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Ford Model T

Ford Model T

By Jack Nerad

Ford Model T Sometimes great achievements are only acknowledged by the warmth of their afterglow rather than the fire of their presence. So it was with the Ford Model T, a car that achieved legendary stature after its passing but during its lifespan got no respect.

To be fair, that disrespect grew as the car aged from its introduction in 1908 to the cessation of its production in 1927. But even when it made its debut, many thought the Model T was folly, because they could not imagine there was money to be made by selling a car so cheap.

(When it hit the market in the fall of 1908, the Chicago Cubs were in the process of winning a World Series and the Model T cost $825. By the time it went out of production in 1927 the price for a brand spanking new Model T roadster had dipped to $260.)

Henry Ford, the man who would become prodigiously wealthy from selling cheap cars, did have confidence in the Model T’s premise, however. In fact, he belief in small, light "everyman’s" cars often put him at odds with investors and business partners in his various automotive ventures. At the turn of the century, the smart money said the way to make big profits in the car business was to build expensive vehicles for the favored few.

Well, Henry Ford was hardly one of the favored few. The son of an Irish immigrant, he grew up on a Michigan farm, learned the machinist trade and went to work for the electric company in Detroit. By the end of 1893 he had achieved the elevated position of chief engineer.

Ford didn’t confine his engineering work to business hours either. Also in 1893, he designed and built a tiny internal combustion engine and his long-suffering wife, Clara, allowed him to start it up in the kitchen. Three years later he completed work on his first automobile, a two-cylinder-powered vehicle he called the "Quadricycle" because its wispy frame was fitted with bicycle wheels. Over the following few months, Ford would go cruising in the Quadricylce, wife and son, Edsel, by his side, and eventually some of Detroit’s most prominent citizens took note and wanted to invest in a vehicle manufacturing operation.

Ford resigned his position with the Edison Illuminating Company, to become chief engineer of the Detroit Automobile Company. The new firm never had a clear idea of what it wanted to do, however, and late in 1900 it folded. Out of a job, Ford turned to auto racing and defeated auto pioneer Alexander Winton in a fabled race run in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, on October 10, 1901.

The victory caused a groundswell that resulted in the formation of The Henry Ford Company, but its namesake, adamant about continuing to race, got sideways with the board of directors, who then brought in Henry Leland as a consultant. Ford left the company soon after, and Leland, who took charge, created Cadillac. Later that same year (1902) the Ford Motor Company was formed, and Henry Ford was finally able to take command of his destiny. After setting a speed record with his "999," Ford set about the serious work of building a production car. His first such design, the aptly named Model A, was a harbinger of things to come. The tiny, buckboard-like vehicle used a two-cylinder engine, rode on a 72-inch wheelbase and cost just $750.

A commercial success, the Model A was charged with violating the Selden patent on automobiles, but Ford fought the patent forces vigorously and eventually defeated them in court. A succession of mild-selling, higher-priced vehicles followed the Model A, and it wasn't till the introduction of the Model T that Ford really put together the car that would deliver on his idea of a car for the working man.

While the Model T would eventually be viewed as old-fashioned as high-button shoes, when it crashed headlong into the American market in October 1908, it was innovative. Among its special features were its planetary transmission, the use of a detachable cylinder head, and the left-side mounting of its steering wheel. The two-forward-speeds-and-reverse transmission was operated by foot pedals, enabling, as Ford claimed in its literature, "the driver to stop, start, change speeds or reverse the car, without removing the hands from the steering wheel."

The four-cylinder engine was ruggedly simple. Its block and crankcase were cast as a piece, and the detachable head made service easy. Of course, the engine was started by hand-cranking, while a magneto in the flywheel provided electricity for ignition. Reliable as red brick, the 177-cubic-inch Model T engine produced 22 horsepower at 1600 rpm and delivered better than 20 mile-per-gallon fuel economy.

The chassis of the Model T was just as rugged as the engine. While many cars of the day still used wooden parts in their chassis, the Model T's frame and running gear was fashioned from vanadium- and heat-treated steel. With a 100-inch wheelbase, the typical Model T weighed about 1,200 pounds and offered more than 10 inches of ground clearance. It was a perfect to do combat with America's vast network of unimproved, unpaved roads.

Several body styles were offered, but it is not difficult to guess why the 5-6-passenger touring car was the most popular -- at $850 it cost just $25 more than the three-seat runabout. Contrary to legend, the Model T wasn't only available in black. Early editions were available in a variety of body colors complemented by black fenders.

The Model T wasn't just an immediate hit in the marketplace; it transformed the marketplace. To keep up with demand, Ford had to invent new production techniques, culminating in 1914 with the invention of the moving assembly line. Where the time to build one Model T had once been more than 10 hours, the assembly line cut that time to just 93 minutes.

When the production results for 1914 were totaled, Ford Motor Company had built 308,162 Model T's, 56 percent of all U.S. production. And Ford had built more than one-half of the nation's new cars with just one-sixth of its automotive workforce. To add fuel to the revolution he was creating, Ford increased the minimum day's wage in his factories to $5, about double the going rate and he cut working hours from 10 to eight. There was method to Henry Ford's madness. He wanted to ensure that the American working man could afford the cars he was building.

By 1919 Ford Motor Company had produced its 3 millionth Model T, and the momentum was continuing to build. After weathering a recession in 1920, Ford's yearly production climbed to 900,000 units in 1921 and topped 1 million-a-year in 1922, 1923, 1924 and 1925.

But by 1926 the industry had begun to catch up with the aging Model T. That year sales dropped 17 percent and rumors began to circulate that a replacement model was near. In 1927, after an incredible production run of more than 15,485,000 Ford's factories sad good-bye to the Model T. It was a car that, more than any other, defined what the world's auto industry would be.
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