A vehicle widely credited with opening up motoring to the masses went on sale for the first time 110 years ago today.
Although automobiles had existed in various forms for decades, they remained scarce, unreliabe and extremely expensive to buy and run, making them the preserve of a wealthy elite. American manufacturer Henry Ford had a dream to change all that and he would achieve it with the launch, on October 1st, 1908, of his innovative ‘Model T’.
He famously vowed: “I will build a 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.”
Ford, a visionary engineer from Michigan, founded his Ford Motor Company in Detroit in 1903, using £28,000 in cash from a dozen investors. His first car was named the Model A, with 1,750 examples sold in a little over a year.
Over the next five years a succession of revisions and improvements saw Ford and his growing workforce progress through the alphabet, each new car named after the next letter in line. Only a handful of these models went into production, with the rest being prototypes to test out new innovations.
Nevertheless, by late 1908 Ford was ready to put his Model T into production, and for him this was the big one. As well as developing his simple but reliable vehicles, Ford focussed on streamlining his methods of producing them. Although he didn’t invent the ‘assembly line’ system of manufacturing, he did perfect it, making his cars quicker and, crucially, cheaper to produce.
Each worker on the assembly line had a very limited number of specialised tasks to perform, usually without having to leave their workstation. It made them highly skilled and efficient and, unlike some manufacturers, Ford took pains to make the work bearable and reasonably well paid.
He also kept the number of component parts for his Model T to a minimum, reasoning that if he kept it simple, most customers could maintain the car themselves. He is often quoted as saying of his Model T that: “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants… so long as it is black.” In fact, that policy was only implemented in 1914, with the earliest Model Ts available in grey, green, blue or red, depending on the body style
When the first Model T went on sale, the price for the basic version was $825 – still a considerable sum (equivalent to around $22,500 today), but markedly cheaper than its rivals. It was available as a two-seater ‘runabout’ with a folding roof, a two-seater hardtop coupé, a four-seater touring car with a full folding roof, or a four-seater ‘landaulet’ with a folding hood over just the rear seats. To keep production simple and costs down, each body style shared the same chassis, engine, two-speed transmission and running gear.
Some 10,600 cars rolled off the line in the first full year of production, but as the Ford factory expanded and production increased, prices dropped. By 1916 Ford had manufactured more than half-a-million Model Ts and the basic price was down to just $345 (equivalent to around $7,800 today). The cheapest ever Model T was produced in 1925, when more than 1.9 million rolled off the production line in a single year, the base model selling for just $260 (around $3,650 today).
Production of the Model T finally ceased in May 1927, by which time it was being manufactured or assembled not only in the USA, but in plants around the world, making it the first ‘global car’. It was replaced not, as you might expect, with a ‘Model S’, but with a new Ford Model A. This was because Henry Ford reasoned that his new car was so radically different from the now almost obsolete Model T that he wanted to start over at the beginning of the alphabet.
The Model T did indeed realise Ford’s dream of opening up motoring to the masses. In a 1999 poll to find the most influential car of the 20th century, the Ford Model T was a clear winner, coming in ahead of the Mini, the Citroen DS and the Volkswagen Beetle.
With around 16.5 million Model Ts produced, it remains in the top 10 most sold cars of all time, even though its heyday was an age when car ownership was far from the norm. A surprising number also survive today, especially in the USA, making it still an affordable option for classic car enthusiasts.