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Ford Model T: The Car That Changed the World

Jeffrey Syken

“If I had asked my customers what they wanted, they would have said ‘A Faster Horse’”

Henry Ford

Fortunately, Henry Ford didn’t ask his customers: “what do you want?” Instead, he asked himself: “What do my customers need?” The answer was obvious, the “Great Multitudes” needed an inexpensive yet reliable and rugged automobile that could withstand the torturous (and dangerous) road conditions of early 20th century America. At the time, the “Battle of Propulsion” pitted electricity, steam and gasoline-powered vehicles against one another. To the public, electricity was considered clean and safe while steam was an “old familiar.” The internal combustion (a/k/a “Explosive”) engine was foul smelling, noisy and unfamiliar thus, on the surface, it seemed to be the least-best choice for a fledgling auto industry. However, a young and ambitious Henry Ford recognized its potential and produced his first gas-powered vehicle; the “Quadricycle,” in 1896. With the encouragement of Thomas Edison, who recognized the advantages of gas-power over electric and steam-power (i.e. range), combined with a major oil discovery in Texas in 1901, it appeared Henry Ford had backed the right horse. Ironically, the era whereby the automobile industry was in its infancy would come to be known as the “Horseless Age.”

The “Ford Motor Company” (FMC) produced its first vehicle for public sale in 1903 – a two-cylinder “Runabout.” There followed other models and growing pains for the young company which was, like many other automobile manufacturers of the day, seeking to find its place in a crowded field. Realizing “mass production” was the key to lowering per-unit cost, Henry Ford studied the “Disassembly” plants of the meat-packing industry, based in Chicago, for inspiration. Henry found his inspiration and, by 1913, had applied the principals of the “assembly line” to his Highland Park Assembly Plant, dramatically reducing cost-per-unit thus allowing the average American to afford an automobile for the very first time. However, there was a problem; the assembly line with its monotonous routine was dehumanizing, resulting in a high turnover of workers. Henry Ford’s innovative (and controversial) solution: double his workers’ wages by introducing the “Five-Dollar-Day.” Not only would this solve the turnover problem, it would also make FMC factory workers Henry Ford’s best customers. However, there was a catch – FMC’s “Social Department” had to verify each worker’s compliance with their rules for “clean living” to get the “bonus” pay added to their base daily wage. Also, the work day was reduced to eight hours, but this allowed for three-shifts per day.

With the River Rouge Plant, Henry Ford consolidated all his ideas about mass production into a single, sprawling plant, with its own sources of raw materials and a transportation network serving its every need. Manufacture of the Model T had begun in earnest in late 1908, but by the 1920s the design was dated and after the fifteen millionth “T” was produced, Henry Ford grudgingly determined it was time for a new car. That car would be the 1928 Model A (produced until 1932). For nineteen years, the Model T had been FMC’s mainstay, reaching its zenith of production in 1925 when one was produced every ten seconds. Paradoxically, Henry Ford had changed the world forever in ways he could/did not foresee – or desire, but would be most responsible for. Gone was the age he had grown up in when life was simpler and slower; an age he lamented and tried to recreate with his “Dearborn Village.” His legacy is more than that of an opinionated maverick, a world-class company and a car that changed the world, it is that of a true “Captain of Industry.” Henry Ford was an “American Original,” so too was his Model T.

This course includes a multiple-choice quiz at the end, which is designed to enhance the understanding of the course materials.

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