsecars were the ancestors of today’s taxicabs—four-wheeled vehicles called hacks and two-wheeled vehicles called cabs. New York issued its first hack license in 1692. Though more expensive than omnibuses and horsecars, hacks and cabs offered greater convenience and privacy for those who could afford the ride.

Drawing of man perched atop high, narrow, two-wheeled carriage with a horse harnessed to it; also contains text
A taxicab driver petitions a would-be customer by pointing to the threat of rain in this cartoon from 1846. Light, two-wheel hansom cabs, like the one in this illustration, emerged in the 1830s. / THF204288

Because of the cost of keeping horses, ownership of private vehicles was not widespread. However, wealthy city dwellers could afford both the horses and the coaches, and vied with one another for the most stylish, fashionable “turnouts.” But most citizens, if they wished to drive a vehicle themselves, resorted to livery stables, where horses and simple buggies or gigs could be rented.

Delivering Goods


Royal blue wagon with white wheels and large white sign on side reading "J.A. Peters Sausage"
One-horse delivery wagons were common on American streets from the late 19th century into the 20th. While all delivery wagons shared the same basic layout, more refined versions featured wood panels instead of duck cloth around the cargo area, or wood panels with glass alongside the driver's seat. This circa 1908–1912 wagon from our collection was used by the J.A. Peters company, a meat retailer and wholesaler in Detroit. / THF188029

All manner of goods had to be moved into, out of, and within cities. Coal, oil, beer, hay, milk, machinery—the list is endless. The vehicles that moved these goods probably constituted the majority of vehicles in the urban traffic mix. In large cities, department stores owned sizable fleets of vehicles and herds of horses in order to meet the demand for home delivery of purchases. For example, in 1875, Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store owned 50 wagons and 100 horses. Delivery vehicles were often especially well turned out, so as to reflect well on the owners. No customer of Marshall Field’s wanted a grubby van pulled by a broken-down horse showing up to drop off a fashionable dress or piece of furniture.

Fighting Fires


Machinery and copper tank mounted atop a four-wheeled wooden wagon
Cole Brothers produced about 60 horse-drawn steam fire engines in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, from 1867 to 1880. Simple and rugged, this example from our collections could pump about 550 to 600 gallons of water per minute. / THF188103

One of the smallest, but most romantic, groups of horse-drawn city vehicles was fire-fighting vehicles. The earliest fire vehicles were pulled by the volunteer firemen themselves, who also supplied the manpower to operate the pumps. When much heavier steam-powered fire pumps were developed, they required horses to pull them. Special harnesses were developed for firehouse use that could be quickly installed on the horses, allowing fire vehicles to leave the station within 20 seconds of receiving the alarm. Fire horses were among the best cared-for horses in the city.

More Horse-Drawn City Vehicle Highlights from The Henry Ford’s Collection

 

Jones Horse-Drawn Streetcar, circa 1875


Wooden streetcar on metal wheels, with colored glass in top turret and text on side
THF91049

The horse railway is an American innovation. Its distinctive appearance is rooted in practical considerations. The inward curve of the lower sides allows the use of shorter, and therefore lighter, axles. The spoked wheels are also lighter than solid wheels. The raised clerestory roof is raised only over the center of the car, not where passengers sit along the side. This lowers the weight of the car, so the horse pulls more paying passengers and less dead weight. The clerestory is lit with colored glass, and the endpoints of the car’s route are clearly painted, for the benefit of potential riders. This car is a small one, intended to carry only 15 passengers and to be pulled by a single horse. It was used by the Brooklyn City Railroad between 1881 and 1897. In 1892, the railroad had 142 horse-drawn cars serviced by 5,500 horses.

