Story of the Week

Posted: 10.04.2010
Switching Gears - The Model A
It’s as if the venerable Henry Ford coined the expression: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” In this case, that would be in reference to the Model T. First produced in 1908, the car that made Ford famous worldwide and a wildly rich man.

After all, the Model T was the first affordable American car - very durable and it got pretty good gas mileage. And who could argue with the numbers – by the end of its 19-year production run in 1927, the public had purchased a whopping 15 million of Ford’s “Tin Lizzy.”

But by 1927, car buyers were getting tired of the roadster and many were looking for something with a little more pizzazz. Chrysler, Ford’s chief competitor, had just come out with the stylish Plymouth which was gaining a greater market share in the lower-priced car market.

And while the new rival from Chrysler featured hydraulically-actuated brakes on all four wheels, Ford's Model T retained Henry's dogmatic concept that lever-operated brakes on just the rear wheels were sufficient. There were even some states that were considering passing legislation to ban the Model T as too dangerous for "modern" traffic conditions.

So, while it was inevitable that Ford would step up to keep the Model T top of mind, it was a push from Henry Ford’s only son, Edsel, that convinced the intractable Ford that radical change was needed to keep up with the increasingly-crowded auto making industry.

That Edsel Ford would dedicate his life to the business of cars seemed inevitable. Edsel was there in the thick of things when his father pioneered the first production of the “horseless carriage.” As an infant, he was an unwitting witness to his father’s first workable engine and Edsel was not yet 3 years old when, on June 4, 1896, he shared his father's exultation by riding in Henry's first successful car.

From an early age, Edsel had shown a talent for design…especially car design. His first vehicle sketches started in 1903, the same year the Ford Motor Company began operations, and progressed in earnest during his high school days at the exclusive Detroit University School. Clearly bright enough, Edsel did not attend college. Some say that it was to immerse himself in the car industry or, as some historians suspect, because his ever dogmatic father convinced him to forgo the pursuit of an academic degree as a waste of time.

Edsel Ford in 1921

Regardless, the younger Ford quickly rose through the ranks of his father’s business. He was named the company’s secretary in 1915, became a vice president two years later, and was named Ford Motor Company’s president in 1919.

While officially the head of Ford, it was Henry, not Edsel, who made most of the important business decisions. In fact, Henry’s need to usurp control of daily operations caused a serious, and some say, fatal rift between father and son.

That’s not to say that Edsel didn’t have Henry’s ear. Edsel was most influential in convincing his father that the old standard Model T had run its course and the company should revamp its product line. Edsel not only wanted to transform the look of the newest Ford entry, but its mechanics as well. The result was the development of one of Ford’s most successful offerings – the Model A.

The Model A, introduced in late 1927, was Edsel's car in color, style and trim. In fact, even the conservative Henry chimed in: "We've got a good man in my son. He knows style - how a car ought to look. And he has mechanical horse sense, too."

Edsel first cut his teeth in the auto design world five years before the Model A was conceived when he was charged with restyling the Lincoln, a struggling brand his father had recently purchased. Edsel called in noted body designers from all over the country to help rework the Lincoln, which was soon recognized as one of the most distinctive models to grace Detroit.

Edsel carried over the design ideas he employed with the retooled Lincoln when he turned to coming up with the Model A blueprint. Working with noted designer Jozsef Galamb, and borrowing the ascents of the well-received Lincoln, the newest Ford had little resemblance to its predecessor. The Model A even came in a variety of models including a coupe, roadster and convertible, and unlike the Model T, featured a number of colors, none of which were black.

Besides providing a vast improvement in the appearance over the Model T, Edsel was able to convince Henry that technical improvements would also be necessary to assure the success of the Model A.

Chief among these was the inclusion of four-wheel mechanical brakes and a sliding-gear transmission, as well as conventional clutch and brake pedals, throttle and gearshift (the Model A was the first Ford to use a standard set of driver controls; previous Ford models used controls that had became out of date and uncommon to drivers of other makes). The Model A also included a water pump to circulate coolant through the engine, and featured safety glass from the day it was offered to the public.

The engine on the Model A was an L-head 4-cylinder with typical fuel consumption from between 20 and 30 miles per gallon and had a top speed of nearly 65 miles per hour. The cost of the Model A was between $385 for a roadster to $1400 for the top-of-the-line Town Car.

In cooler climates, owners could purchase an after-market cast iron unit to place over the engine's exhaust manifold to bring heated air into the cab. A small door could be opened or closed to adjust the amount of hot air entering the cab.

The Model A also came equipped with a tool kit that included an adjustable wrench, two tire irons, a jack, pliers, screwdriver, tire pump, grease gun and Instruction book which all fit into snap pouch.

When Henry Ford decided to stop production of his Model T in May of 1927, the development of its replacement hadn't been completed, much less the conversions necessary to mass-produce the new car. Aside from the production of replacement parts (and new engines that were built at the rate of 12,000 per day), Ford plants around the world were idled for months in the interim.

The conversion of Ford tooling, production and supply lines, worker training and the myriad other changes that were needed were colossal. In all, 60,000 workers were temporarily laid off during the transition and Ford dealers had no new cars to sell for months and had to survive on parts and service to stay in business.

There were 36 Ford assembly plants in North America at the time, as well as a dozen others around the world and they all had to be changed over at once. The cost to completely switch gears was a staggering $250 million in 1920s dollars.

Finally, on October 20, 1927, the first Model A rolled off the production line and sales of the new Ford began on December 2, 1927. To the relief of Henry and Edsel Ford, the car was a huge success. At its first public showing in January 1928 in New York's Madison Square Garden, some 50,000 New Yorkers put down deposits for delivery of the Model A. In the first 36 hours after the Model A was introduced approximately 10 million people visited it in showrooms across the country – which at the time amounted to 10% of the entire U.S. population. Showings at other cities were equally well-received, eventually creating a waiting list for the new car.

Model A Ad from 1928


Model A Ad from 1930

Production figures for the Model A during its four-year run speak to its popularity: 633,594 in 1928, 1,507,132 in 1929, 1,155,162 in 1930 and 541,615 in 1931. The severe drop in 1931, the Model A's last year in production, was no doubt largely a result of the Great Depression during which the entire auto industry was hit hard. When production ended in March, 1932, there were 4,849,340 Model A's made in all styles.

Unfortunately for Edsel Ford, his triumph was short-lived. Henry, the autocratic and de facto decision maker for Ford kept Edsel on a short leash, never fully relinquishing the day-to-day operations to his son. And while Edsel continued to design sleek cars for the company, it was obvious that his father’s continued interference was taking a serious physical toll on his son. Edgar died of cancer on May 26, 1943 at the age of 49, but some say in no small part to his father’s constant criticism.

Successful though he was as an executive within the limits of his father's opposition to change, Edsel's real contribution was not in the daily routine of making and selling. He brought something new to the automobile industry - a belief that an automobile could be beautiful as well as useful. His principal interest was in the styling of cars to carry out this ideal.

For more information on other automotive innovations, go to www.motorcities.org.

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