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Ford Model A

Ford Model A

By Jack Nerad

Ford Model A By 1924, Henry Ford’s early battles with investors about what to build and how to build it were long since behind him. His vision of manufacturing a car for the working man had been adopted and within a very few years had made him wealthy beyond his wildest dreams. The car that had taken him on his journey, the Model T, commanded little respect from the public, but no one could doubt its success in the marketplace. In June of that year, Ford build its 10 millionth car and by October the number had climbed to 11 million. With a solid 50 percent of the American market, Ford was clearly on top of the world.

Yet behind all the positive news — the parades down the Lincoln Highway and Route 66, the gift of a car to the Prince of Wales, who would later quit his job as King of England — there was trouble abrewin’. Ford prices were almost impossibly low. (A Model T Runabout sold for $260 in 1925.) But the competition, most especially from General Motors’ Chevrolet division, wasn’t standing still.

Chevy offered a tough and reliable six-cylinder engine (developed by Ormond E. Hunt and nicknamed the "stovebolt six") in a much more modern chassis than Henry’s rapidly aging Model T, and this fact wasn’t lost on the public. Increasingly, there was a shift from Ford to Chevrolet, and though Henry Ford was reluctant to do anything about it, his son Edsel continued to harp on the theme that a new model was needed.

In 1926 Ford’s market share plummeted to just 36 percent even as it closed in on building its 15 millionth car. Ford made some concessions to modernity, like offering the Model T in colors instead of just in black, but it was clear more elaborate moves were necessary. Or at least clear to most Ford executives — Henry Ford remained quite stubbornly convinced that the flivver could survive.

Within a year, however, he relented, and the research and development that had unofficially been moving toward a new model suddenly became official. Ever the pragmatic engineer, Ford decided that if he were going to build a new model, it should have a long life in the marketplace. With this in mind, he decided to zoom past Chevrolet and its six-cylinder engine by offering a V-8.

But when rumors of a new Ford began to circulate, sales of the Model T, already slipping, really hit the skids. To plug the hole more quickly, Ford decided to stick with a four cylinder engine, albeit substantially upgraded, and put the V-8 on the back burner.

Model T production shivered to a halt in the summer of 1927, after nearly 15,500,000 had been produced. Not only was it the car that put America on wheels; it was also the car the put most of the civilized world on wheels, through Ford’s extensive export and overseas production operations. Massive Ford plants all over the world would be shuttered for six months while the new model went through its final stages of development. Since they were staring all over again, Ford decided to call the new car the Model A. As development continued, Edsel Ford became the driving force behind the new model. He insisted that it be equipped with a conventional three-speed, sliding-gear transmission instead of the Model T's planetary gearset. He pushed for substantially improved engine performance. And he closely directed the chassis and body design to make certain the new car wasn't just better than the old one but more attractive, too.

When it came to styling, Edsel knew exactly what he wanted. He specified that the new model be styled like a "baby" Lincoln, the luxury car marque that he had been shepherding since its acquisition from the Leland family in 1922. While hardly "leading edge," the Model A that emerged until Edsel Ford's prodding was contemporary and handsome.

With its lower chassis, the Model A seems much longer and more substantial than the spindly Model T. The Model A's hood and cowl have considerably more heft that the T with its diminutive engine compartment, and that spoke to the bigger, more powerful engine that was hidden underneath. The car's all-new 200.5 cubic inch L-head engine yielded exactly twice the horsepower (40) of the Model T. Designed by Harold Hicks, the engine was also considerably more modern with its 4.22:1 compression ratio, battery ignition and integral water pump.

Joe Galamb was the body designer chiefly responsible for the Model A's good looks. He adeptly took the themes from the Lincoln -- rounded fenders, the shape of its nickel-plated radiator shell, its hood-to-passenger space relationship -- and re-constructed them for a car that was substantially shorter. The amazing success of the design (or more accurately designs, since the Model A was offered in more than half a dozen body styles) was the fact that he was able to keep the proportions right.

When it was introduced to the world in 1928, the Ford Model A created a frenzy unheard of in the car business. Within 36 hours of its debut, more than 10 million people had seen the car in person. Even in these days of mass media and larger-than-life promotion, this type of response to a car is unheard of.

Within a matter of months, Ford Motor Company had transitioned from building what was nearly an antique piece to building a thoroughly modern car. The Model A offered its buyers all the modern conveniences of four-wheel brakes, standard gearbox/clutch arrangement and safety glass (a first in the industry) at a remarkably low cost. The lowest priced model was the phaeton at just $460, but the biggest seller during its first year in the market was Tudor (two-door) sedan at $550.

With 40 horsepower, the Model A offered better than average acceleration and a top speed of 65 miles per hour. In contrast, the Model T had a top speed of just 43 miles per hour. The Model A's 103.5-inch wheelbase and revised suspension also delivered much better ride quality than the 100-inch wheelbase of the Model T.

The changeover from T to A had cost Ford Motor Company the market share and sales titles (not to mention about 250 million 1928 dollars.) But the Model A quickly revived Ford's fortunes. By July 1929 more than two million Model A had been produced, and when the year was over Ford's U.S market share had rebounded from its nadir during the dark days of 1927 to 36 percent.

The Model A was updated in 1930, and Ford's market share jumped to 41 percent, but actual sales numbers were down as the first full year of the Depression took its toll. In 1931 sales and production fell still further, and it became obvious that the Model A would not have nearly the "shelf life" of its predecessor. During the year Chevrolet overtook Ford for the number one sales spot, and it became clear that the Model A's days were numbered. But as the car that allowed Ford to join the modern era, it was one of the most significant vehicles of its era.
Autoswalk.com has partnered with Studio One Networks to provide you with the history of the world's greatest cars. All of the pictures and information are copyright of Studio One Networks and Autoswalk.com, and are brought to you by Jack Nerad for Driving Today.
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