Chariot Made by William Ross for Angelica Campbell, 1792–1802


Rounded black enclosed carriage with red wheels
THF90762

One of a handful of 18th-century American carriages that have survived unrestored, this is a magnificent example of a vehicle intended for showing off. Chariots were closed vehicles that held only two people and were driven by coachmen. This one was built for Angelica Bratt Campbell, whose husband, Daniel, was one of the richest men in New York state. It features silver-plated trim, rich carvings, stylish C-spring suspension, and an interior trimmed in leather, baize, coach lace, and silk. It should be noted that the C-springs, while visually quite striking, actually put more load on the horse when putting the chariot in motion from a standing start. Two horses pulled this chariot.

Landau, Made for Abram and Sarah Hewitt of New York, 1890


Black carriage with elevated coachman's seat in front; in room with other vehicles of various types
THF87336

Over 90 years newer than Angelica Campbell’s chariot, this landau reflects changes in taste, style, and methods of manufacture. Its lines are sharper and squarer, but the wheels and undercarriage are also lighter than those of the chariot. Its beauty depends more on its well-drafted shape than on applied ornament. Even though the landau is a very expensive vehicle, it was built utilizing powered machinery and many standard parts, rather than handmade like the chariot.

The landau was made by Brewster & Company of Broome Street, New York City, perhaps the most famous of American carriage makers. James Brewster established a small carriage shop in 1804 and taught the trade to his sons Henry and James B. The brothers each set up their own company, but James’s business faltered in the late 1890s. Brewster & Company of Broome Street was Henry’s enterprise, and it survived into the 20th century under the leadership of his son William. This Brewster landau was owned by wealthy industrialist and mayor of New York Abram Hewitt.

Veterinary Ambulance, circa 1900


Boxy low yellow wagon with red pinstriping, text "AMBULANCE," and a red cross on the side
THF133557

Wealthy New Yorker Henry Bergh was appalled at the often cruel, callous treatment of horses, which were often merely considered a means of turning food into money. Inspired by anti-cruelty groups in London and Paris, Bergh founded the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) in 1866. The organization aimed to speak for all animals, but its focus was initially on horses. It successfully lobbied for anti-cruelty laws, and Bergh himself often chastised teamsters who mistreated horses, sometimes making a citizen’s arrest.

Bergh also designed an ambulance for hauling injured horses or for removing dead ones. It featured a movable floor that could be cranked out and slid underneath a downed horse. The ambulance was eventually adopted by other anti-cruelty organizations and veterinarians. This one was used by Detroit veterinarian Dr. Elijah E. Patterson, who practiced from 1890 to 1940. It is set up to be pulled by two (healthy) horses.

Joseph Thatcher Torrence's Hansom Cab, 1880–1890


Two-wheeled black carriage on display with other vehicles and horse mannequin
THF74930

The two-wheeled hansom cab was developed in England in the 1830s but was not adopted in American cities until the 1880s. Having only two wheels allowed the vehicle to be pulled by only one horse. The driver sat outside, perched above the back of the cab, giving him an excellent view of the street and of any potential customers at the curb. Although named after its originator, a Mr. Hansom, the cab is also a “handsome” vehicle, with C-springs, round windows, and large carriage lights. People occasionally also purchased hansom cabs for private use. Chicago industrialist Joseph Thatcher Torrence owned this example.

Beer Wagon, circa 1900


Open four-wheeled wagon holding a variety of sizes of wooden kegs
THF188026

Brewers used vehicles like this one to deliver kegs of beer to taverns. The wagon is heavily constructed to bear the weight of the kegs. The brewer fully utilized what little space is on the wagon for advertising. At the rear of the vehicle is a half-round metal back with a 10-pointed star, painted in yellow and black on a blue ground with yellow and black trim. The undercarriage is red with black and yellow striping. At least two horses, perhaps four, pulled this heavy wagon. They would have been carefully matched and outfitted so as to give any observers the best possible impression of the brewery.

Hearse, circa 1875


Carriage with large oval window topped with curtain on side
THF80580

This hearse was designed to carry the deceased to the cemetery in dignity and style. It features large oval glass sides through which the casket could be seen, along with curved glass doors at the rear. It has a pair of large, silver-plated lamps at the front and other silver trim inside. Two horses drew this hearse.


Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

by Bob Casey, horse drawn transport

In this country of “magnificent distances,” we are all, more or less, according to the requirements of either business or pleasure, concerned in the use of riding vehicles.

The New York Coach-Maker’s Magazine, volume 2, number 4, 1860

Page with text and images of a number of types of wheeled carriages (and one sleigh)
This print, circa 1875, depicts a variety of horse-drawn vehicles available from Frank D. Fickinger, a manufacturer in Ashtabula, Ohio. / THF288907

The period from the late 17th century until the first decades of the 20th century has been called by many transportation historians the “Carriage Era.” In the 17th and 18th centuries, carriages were extremely expensive to own and maintain and consequently were scarce. Because roads were poor and vehicle suspension systems rather primitive, riding in a carriage or wagon was not very comfortable. As the 19th century advanced, industrialization profoundly affected the production, design, and use of horse-drawn vehicles. In the United States, the combination of industrialization and the ingenuity of individual vehicle designers and makers made possible the production of a wide range of vehicles—some based on European styles, but many developed in the United States.

The Horse as a Living Machine


The horse is looked on as a machine, for sentiment pays no dividend.

— From W.J. Gordon, The Horse World of London, 1893

Four horses pull a coach with a number of passengers; two boys watch from a fence nearby and a dog barks at the lead horses
Horses pulling a carriage filled with people start as a dog barks, in this circa 1893 trade card for Eureka Harness Oil and Boston Coach Axle Oil. / THF214647

For most of the Carriage Era, business owners regarded horses primarily as machines whose principal value was in the profits that could be derived from their labor. One pioneer of modern breeding, Robert Bakewell, said that his goal was to find the best animal for turning food into money.

The vehicles themselves really make up only half of the machine. The other half, the half that makes the carriage or wagon useful, is the horse itself. In engineering terms, the horse is the “prime mover.” Thinking of a vehicle and a horse as two parts of the same machine raises many questions, such as:

  • What sort of physical connection is needed between the horse and the vehicle? How do we literally harness the power of the horse?
  • How do we connect more than one horse to a vehicle?
  • How is the horse controlled? How does the driver get him to start, stop, and change direction?
  • How are vehicles designed to best take advantage of the horse’s capabilities?
  • Assuming the same weight, are some vehicle styles or types harder to pull than others?
  • Are horses bred for specific purposes or for pulling specific types of vehicles?
  • How much work can a horse do?


But despite what horse owners of the Carriage Era thought, horses are not merely machines—they are living, sentient beings. They have minds of their own, they feel pain, they get sick, and they experience fear, excitement, hunger, and fatigue. Today we would blanch at regarding the horse as simply a means of turning food into money.

The Aesthetic Dimension and Uniquely American Traits of Horse-Drawn Vehicles


A carriage is a complex production. From one point of view it is a piece of mechanism, from another a work of art.

—Henry Julian, “Art Applied to Coachbuilding,” 1884

Four horses harnessed to a coach with quite a few passengers seated and standing in it, in a grassy area behind a white fence
Kentucky governor J. C. W. Beckham is among the party aboard this horse-drawn coach at the 27th running of the Kentucky Derby in Louisville in 1901. / THF203336

Horse-drawn vehicles were created with aesthetic as well as practical objectives. Aesthetics were asserted with the broadest connotation, expressing social position, concepts of beauty, elevation of sensibility, and the more formal attributes of design and details of construction. Horse-drawn vehicles traveled at slow speeds—from 4 to 12 miles per hour. This allowed intense scrutiny, as evidenced by 19th-century sources ranging from etiquette books to newspaper articles. From elegant coaches to colorful commercial vehicles, pedestrians and the equestrian audience alike judged aesthetics, design, and detail. In many respects, carriages were an extension of a person, like their clothes.

