Story of the Week

Posted: 09.22.2008
The Model T - Transforming American Life
Even the most ardent car aficionado might have trouble answering this question: What did the old Chicago Union Stockyard have to do with the Model Tω William C. Pa Klann knew.

In fact, it was Klann, an associate of Henry Ford, who was touring the Windy City slaughterhouse where he witnessed what he was told was a disassembly line" where animals were butchered as they moved along a conveyor. The efficiency of one person removing the same piece over and over caught his attention and he thought the concept might well apply to the building of Fords new vehicle called the Model T.

After some trial and error at Fords Piquette Avenue Plant facility in Detroit, the assembly line process was perfected and employed at the new Highland Park plant in 1913, and the Model T became the first mass-produced commodity in the world. The process allowed Ford to produce the first affordable vehicles for the middle class and help alter not only the auto industry but the way factories of all stripes turned out goods.

Soon after implementing the assembly line, Ford's Model Ts were coming off the line in three minute intervals, much faster than previous methods, and production was reduced from 12 hours 30 minutes to 1 hour 33 minutes, while using less labor. And to cut down on employee turnover due to the comparative monotony of working the line, in 1914 Ford raised wages to $5 a day unheard of in the industry at the time. By providing a relatively big paycheck, Ford was able not only to maintain a willing work force but he also created an entirely new market for his Model T the very same assemblers Ford hired to build his revolutionary car.

The lives of most working Americans were transformed by the new mobility the Model T provided. Robert H. Casey, the John and Horace Dodge Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford and author of the book The Model T A Centennial History put it this way:

Price and reliability were the things that first attracted people to Model Ts, because the cars were the best automotive value at the time. But buyers discovered that they could do things they didnt even know they wanted to do - travel at relatively high speeds; take inexpensive camping vacations and control a rather powerful machine. The Model T offered unprecedented freedom and mobility and that attraction is still with us today.

Of course, many have heard the famous Henry Ford pronouncement regarding the colors available for the Model T "You can have it in any color, so long as it's black. Most attributed this to Fords effort to keep production costs down, but in fact there was a more practical reason for sticking with black.

Fords assembly line process was so successful that the only bottleneck in the system was the time it took for the paint to dry. At the time, only Japan Black varnish would dry fast enough to keep the cars moving at a swift pace, forcing the company to drop the choice of colors they offered. It wasnt until fast-drying Durco lacquer was developed in 1926 that it again became feasible to offer consumers a variety of colors for the Model T.

The Model Ts profound effects on our society have manifested itself in many ways. Songs have been written about it: The Little Ford Rambled Right Along; jokes have been made about it: "Did you hear about the man who wanted to be buried with his Model Tω He's never been in a hole his Ford couldn't pull him out of"; and its even been labeled with pet names like the Flivver, Tin Lizzie, Lizzie T Ford and Hunka Tin.

Model T owners have modified the car in endless ways so that the original product is hardly recognizable sometimes. The Model T has been converted into race cars, tractors, trucks, and a few owners transformed the Lizzie into primitive motor homes. In addition, the Model T was a frequent prop in early silent films and in the later sound pictures, primarily in comedies of the period. For instance, Laurel and Hardy and the Keystone Cops used (and often destroyed) many Model Ts in their movies.

Ford introduces its first light-duty pickup as an optional body for the 1925 Model T Runabout.

A Model T pulls a disc plow on a farm in 1915.

Model T trucks were often converted into "Snowmobiles," as some were called, for wintertime use. In this 1926 photo, sled runners are attached to the front axle, while a third axle and belt provide increased rear traction.

A happy family in their home on wheels from 1909. Once the car was a familiar sight on the American roads, it did not take long for someone to create a motorhome.

1921 Ford Model T converted to a mobile chapel.

When Model T production finally ended in 1927, some loyal customers bought several, so as to never have to buy any other car. T he fact is by the time the company finally ended manufacture of the Model T, it had become an important piece of American pop culture.

The reason the Model T resonated so powerfully within the American conscience is because the car had such a profound effect on our lives, said Henry Fords Casey. The availability of cheap automobiles transformed our world by changing our travel habits, leisure habits and landscape. Even after the Model T went out of production and was superseded by more modern cars, the T retained a special place in the publics mind.

Today, some 81 years after the last Model T rolled off the assembly line, the car has spawned many local, national and international clubs to keep the spirit of the car alive. Two of those clubs - The Model T Club of America and the Model T Club International - both have devotees inside and outside the US. Club members passion is restoring and driving Model Ts and, therefore, the focal point of their activities are centered around car shows and driving tours.

Other Model T clubs are interested in the historical aspect of the car including the clothes, music, advertising and entertainment of the day, when the Model T reigned supreme in the world of personal transportation. There are also a number of magazines devoted to providing information on restoring and repairing Model Ts.

David Hounshell, professor in the Department of History, Engineering and Public Policy program at Carnegie Mellon University, called the Ford Model T "the only truly revolutionary automobile of the twentieth century." Thats because what the Model T did could be done only once. It made automobile ownership available to millions and made the desire for automobile ownership virtually universal.

The Model T was introduced on October 1, 1908. It had a 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, reached a top speed of about 45 miles per hour, got about 13 to 21 miles per gallon of gasoline and weighed 1,200 pounds. It was the ninth of Henry Ford's production cars.
More than 15 million Model T's were built and sold. A modest ceremony on May 26, 1927, marked the formal end of Model T production.
The first models were produced at a factory on Piquette Avenue in Detroit. Beginning in 1910, Model T's were built at a new Highland Park plant.
Henry Ford's initiation of mass production of vehicles on the moving assembly line led to lower car prices and the $5 workday.
The car was introduced with a price tag of $850. The Model T later sold for as little as $260, without extras, because of production savings Henry Ford passed on to customers.
Henry Ford called the Model T "the universal car," a low-cost, reliable vehicle that could be maintained easily and could successfully travel the poor roads of the era.
The Model T came in nine body styles, all on the same chassis.
"Lizzie" was one of the most popular of the dozens of nicknames for the Model T.
In 1914, Ford, with 13,000 employees, produced about 300,000 cars while 299 other companies with 66,350 employees produced about 280,000 vehicles.

Two new books have been published just in time for the centennial celebration of the Model T. In The Model T A Centennial History, by Robert Case, the remarkable story of that cars history and development and of its long-lasting impact on America is captured. Here are the people who built the Model T and how, the folks who purchased it and why, and the profound technological leaps in mass production and mass consumption that we rightly associate with the Model T. Casey discusses how the car was designed, built, sold, and driven, as well as how owners tinkered with it. He describes the experience of driving a Model T and explains how a few engineering innovations led to the cars reliability and popularity and spurred innovations across the motor vehicle industry. The Model T A Pictorial Chronology of the Most Famous Car in the World, by Ford Motor Company Corporate Historian Robert Kreipke, features approximately 300 rarely seen or never before published photographs from Ford's archives.

Join Ford Motor Company and MotorCities National Heritage Area this Saturday September 27th as they commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Model T with a Centennial Motorcade. The trail will lead to each of the major Ford historic locations in the area. The day begins at Ford World Headquarters at 9am with opening comments and announcements. The motorcade will then travel to the Piquette Avenue Plant, lunch at the Edsel & Eleanor House, Henry Ford Estate - Fair Lane and ending at The Henry Ford. Each venue will host an event at their location as they welcome the motorcade. For more information, go to:
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