Model T: The Car for the Masses

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Model T: The Car for the Masses


Henry Ford (1863-1947) revolutionized the automobile industry with the Model T. Instead of seeing the car as a plaything of the rich, Ford envisioned a vehicle "for the great multitude." The Model T, Ford decreed, would be both dependable and affordable. The success of the Model T had a profound impact on the United States, as it made the automobile a common household possession. The automobile freed people to move, and with millions of vehicles clamoring for space, an infrastructure had to be created to support them. Roads, gas stations, and other amenities became part of an ever-expanding culture built around the automobile. Average people were able to buy the Model T, and as a result the car became an everyday necessity.


Contrary to popular belief, Henry Ford did not invent the automobile or mass production. In fact, the honors for inventing the automobile are usually given to two Germans, Gottlieb Daimler (1834-1900) and Karl Benz (1844-1929), who expanded upon German technology to produce the first car in the mid-1880s. In the United States, Charles and Frank Duryea (1861-1938 and 1869-1967, respectively) from Springfield, Massachusetts, demonstrated their gasoline-powered engine in 1893.

The idea of developing automobiles spread like wildfire. By 1900 there were more than 50 car manufacturers in America. Although the machines were highly publicized and caught the nation's imagination, automobiles had to be hand-crafted and thus were expensive and mainly produced for the rich.

Henry Ford's simple, yet revolutionary, idea of allowing everyday people to benefit from his innovations stands him apart from other early automobile makers. After a lifetime of tinkering with machinery, Ford realized that mass production would allow him to lower the price of his models. The other key factor would be standardization. Each car that rolled off the assembly line would be exactly like the one that preceded it.

Much of Ford's thinking derived from his own background as part of a farming family. As biographer Robert Lacey explains it, Ford had an "almost didactic impulse to share the joy of machines with the world." Ford also epitomized the American rags-to-riches story, and his ascent became part of the culture of the early-twentieth-century United States.

Ford explained that "to make them all alike, to make them come through the factory just alike," the company could conquer the economy of scale that kept auto prices high. The uniformity of his cars even carried through to the color. Ford is famous for saying that buyers could have "any color you choose, so long as it's black."

Ford held strong beliefs about his lowpriced automobile. However, his financial backers were happy to continue selling high-end cars. Ford's work with the Model N in 1906-07, both with mass production and pricing, convinced him that his idea was sound. By 1908, he bought out his opponents within the company and owned 58% of the company.

In the fall of 1908 Ford unveiled the first Model T. The car had several features separating it from other vehicles being produced, such as changes making the car more negotiable on primitive country roads and an engine encased for protection. Ford set the price at $825, which he knew made it too expensive for most people, but he believed the price would fall in the future due to assembly line technology. With Ford in control, efficiency became the keystone of his operations. For the next 20 years Ford produced black Model Ts, and only Ts (often called the "Tin Lizzie" or "flivver").

The Model T itself was a sturdy looking automobile with a high roof, giving it a refined look. It had a 4-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine. It was a powerful and dependable vehicle—exactly what Ford desired. Another innovation introduced by Ford was the use of lighter, stronger vanadium steel, which European carmakers used.

The company sold 11,000 cars from 1908-09, which raised $9 million, a 60% increase over the previous year. Ford then outdid himself with the 1910-11 model, selling 34,528. Sales skyrocketed, reaching 248,000 in 1914, or nearly half the U.S. market. The heavy demand for cars forced Ford to pioneer new methods of production. He built the largest and most modern factory in America on a 60-acre tract in Highland Park in Detroit, Michigan. Ford's net income soared from $25 million in 1914 to $78 million by 1921.

Ford, preaching modern ideas of efficiency, introduced the continuously moving assembly line. He tinkered with the process until finding the exact pace his workers could handle. Chassis production dropped from 6 hours to 90 minutes. The one millionth Model T was built in 1916. The Highland Park plant churned out 2,000 cars a day.

As he had predicted, Ford lowered the price of Model T's, eventually down to $300. The company controlled 96% of the inexpensive car market. By the end of World War I Ford Model Ts represented nearly half the cars on Earth.


The impact of the Model T was enormous, influencing both the local and national economy and ushering in a dramatically different lifestyle for many American citizens.

Farmers took to the Model T in droves because the car ran well over rut-filled roads and gravel. This was especially important given that the United States had little in the way of paved roads through the 1920s.

The popularity of Ford automobiles led to a constant labor shortage. Carrying his innovative thinking into the labor arena, Ford instituted a profit-sharing and bonus system. However, it was his introduction of the "five-dollar day" in 1914 that really took the manufacturing world by storm. Ford's plan outlined an eight-hour workday, shorter than the industry average. More importantly, Ford would pay workers a basic wage of $5 a day, eclipsing the industry's standard $1.80 to $2.50. The program made Ford a national hero and his legend approached cult status. In addition, the high wages had a profound impact on the thousands of workers who made their way to Detroit to work for Ford.

By 1921, nearly 5.5 million Ford automobiles had been built. When he halted production of the Model T seven years later, more than 15 million had been produced.

The Model T also helped grow and define the world of car dealerships. By 1913 Ford had 7,000 affiliated dealers selling his car in all parts of the country. In fact, there was at least one Ford dealership in every town with a population that exceeded 2,000 people. This is an overlooked but vastly underappreciated aspect of the Model T's impact on the nation. It would be impossible to calculate the money generated for local economies by just this small portion of the Ford empire.

After the high-water mark of the early 1920s, the Ford Company began to slip. A new 1,100-acre factory complex, the River Rouge in Dearborn, Michigan, opened and marked Ford's attempt at vertical integration. The size and sprawl of "The Rouge" proved too much for Ford. Personality clashes with subordinates left the company a virtual one-man operation, which proved dreadful.

The Model T also looked outdated by the late 1920s. Stylish models from General Motors and Chrysler forced Ford to drop the car and replace it with the Model A. Just when Ford began regaining market share, the Depression hit and spelled doom.

What Ford's Model T did for the nation is nearly incomprehensible. Not only did the automobile become an everyday necessity, it allowed formerly isolated people to explore the world around them. Driving became a national pastime.

Over the years, America transformed into one large neighborhood. Local, state, and federal governments fed the car culture by building the infrastructure that encouraged people to travel. The business community soon followed suit. A thriving service industry sprouted up to assist drivers, whether going across town or across the country.

Although the Ford Motor Company suffered in its leader's later years, at one point even losing up to $1 million a day in the 1940s, the public's fascination with the Model T set in motion a love for cars that exists to this day.


Further Reading

Ford, Henry. My Life and Work. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1922.

Lacey, Robert. Ford: The Men and the Machine. Boston: Little, Brown, 1986.

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