During the 19th century, there were many arenas for owners to display their horse-drawn vehicles. New York’s Central Park included roads designed for carriages. Central Park was a work of landscape art, and architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux saw elegant horse-drawn vehicles as essential, mobile parts of that landscape. Other cities developed similar parks on a smaller scale. But a park was not necessary—any street or road was an opportunity to show off.

Horses pull carriages along a road or drive, with pedestrians strolling underneath trees by a lake nearby
Horse-drawn vehicles carry passengers through New York’s Central Park around 1900. / THF203316

Central to horse-drawn vehicle aesthetics was the “turnout.” This meant not only the vehicle itself, but also the horses, the harness, the drivers, and often the passengers. Horses were chosen to harmonize with the size and color of the vehicle, and their harness, the drivers’ uniforms, and even the passengers’ clothes were expected to harmonize as well.

Elegant turnout was not limited to the carriages of the rich. Businesses knew that their vehicles sent a message about the business itself. A smartly turned-out delivery wagon or brewery wagon told everyone that the company that owned the vehicle and team was a quality operation. Even the owner of a simple buggy could make an impression by hitching up a good-looking horse and wearing his best clothes.

Two men stand by a horse-drawn wagon, decorated with a painting of fruits and vegetables and containing produce
These purveyors of “table luxuries” in New York, circa 1890–1915, used a horse-drawn vehicle that showed off their products—both via artwork on their wagon and via the goods themselves. / THF38079

Many things influenced the styling of vehicles. In the United States, one of the unexpected influences was natural resources. The country had abundant supplies of strong, light wood, like hickory. After 1850, more and more hickory began to be used in vehicles. American vehicles gradually took on a lighter, more spidery look, characterized by thin wheels and slim running gear. European observers were astonished at how light American vehicles were. Many American vehicles also moved away from smooth curves to adopt a sharper, more angular look. This had nothing to with function. It was simply an expression of fashion.

Diversity of Vehicle Types


When Alfred Sloan used the words, “A Car for Every Purse and Purpose,” he was describing General Motors’ goal of making a range of automobiles that filled every need and fit every budget. But substitute “horse-drawn vehicle” for “car,” and the statement could apply to the Carriage Era.

The sheer variety of horse-drawn vehicles is astonishing. There were elegant private carriages, closed and open, designed to be driven by professional drivers. At the other end of the scale were simple, inexpensive buggies, traps, road wagons, pony carts, and buckboards, all driven by their owners. Most passenger vehicles had four wheels, but some, like chaises, gigs, sulkies, and hansom cabs, had only two wheels. Commercial passenger vehicles included omnibuses, stagecoaches, and passenger wagons that came in several sizes and weights. Horse railway cars hauled people for decades before giving way to electrically powered streetcars.

Street scene with a horse-drawn streetcar in middle of road and buildings and pedestrians along the streets
This horse-drawn streetcar, or “horsecar,” circa 1890, traveled over fixed rails on set schedules, delivering residents of Seattle to and from places of work, shops, and leisure destinations. / THF202625

Work vehicles included simple drays for hauling heavy cargo, as well as freight wagons like the Conestoga and its lighter cousin, the prairie schooner. Delivery vehicles came in many sizes and shapes, from heavy beer wagons to specialized dairy wagons. Horses drew steam-powered fire engines and long ladder trucks. Bandwagons and circus wagons were familiar adjuncts to popular entertainments, and hearses carried people to their final reward. Ambulances carried people to hospitals, and specially constructed horse ambulances carried injured horses to the vet—or perhaps to slaughter if the injury was grave enough.

Low carriage with oval glass window and seated driver, drawn by two horses, stopped in front of a road and houses
In the Carriage Era, horse-drawn hearses like this one, photographed in 1897, delivered the coffins of the deceased to their final resting places. / THF210197

On the farm, wagons came in many different sizes and were part of a range of vehicles that included manure spreaders, reapers, binders, mowers, seed drills, cultivators, and plows. Huge combines required 25 to 30 horses each. Rural vehicles often featured removable seats so they could do double duty, hauling both people and goods. Special vehicles called breaks were used to train horses to pull carriages and wagons. In winter weather, a large variety of sleighs was available, and many vehicles could be adapted to the snow by the substitution of runners for wheels.

