The Model T Reconsidered
Thoughts on the Flivver and the world it transformed.
On this day, in 1908, Ford built the first Model T.
The world would never be the same.
What was the US like in 1908?
The year began with the very first Times Square ball drop…
America was a nation of 46 states.
90% of the people were white.
More than half lived in rural areas.
North Dakota and Montana were still open to homesteaders.
Arizona and New Mexico were largely unsettled.
Florida's southern half was a wilderness of mangrove swamps.
The year ended with a nearly two-and-a-half-hour flight by Wilbur Wright, the longest ever made in an airplane. In between, on 12 August, Ford built the first Model T at the Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit, Michigan. It didn’t leave the factory until 27 September, but everyone believed they were onto something.
Nothing is particularly hard if you divide it into small jobs.
It wasn’t his first car—that was his first Model A of 1903. It wasn’t the first automobile to reach mass production—that was the Curved Dash Oldsmobile of 1901. No; the Model T was meant to be sold to the masses, which was a departure from the entire auto industry at the time. Ford himself said it best:
I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces.
For an industrialist to say as much at the time was quite remarkable. Now, Ford had been selling cars for five years, and had a reputation for reliability, but not affordability. However, the T would stand out with its unique feature of being manufactured with interchangeable parts.. The Model T was the first large-scale consumer good in the world made with interchangeable parts.
You could have the first Model Ts for $825 (about $27.2k in 2023 dollars) in 1908.
That was still a lot of money, but it was less than all the other automobiles then. In 1910, Ford shifted Model T production to Highland Park, Michigan, where the new line made the cars even faster. In 1909, it took 12-1/2 hours to build a Model T. By 1914, it took 93 minutes while using less manpower than in 1909 and producing more cars than the rest of the world…combined.
By 1925, the price had fallen to $260 ($8.5k).
By then, Ford automobiles were being made on five continents. The T was so successful Ford didn’t buy any advertising between 1917 and 1923. By the time Ford sold his ten millionth Model T, half the cars in the world were his. When the last Model T rolled off the production line in Cork, Ireland in December 1928, the Model A (again, but different from his first A, because Model U didn’t have the same cachet) had been in production in the US for over a year, and the Cork plant changed over right after. Ford manufactured Model T engines until 1941 for service and for hobbyists who loved its simplicity and compact power. It would be 1972 before any car—the Volkswagen Beetle—surpassed the Model T in the number of cars produced.
The Changes Ford’s Cars Wrought
Ford revolutionized community design by putting the world on wheels with motors. Suburbs, once the playgrounds of the wealthy, became not only accessible by car on improved roads, they also became the homes of those building Ford’s cars and those of his competitors. And those of the industries that supported the car plants, which were legion. By 1940, one in five residents of Michigan were involved, directly or indirectly, with the auto industry. By 1950, one in seven people living in the Great Lakes and the Ohio Country were making or repairing automobiles or trucks, or were involved with their manufacture or repair directly or indirectly. Over 20 million people in the United States worked for the car or truck industry by 1960.
That’s better than one in ten of the entire US population.
Just after WWI, Douglas MacArthur ordered a young officer on his staff named Eisenhower to cross the country in an automobile. Today that would take most drivers about three or four days, or maybe a day and a half, without stopping. Eisenhower and his companion needed nearly a year. There were no through roads, few gas stations, practically no roadway bridges over major waterways, and few accommodations for “tourists,” which was a term that became popular because of the popularity of the Model T. The first motel was built in 1925, in San Luis Obispo, California. The first tourist court/camps/cabins didn’t come around until 1934…or 1926, but this claim is in dispute. The Model T lit the tourist industry on fire…and the road-building industry, and the bridge-building industry, and the lodging industry, and the restaurant industry. Having a car or access to one became an addiction, like a drug. Popular culture demanded more and more of them, and the industry responded.
And the services required for the automobiles exploded with the demand.
OK, cars need gas stations, and tires, and batteries (after the electric starter and lights in 1912, but were not standard in all cars until the 1930s). And they need people to service them and their increasing sophistication. So schools popped up for auto service, and welding, and upholstery, and tire recapping, and bodywork, and glasswork. By 1940, more Americans knew how to turn a wrench or change a tire tube than there were Germans.
And that, my friends, made all the difference.
The mechanization of the US military began in 1941; it was complete by 1942, the first year that the weight of ammunition exceeded the weight of fodder in American supply lines. By 1944, the only draft or pack animals in the Army were mules in Italy and Burma. While the German Wehrmacht prided itself on mechanization, only 10% of it was actually on wheels or tracks, where 97% of the US Army and 100% of the US Marines were. The Luftwaffe relied less on horses than the Heer, but even the panzer divisions needed horses to haul artillery. Ford and the Model T, for better or for worse, put the world on wheels.
And we transformed the world for those wheels.
Ford didn’t change or make history because no one can do either. But you can make or change the world, and Ford did just that.
Stella’s Game isn’t about the auto industry, but it takes place in Detroit—much of it, anyway. It’s about four kids trying to grow up and figure life out in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, when Detroit had started its decline.
The auto industry is very important to JJ Elrath: both his father and his stepfather are directly involved in it. JJ’s whole life revolves around it; the food on his table comes from it. Yet, he wants nothing to do with it, even if he knows it from the inside, and knows how his world has changed because of it.
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On 12 August:
1909: The Indianapolis Motor Speedway opened. The 2-1/2 mile oval track, built by mules and steam shovels, was intended as a test track to support Indiana’s burgeoning automobile industry, and as a safer, purpose-built raceway for automobiles. However, before finishing the track, the first event held at that location was a race for helium balloons. Ford’s success with the Model T in Detroit slowed the auto industry’s growth in Indiana, but didn’t stop it completely.
1981: The IBM 5150/PC and PC-DOS 1.0 announced and released in New York. While they initially felt like “me too” products hoping to catch up with the Apple and HP products, IBM licensed DOS and the basic hardware architecture freely, resulting in the explosive growth of that platform…and another world transformation.
And today is NATIONAL VINYL RECORD DAY. While still slow sellers, they are showing unexpected strength compared to digital and other physical recording formats because of their fidelity. I wish my hearing were good enough to tell the difference…