Model T Turns 100

July 26, 2008

Listening to the latest news from Ford Motor Co., as it rolls up a record, $8.7 billion loss and its plummeting market share, it's hard to imagine a time when the very name "Ford" was as synonymous with cars as the word "automobile."

The reason was simple: the Model T. Otherwise known as the Tin Lizzie, it is the car that put America on wheels. It wasn't pretty, nor was it fast or particularly comfortable. But it was inexpensive and relatively easy to operate. And it sold by the millions, especially after the company's eponymous founder, Henry Ford I, came up with the concept of the moving assembly line.

Born on a farm in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Ford was an inveterate tinkerer, racer, and entrepreneur. It took him three tries to launch a successful company, and even that third attempt might not have made it had he not come up with the Model T, which went on sale exactly 100 years ago.

Production began at a small factory, on Piquette Road in Detroit, and contrary to conventional wisdom, those early flivvers were built pretty much like every other car of the day, one at a time, bits of pieces of body, chassis, and engine sprawled across the brick Piquette Plant's wooden floor. Even then, demand grew so rapidly, Ford moved production to an all-new building, designed by the legendary architect Albert Kahn in 1910.

It was one of the biggest factories of its day and featured a variety of breakthroughs, including a roof designed to flood the plant with natural light. But the real breakthrough came soon afterward, when one of his employees, William "Pa" Klann, came back from visiting Chicago's stockyards. There, animal carcasses were rolled from one station to another, each worker assigned to slice off a particular cut of meat.

Initially skeptical, Ford gave his nod and the factory bosses tied ropes connecting a line of partially assembled bodies, pulling them through the plant, where workers would bolt on one piece at a time, until they had a fully assembled Model T.

By 1914, they had the process down so precisely that a new flivver rolled out of the Highland Park plant about every 60 seconds, the assembly process taking just 93 minutes per Model T. In fact, Ford was assembling the Tin Lizzies so fast that by the end of the decade, it produced 9 of every 10 cars sold worldwide. And it didn't even need to advertise between 1917 and 1923.

The Model T set a whole chain of events in motion. Even as the car made it possible for much of America to afford wheels, it helped create a new middle class. In the early days of the auto industry, employees were worked so hard and paid so poorly, that turnover in the plants often ran to 300 percent or more annually.

Historians still argue over why Ford approved the $5-a-day wage. Was it to create a market for his new cars, or to reduce turnover? Probably both, as it helped stabilize the workforce while also boosting sales. Ford was also a proponent of good roads - which would help workers move out of the tenements of the cities, often beyond the reach of the day's streetcars.

While even the cheapest cars cost north of $2,000 when the first Model T appeared, Ford brought the first flivver into the showroom at $850, and as he perfected his mass production techniques, he continually cut the price, to $500, $450, and in its final years, to just $300 - about what a typical Highland Park Plant worker could earn in four months.

While Ford may today have a reputation as an innovator, he could be incredibly cantankerous and stubborn. Early on, he offered an array of color choices, but in 1913, he went to black alone. Why is another point of debate. It dried faster than the other primitive paints of the day - which could sit in warehouses for days, creating the potential for scratches, scuffs, and contamination. But the tight-fisted Ford may have simply been trying to save a few bucks. "Actually, he just wanted an economical and durable color that could be applied easily," his great-grandson, Edsel B. Ford II, told the Detroit Free Press.

Ford's obdurate nature began to hurt the company, in the 1920s, as competitors began to figure out how to challenge the Model T's stranglehold on the market. Among the most effective competitors was General Motors and its new CEO, Alfred P. Sloan. He famously boasted that GM would build "a car for every purse and pocketbook," and in just about any color that the public wanted, one could add.

Sloan also introduced the concept of styling at GM, a sharp contrast to the function-is-form philosophy of the Model T. And by the mid-1920s, that broke Ford's stranglehold. With his son, Edsel I, pleading for change, Henry finally approved the new Model A, shutting down Highland Park on May 26, 1927, for a lengthy changeover.

The new car helped regain some of Ford's faltering momentum, but the company's dominance was broken. GM became the new king of the hill, a position it held until this year, when the Japanese giant, Toyota, was able to grab global sales leadership for the first half of the year.

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