Two horses harnessed to a large, low, open wagon loaded with sacks, with a driver on top of them holding the reins, just outside a barn
This farmer’s wagon, with an open body and no driver's seat, was simple, but handy—it could readily haul this load of bagged seed or grain. / THF200482

In a series of forthcoming blog posts, we’ll look more closely at some of these very specific uses of horse-drawn transport, along with examples from our collections.


Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Transportation: Past, Present, and Future—From the Curators.”

design, farm animals, horse drawn transport, by Bob Casey

Portrait of man with wavy hair wearing suit
Henry Ford’s first official Ford Motor Company portrait, 1904. / THF97952


Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. But more than any other single individual, he was responsible for transforming the automobile from an invention of unknown utility into an innovation that profoundly shaped the 20th century and continues to affect the 21st.

Innovators change things. They take new ideas—sometimes their own, sometimes other people’s—and develop and promote those ideas until they become an accepted part of daily life. Innovation requires self-confidence, a taste for taking risks, leadership ability, and a vision of what the future should be. Henry Ford had all these characteristics, but it took him many years to develop all of them fully.

Portrait of the Innovator as a Young Man


Ford’s beginnings were perfectly ordinary. He was born on his father’s farm in what is now Dearborn, Michigan, on July 30, 1863. At this time, most Americans were born on farms, and most looked forward to being farmers themselves. Early on, Ford demonstrated some of the characteristics that would make him successful. In his family, he became infamous for taking apart his siblings’ toys as well as his own. He organized other boys to build rudimentary waterwheels and steam engines. He learned about full-size steam engines by becoming acquainted with the engines’ operators and pestering them with questions. He taught himself to fix watches and used the watches themselves as textbooks to learn the basics of machine design. Thus, at an early age, Ford demonstrated curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, the capacity for leadership, and a preference for learning by trial and error. These characteristics would become the foundation of his whole career.

Framed painting of a number of boys working with wood, machinery, and fire
Artist Irving Bacon depicted Henry Ford in his first workshop, along with friends, in this 1938 painting. / THF152920

Ford could simply have followed in his father’s footsteps and become a farmer. But young Henry was fascinated by machines and was willing to take risks to pursue that fascination. In 1879, he left the farm to become an apprentice at a machine shop in Detroit. Over the next few years, he held jobs at several places, sometimes moving when he thought he could learn more somewhere else. He returned home in 1882 but did little farming. Instead, he operated and serviced portable steam engines used by farmers, occasionally worked in factories in Detroit, and cut and sold timber from 40 acres of his father’s land.

By now, Ford was demonstrating another characteristic—a preference for working on his own rather than for somebody else. In 1888, Ford married Clara Bryant, and in 1891 they moved to Detroit. Ford had taken a job as night engineer for the Edison Electric Illuminating Company—another risk on his part, because he did not know a great deal about electricity at this point. He took the job in part as an opportunity to learn.

Black-and-white photograph of men standing among machinery outside a large brick building
Henry Ford (third from left, in white coat) with other employees at Edison Illuminating Company Plant, November 1895. / THF244633

Early Automotive Experiments: Failure and Then Success


Henry was a skilled student, and by 1896 had risen to chief engineer of the Illuminating Company. But he had other interests. He became one of the scores of other people working in barns and small shops trying to make horseless carriages. Ford read about these other efforts in magazines, copying some of the ideas and adding some of his own, and convinced a small group of friends and colleagues to help him. This resulted in his first primitive automobile, the Quadricycle, completed in 1896. A second, more sophisticated car followed in 1898.

