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Model T

Model T

The Model T was the first car aimed at, and affordable to, a mass market. It was also the first car to be a true American sensation at a time when America was transforming from the rural, more craft-based and agrarian economy of the nineteenth century to the urban mass market of the twentieth century. By the post-World War II era, most Americans owned a car and much of where and how they lived, shopped, and worked had been altered by the ability to travel long distances at a faster rate. Mass production, mass marketing, and mass use of automobiles contributed to this shift. From its debut in 1908, the Model T was America's most popular car.

Henry Ford, along with his team at the Ford Motor Company in Detroit, designed the Model T for durability and ease of maintenance. Ford aimed to produce an inexpensive, utilitarian car and eschewed a lot of the "trimmings" featured by those cars aimed at the luxury consumer. Even its name was simply functional, having no significance other than to indicate that the car was the twentieth iteration in Ford's succession of alphabetically designated development and retail models. The car was so standardized that, most years, it was available only in black.

Sales of the Model T were spectacular. In the early 1920s, Ford was selling over a million Model Ts each year and over half of the cars sold in the country were Fords. When the price of the Model T was cut, as it was nearly every year from 1911 to 1925, newspapers coast-to-coast reported the news. The car sold so well that the company bought no advertising between 1917 and 1923. Ford's aggressive price cuts created an entirely new market for cars—the mass market. While cars were formerly a luxury of the rich, the workmanlike Model T, by virtue of its low price, was a new product for a new auto consumer, the middle-class everywhere.

Consumer demands of this magnitude required a new type of production. Ford worked with his team to make a number of cumulative refinements to the production process, culminating, in 1913, with the assembly line. Model T production required division of labor and massive planning coordination to link the efforts of tens of thousands of workers laboring on the assembly lines.

The Model T was a part of the greatest opening of the country since the railroads, allowing rural citizens to travel further, more often, and in the manner once only available to the moneyed leisure class. The explosion in the number of cars on the road led to increased investments in highways and farmers transferred their production from hay to consumer crops. The phenomenon of the newly affordable Model T replacing horses was part of a larger change in America, in which formerly homemade or locally available commodities as simple as soap or flour were suddenly mass-produced and branded.

The Model T had a cultural impact like no car before it, and few after. It was soon popularly referred to by its own nicknames. One was "Tin Lizzie," because of a widespread, somewhat willful misconception that it was so cheap as to be made out of tin; another was "flivver," possibly a reference to its easily wrinkled and bent fenders. The car was also celebrated in songs like "Ford March & Two-Step," performed at William Howard Taft's Inaugural Ball of 1909 and the "Flivver Ten Million," performed by the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Between 1915 and 1920, an entire genre of cheap books were published, made up solely of jokes about Model Ts and the combination of private pride and public chagrin their owners felt at possessing such durable, utilitarian, somewhat homely vehicles.

The over ten million low-priced Model Ts sold by Ford created the mass-market for automobiles. Though production ceased in 1927, the cultish devotion of Americans to cars was just beginning, and the model T started it all. Model T Fords have become valuable collectors' items and the massive market, industry, and culture they spawned are inextricably woven into the fabric of American life by the end of the twentieth century.

—Steven Kotok

Further Reading:

Collier, Peter, and Chris Horowitz. The Fords: An American Epic. New York, Summit Books, 1987.

Lewis, David L. The Public Image of Henry Ford. Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 1976.

McCalley, Bruce. Model T Ford: The Car That Changed the World. Lola, Wisconsin, Krause Publications, 1994.

Nevins, Allan. Ford: The Times, the Man, the Company. New York, Scribners, 1954.

Strasser, Susan. Satisfaction Guaranteed: The Making of the American Mass Market. New York, Pantheon Books, 1989.

Sward, Keith. The Legend of Henry Ford. New York, Russell &Russell, 1968.

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