Ford Model T: car of the twentieth century
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Ford Model T: car of the twentieth century

By DrJohnWright - 07 December 2018
Henry Ford and his Model T reaching the height of their powers, 1921, when he held more than 50 per cent of the US car market.

In 1900 Henry Ford was not especially famous but by 1920 he was almost certainly the most famous living American citizen. The Model T, the first true world car decades before that term had been coined, can barely be mentioned without speaking about its creator.

It seems that from the beginning Henry’s aim was to invent a reliable car that ordinary working people could afford to buy and operate. The Ford Motor Company was quietly incorporated in June 1903 and offered its Model A runabout for sale the following month. Even that wasn’t the first car to bear his name because in 1896 Henry Ford had cobbled together a solitary Quadricycle. Its two-cylinder engine enabled it to achieve about 20 miles per hour.

The Model A was soon joined by the Model C. Both cars used a planetary transmission with two forward speeds. Models F and B followed and in 1905 the Model E commercial got a poor response. There were others, too, but all have been mightily overshadowed by the Model T.

As early as 1905, Henry’s long-term values were becoming evident. Hire-purchase was introduced in 1905 but Mr Ford was strongly against it. By 1907 he had withdrawn from motor racing as a primary means of demonstrating his cars (too dangerous!). He was keen to demonstrate that Fords could be built in quantity ­– a 1903 advertisement declared ‘it’s the quantity [not quality, as today] that counts’ – and that greater production would make it possible to lower the cost to customers. In 1906 Ford produced 8729 cars out of the US’s total of 33,200 and the following year Ford accounted for almost 35 per cent of sales. The next year he said he had begun work on the ‘universal car’.

This lovely 1912 Australian-delivered Model T appeared at the 2018 Motorclassica. It ain’t black!

In 1908 Henry Ford announced his car for the masses, the Model T, which made its public debut on 1 October. The first 800 cars – perhaps all of which were built in 1908 – had just two floor pedals, but the three-pedal layout (go, reverse, stop) was then introduced.

That year, half of the population of the US lived in towns of fewer that 2500 residents or on the country’s six million farms. Less than two per cent of those farms had a car, meaning that the Model T arrived at a perfect time in history; the problem was it remained on stage long after the applause had died down.

As early as 1909, it was clear that Henry Ford believed that he had developed a completely satisfactory vehicle. That year he declared: ‘…no new models, no new motors, no new bodies, and no new colors’. In 1912, he asserted that the car could not be improved.

It was a fascinating time in human history. Aircraft were just beginning to become viable. Einstein had invented his Theory of Relativity in 1905. Halley’s Comet was observed in 1910. In 1913 the Geiger counter was invented. Skyscrapers were coming with the 50-storey (‘50-story’ in Americanese) Metropolitan Life Insurance Building opening in New York in 1905.

The Model T – soon famously known as ‘Tin Lizzie’ and, less favourably, ‘The Flivver’ – was built on a 100-inch wheelbase and powered by a four-cylinder engine that developed 20 brake horsepower. It had a two-speed planetary transmission and could achieve a maximum speed of 45 miles per hour and average economy of 25 miles per gallon (which, in 1909 was probably comparable to the 1948 Holden’s 80 miles per hour and 30 miles per gallon!)

Many Model Ts were handsome.

It could go almost anywhere a horse and cart could go, but much faster. The Model T was the car that finally ended the argument about whether the horseless carriage would ever supplant the horse.

Simple repairs could be carried out by owners and spare parts were widely available. During the course of its life, 15,007,003 Model Ts were built (the last one on 26 May 1927) and the basic price had fallen from $825 to $259. In 1914 Henry Ford made his minimum wage $5 per day and was keen to see his workers buy their own version of the car they built on the world’s first truly efficient moving assembly line (1913).

The Model T found its way to numerous overseas markets and was soon being assembled in Canada, Britain and France. By 1922 eight per cent of all Fords were being exported. In 1925 Ford opened a plant in Mexico. That same year exports to Japan commenced. The Model T was the first car to be offered in Newfoundland.

Three pedals were fitted to all Model Ts from 1909.

Henry Ford’s conviction that the Model T required no further development has doubtless fuelled the widely held fallacy that the car was only ever available in black. This was simply not true. From 1914 until 1926 all US-made Model Ts were finished in Black Japan Varnish, but only because this enamel formula dried faster than any other paint then available. But earlier models had come in a broad range of colours and, the invention of Duco by the DuPont Company in the 1920s prompted Henry’s to re-introduce an extensive palette for 1926, but by then it was far too late to arrest plummeting sales.

Despite its having been named Car of the Twentieth Century, the role of the Ford Model T in automotive history remains somewhat misunderstood. Reynold M. Wik’s 1973 book, Henry Ford and Grass-roots America makes this important point:

… it is well to remember that when Ford began building automobiles in 1903, most of the cars on the market were in the low-priced field…Hence the initial effort of manufacturers had been to reach the consumer of average means, rather than to produce cars for the wealthy men of leisure. What happened was that the early automobiles were too cheap and simple in construction. Since most of them were too small, light, and unreliable, more expensive ones were designed to eliminate these earlier mechanical weaknesses. When the Model T arrived, this represented the second cycle of low-priced cars, not the first cycle.

Henry Ford’s genius, then, was to create an affordable car of good quality and then to make it increasingly affordable over an inordinately long production run.

The Model T proved enormously popular in Australia where, more than any other single vehicle, it could be said to have moved the country off the horse’s back and into the car.