Green cushioned seat on top of platform containing mechanics with four wheels and rudder
Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle Runabout, the first car he built. / THF90760

Ford now demonstrated one of his most important characteristics—the ability to articulate a vision and convince other people to sign on and help him achieve that vision. He convinced a group of businessmen to back him in the biggest risk of his life—starting a company to make horseless carriages. But Ford knew nothing about running a business, and learning by doing often involves failure. The new company failed, as did a second.

To revive his fortunes, Ford took bigger risks, building and even driving a pair of racing cars. The success of these cars attracted additional financial backers, and on June 16, 1903, just before his 40th birthday, Henry incorporated his third automobile venture, the Ford Motor Company.

The early history of Ford Motor Company illustrates another of Henry Ford’s most valuable traits—his ability to identify and attract outstanding talent. He hired a core of young, highly competent people who would stay with him for years and make Ford Motor Company into one of the world’s great industrial enterprises.

Street scene with man in early, open car; also contains text
Print of Norman Rockwell's painting, "Henry Ford in First Model A on Detroit Street." / THF288551

The new company’s first car was called the Model A, and a variety of improved models followed. In 1906, Ford’s 4-cylinder, $600 Model N became the best-selling car in the country. But by this time, Ford had a vision of an even better, cheaper “motorcar for the great multitude.” Working with a small group of employees, he came up with the Model T, introduced on October 1, 1908.

The Automobile: A Solution in Search of a Problem


As hard as it is for us to believe, in 1908 there was still much debate about exactly what automobiles were good for. We may see them as a necessary part of daily life, but the situation in 1908 was very different. Americans had arranged their world to accommodate the limits of the transportation devices available to them. People in cities got where they wanted to go by using electric street cars, horse-drawn cabs, bicycles, and shoe leather because all the places they wanted to go were located within reach of those transportation modes.

Street scene with pedestrians and carriages; tall buildings line both sides of street
This Boston street scene, circa 1908, shows pedestrians and horse-drawn carriages on the road—but no cars. / THF203438

Most of the commercial traffic in cities still moved in horse-drawn vehicles. Rural Americans simply accepted the limited travel radius of horse- or mule-drawn vehicles. For long distances, Americans used our extensive, well-developed railroad network. People did not need automobiles to conduct their daily activities. Rather, the people who bought cars used them as a new means of recreation. They drove them on joyrides into the countryside. The recreational aspect of these early cars was so important that people of the time divided motor vehicles into two large categories: commercial vehicles, like trucks and taxicabs, and pleasure vehicles, like private automobiles. The term “passenger cars” was still years away. The automobile was an amazing invention, but it was essentially an expensive toy, a plaything for the rich. It was not yet a true innovation.

Henry Ford had a wider vision for the automobile. He summed it up in a statement that appeared in 1913 in the company magazine, Ford Times:

“I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

Two-page spread with text and image of family looking from a hill at a landscape, with a ghostly factory in the sky
This 1924 Ford ad, part of a series, echoes the vision expressed 11 years earlier by Henry Ford: “Back of all of the activities of the Ford Motor Company is this Universal idea—a wholehearted belief that riding on the people’s highway should be in easy reach of all the people.” / THF95501

It was this vision that moved Henry Ford from inventor and businessman to innovator. To achieve his vision, Ford drew on all the qualities he had been developing since childhood: curiosity, self-confidence, mechanical ability, leadership, a preference for learning by trial and error, a willingness to take risks, and an ability to identify and attract talented people.

One Innovation Leads to Another


Ford himself guided a design team that created a car that pushed technical boundaries. The Model T’s one-piece engine block and removable cylinder head were unusual in 1908 but would eventually become standard on all cars. The Ford’s flexible suspension system was specifically designed to handle the dreadful roads that were then typical in the United States. The designers utilized vanadium alloy steel that was stronger for its weight than standard carbon steel. The Model T was lighter than its competitors, allowing its 20-horsepower engine to give it performance equal to that of more expensive cars.

Page with text and image of car at top
1908 advertisement for the 1909 Ford Model T. In advertisements, Ford Motor Company emphasized key technological features and the low prices of their Model Ts. Ford's usage of vanadium steel enabled the company to make a lighter, sturdier, and more reliable vehicle than other early competitors. / THF122987

The new Ford car proved to be so popular that Henry could easily sell all he could make, but he wanted to be able to make all he could sell. So Ford and his engineers began a relentless drive both to raise the rate at which Model Ts could be produced and to lower the cost of production.

In 1910, the company moved into a huge new factory in Highland Park, a city just north of Detroit. Borrowing ideas from watchmakers, clockmakers, gunmakers, sewing machine makers, and meat processors, Ford Motor Company had, by 1913, developed a moving assembly line for automobiles. But Ford did not limit himself to technical improvements.

When his workforce objected to the relentless, repetitive work that the line entailed, Ford responded with perhaps his boldest idea ever—he doubled wages to $5 per day. With that one move, he stabilized his workforce and gave it the ability to buy the very cars it made. He hired a brilliant accountant named Norval Hawkins as his sales manager. Hawkins created a sales organization and advertising campaign that fueled potential customers’ appetites for Fords. Model T sales rose steadily while the selling price dropped. By 1921, half the cars in America were Model Ts, and a new one could be had for as little as $415.

Portrait of man wearing suit
Norval Hawkins headed the sales department at Ford Motor Company for 12 years, introducing innovative advertising techniques and increasing Ford’s annual sales from 14,877 vehicles in 1907 to 946,155 in 1919. / THF145969

Through these efforts, Ford turned the automobile from an invention bought by the rich into a true innovation available to a wide audience. By the 1920s, largely as a result of the Model T’s success, the term “pleasure car” was fading away, replaced by “passenger car.”

The assembly line techniques pioneered at Highland Park spread throughout the auto industry and into other manufacturing industries as well. The high-wage, low-skill jobs pioneered at Highland Park also spread throughout the manufacturing sector. Advertising themes pioneered by Ford Motor Company are still being used today. Ford’s curiosity, leadership, mechanical ability, willingness to take risks, ability to attract talented people, and vision produced innovations in transportation, manufacturing, labor relations, and advertising.

What We Have Here Is a Failure to Innovate


Green car with black top, with text on side: "The Fifteen Millionth Ford"
Henry Ford was slow to admit that customers no longer wanted the Model T. However, in 1927, he finally acknowledged that shift, and Henry Ford and his son, Edsel Ford, drove this last Model T—number 15,000,000—off the assembly line at Highland Park. / THF135450

Henry Ford’s great success did not necessarily bring with it great wisdom. In fact, his very success may have blinded him as he looked to the future. The Model T was so successful that he saw no need to significantly change or improve it. He did authorize many detail changes that resulted in lower cost or improved reliability, but there was never any fundamental change to the design he had laid down in 1907.

He was slow to adopt innovations that came from other carmakers, like electric starters, hydraulic brakes, windshield wipers, and more luxurious interiors. He seemed not to realize that the consumer appetites he had encouraged and fulfilled would continue to grow. He seemed not to want to acknowledge that once he started his company down the road of innovation, it would have to keep innovating or else fall behind companies that did innovate. He ignored the growing popularity of slightly more expensive but more stylish and comfortable cars, like the Chevrolet, and would not listen to Ford executives who believed it was time for a new model.

But Model T sales were beginning to slip by 1923, and by the late 1920s, even Henry Ford could no longer ignore the declining sales figures. In 1927, he reluctantly shut down the Model T assembly lines and began the design of an all-new car. It appeared in December 1927 and was such a departure from the old Ford that the company went back to the beginning of the alphabet for a name—it was called the Model A.