It was in 1904 that the first Ford was imported into the country but by 1910 the beginnings of a dealer body was evident. In October 1909, R.J. Durance and his wife Ivy came from Canada to Port Melbourne to open an Australian branch. They brought in fully assembled Model Ts and demonstrated them to people in Australian country towns to great effect. Durance himself famously said: ‘Ford agencies were appointed anywhere smoke came out of a chimney’.

The problem arose when distributors began to fleece their own sub-dealers as well as customers. In 1923 Ford Canada sent two of its executives Hubert French (to become Ford Australia’s first managing director two years later when the newly formed subsidiary opened its doors in Geelong) and Mel Brooks (this Mel Brooks preceding the famous film genius of the same name by a generation!) to report on the situation.

French wrote a comprehensive study recommending Ford set up locally and recommending Tasmania as the locus; he soon accepted Geelong as more feasible. From 25 July 1925, Model Ts began emerging from a disused wool shed. Other assembly operations were established in Sydney, Hobart, Adelaide and Brisbane before the end of 1926.

Despite French’s valiant efforts, Ford’s share of the Australian market fell from a bewilderingly high 69 per cent in January 1925 – a much higher percentage than Holden would ever achieve – to 34.7 by the end of the years. This halving reflected not just the demise of the corrupt old distribution system but – more importantly – the outmoded nature of the Model T itself.

Sales in the US were falling off an equally steep cliff. In 1921 Ford held 55.7 per cent of the US market, while General Motors languished on 12.7. Within six years, under the inspirational leadership of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr, GM had gone past Ford.

There was still much of the ambience of a luxurious carriage.

The contrast between Sloan’s approach and Ford’s could not have been more extreme. Henry Ford’s era of greatness was already behind him in 1920, when the Model T still rode high and mighty over the high-crowned roads of North America and accounted for 50 per cent of the world’s car sales. But Sloan recognised that what is known as ‘saturation point’ would arrive in the US by the middle of the decade. Saturation point is when all those people in the market for a new car have already bought one and further sales depend on these same customers returning to the market.

Make no mistake, Sloan was a genius. Looking back in 1940, he wrote of his famous Product Policy (encapsulated by the phrase ‘a car for every purse and purpose’, and was very happy for that purse to be filled with money borrowed from GMAC or elsewhere!):

We want to make you dissatisfied with your current car so you will buy a new one – you who can afford it…And you who can afford it perform – probably unconsciously – a very important economic service. You pass on to the used-car market your old car at a value in transportation with which no new car could possibly compete.

The alternative to a brand new Ford, Sloan contended, was a near-new Chevrolet. Why would someone who had enjoyed happy ownership of a Model T since, say, 1915, wish to swap it for an all-but-identical new version? To continue selling new cars to people who had already owned at least one previously, you had to redefine ‘new’ as ‘new…and better’.

Sloan re-organised the General Motors product hierarchy, inventing the Pontiac brand as the next step up from Chevrolet. The plan was to keep customers moving up the scale from Chevrolet to Pontiac, thence Oldsmobile, Buick, LaSalle and Cadillac.

So, while Henry Ford believed he had created the perfect car, he failed to grasp the human desire for change. But Sloan identified the ‘want-factor’. In 1927, he had introduced the concept of design to mass-market cars by appointing Harley Earl (who would rule this roost for almost 32 years) as the head of a new Art & Color section. The annual model change had arrived.

As automotive historian Stephen Bayley has written: [GM] for the first time gave to the customer not a contraption for travelling to and from the farm but a vehicle to symbolise his view of himself and the world.

By the time Henry was ready with his (second generation) Model A in 1927, it was too little, much too late. With much travail, Henry had created a successor to the ‘T’, while his GM rival had done nothing less than invent the modern corporation!

Under Sloan, GM seized the dialectical opportunity of offering first Model T buyers and then those looking at the new Model A two alternatives – a new model Chevrolet for a little more money, or a used one for the same as the Ford or a little less. The Chevrolet was thus placed somewhat above the Ford but had manifest advantages in equipment, contemporary design and more power.

In the Australian context, there are fascinating parallels to be observed between the Model T and the first Holden, the 48-215 ‘FX’. Both put function before form and soon looked old-fashioned. But both handled appalling roads and tracks better than any of their peers. Both gave a rare blend of strong performance and miserly fuel economy, simply unavailable in other cars in their price category. There was something of the same complacency within GM-H by the early 1960s as had caused the Ford Motor Company to lose – effectively forever – its market dominance in the mid-1920s. But the main challenger in Australia was a revivified Ford under the leadership of Bill Bourke.

If you thought of motoring in the early 1920s, you inevitably thought of the Ford Model T. 

Both the Model T and the 48-215 were People’s Cars in the true sense of the term. They dispensed with gimmicks in favour of a robust go-almost-anywhere practicality.

The T’s versatility went beyond its ubiquitous horseless carriage role. Tin Lizzie was used to power a large variety of equipment on the farm – using the back wheel to drive a conveyor belt to drive a wide variety of equipment including saw mills. It was no wonder that Ford was soon one of the world’s most celebrated surnames.

In summary, the Ford Model T did for North American motoring – and, to a lesser extent, many other markets including Australia, what the Volkswagen would later do for Germany and Hitler, of course, was a self-confessed admirer of Ford and was influenced by his idea of a simple car for the masses; Hitler even decorated him with one of Germany’s highest awards for services to industry. And it is no coincidence that both designs remained so little changed in fundamentals for decades. Had it not been for the brilliance of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr, who could say what kind of automotive dominance the Ford Motor Company would have enjoyed throughout the twentieth century and into this one?