Two men wearing suits stand by car in indoor space with lights and banners
Edsel and Henry Ford introduce the new Model A at the Ford Industrial Exposition in New York in January 1928. Edsel had worked to convince his father to replace the outmoded Model T with something new. / THF91597

One area where Ford did keep innovating was in actual car production. In 1917, he began construction of a vast new plant on the banks of the Rouge River southwest of Detroit. This plant would give Ford Motor Company complete control over nearly all aspects of the production process. Raw materials from Ford mines would arrive on Ford boats, and would be converted into iron and steel, which were transformed into engines, transmissions, frames, and bodies. Glass and tires would be made onsite as well, and all of this would be assembled into completed cars. Assembly of the new Model A was transferred to the Rouge. Eventually the plant would employ 100,000 people and generate many innovations in auto manufacturing.

But improvements in manufacturing were not enough to make up for the fact that Henry Ford was no longer a leader in automotive design. The Model A was competitive for only four years before needing to be replaced by a newer model. In 1932, at age 69, Ford introduced his last great automotive innovation, the lightweight, inexpensive V-8 engine. It represented a real technological and marketing breakthrough, but in other areas Fords continued to lag behind their competitors.

Engine
The V-8 engine was Henry Ford’s last great automotive innovation. This is the first V-8 engine produced, which is on exhibit in Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation. / THF101039

By 1936, the company that once sold half of the cars made in America had fallen to third place behind both General Motors and the upstart Chrysler Corporation. By the time Henry Ford died in 1947, his great company was in serious trouble, and a new generation of innovators, led by his grandson Henry Ford II, would work long and hard to restore it to its former glory. Henry’s story is a textbook example of the power of innovation—and the power of its absence.


Bob Casey is former Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. This post is adapted from an educational document from The Henry Ford titled “Henry Ford and Innovation: From the Curators.”

by Bob Casey, engines, advertising, Ford Rouge Factory Complex, Model Ts, entrepreneurship, engineering, manufacturing, cars, quadricycle, Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford

Exploded Model T

September 10, 2015 Archive Insight

Mo Rocca, host of "The Henry Ford's Innovation Nation," poses with the exploded Model T in Henry Ford Museum during filming. (Event Photography by KMS Photography)

One of the most dramatic displays in Henry Ford Museum is the “exploded” Model T—a 1924 Model T touring car with its constituent parts suspended by wires. Located at the entrance to the Made in America exhibition, it invites visitors to take a different look at an iconic American product.

Henry Ford’s Model T automobile is one of the most significant technological devices of the 20th century. Its clever engineering and low price allowed it to do what could only be done once—make the automobile widely popular. The Model T spawned mass automobility, altering our living patterns, our leisure activities, our landscape, even our atmosphere. The Model T’s influence is so pervasive and lasting that even people who know little about old cars or automotive history know the name “Model T.”

But the way the Model T was produced is as iconic as the car itself. When Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T in October 1908, firearms, watches, and sewing machines were already being assembled from interchangeable parts made on specialized machines. Ford successfully adapted these techniques to the much more complex automobile, and then crowned this achievement with the development of the moving assembly line in late 1913. Continue Reading

by Bob Casey, Model Ts, Henry Ford Museum, Ford Motor Company, cars

gm-ev1

Automobiles powered by electricity have been around almost as long as there have been automobiles. In fact, in 1900, battery-powered electric cars outsold cars with gasoline-fueled internal combustion engines. But there is far more energy in a pound of gasoline than in a pound of storage batteries, meaning that gasoline-powered cars could travel farther on a tank than electric cars could on a single charge. Largely because of this, electric cars had virtually disappeared from the market by the late 1920s. By the end of the 20th century concerns about air pollution and imported oil caused people to look once again at alternatives to the internal combustion engine.

In 1997 General Motors introduced the EV1, probably the best electric car ever produced. The car was in part a response to California laws requiring the sale of a certain percentage of vehicles that emitted no pollutants. General Motors went to great lengths to overcome the limited range offered by storage batteries. Continue Reading

by Bob Casey, cars, alternative fuel vehicles