Let’s clear up a few common misunderstandings about the Model T right away. When Henry Ford’s invention entered production 100 years ago this weekend, it wasn’t the world’s first inexpensive car-others had beaten him to that slot. And the T didn’t pioneer “personal mobility, ” which was already the provenance of both the horse and motorcycle.
Instead, the Model T was revolutionary because it combined the then-rare attributes of reliability, ruggedness, utility and economy-all in one machine that was eminently affordable. And that was something no other car had done before. The T was sized just right, and its 100-in. wheelbase made it a perfect platform for a wide variety of bodies, from sporty roadsters to touring cars, pickup trucks to even delivery vans.
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The T’s controls were designed so that any person could operate it-easily. This was important because prior to 1909 few people had driven a motor car. And with its feathery (1, 300 pound) curb weight, high ground clearance, tall-and-skinny 30 x 3.5-in. tires, and torquey 2.9-liter four-cylinder engine, the T could traverse the horribly rutted dirt roads of the early 20th century with relative ease.
Indeed, Ford’s “flivver” was technologically ideal for its era. The Model T was full of clever design and engineering features, many of them quite ambitious for a low-priced vehicle. Here are the 10 most significant keys to the T’s success.
1. Mass Production
Even before he launched the Model T, Henry Ford realized that he had to drive down the cost of materials and labor significantly to sell more cars to more customers. He did that by combining the use of precision-made, common components with the moving assembly line. Both techniques by themselves were long proven in other industries, but Ford’s use of them to build cars in a continuously-flowing assembly process was revolutionary. New automated machinery and other labor-saving tools added to the efficiency of the huge Highland Park, MI, factory launched in 1910 and dedicated to Model T production. Scale was multiplied (and cost further reduced) as Ford spread Model T production to plants all over the world. The results of his skyrocketing enterprise drove down the car’s retail price from $950 to $260 within a decade. Henry Ford’s prediction that the T “will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one” came true, especially after the company’s famous Five-Dollar-Day base pay introduced at Highland Park in 1914 helped create thousands of Model T customers within the Ford empire.
2. Vanadium Steel
This lightweight, durable, easily machined steel alloy was developed in Europe and used on racing cars and premium-priced vehicles before Ford became aware of it around 1905. He recognized that the material’s high tensile strength (nearly three times greater than cheaper, lower-grade steels) would allow him to make a stronger, lighter, better performing car. Ford and his small team of engineers first tested vanadium steel in their Model N and S cars during 1906Ã07, before deciding to use it in many of the Model T’s critical highly stressed parts including the crankshaft, forged front axle, and wheel spindles.
3. Separate Head and Block
The Model T’s engine pioneered the use of a removable cylinder head, and cylinders that were cast integrally with the engine block. Both are mainstays of modern auto engines. Before the T, car engines typically had their heads and blocks cast as a single lump of iron, with separate cylinders bolted to the crankcase, making them heavy and time-consuming to produce or repair.
4. Two-Speed Planetary Transmission
Although not a Ford innovation per se, the two-speed planetary gearbox was extremely light, compact, durable and inexpensive to produce. It was also a breeze for drivers to learn and operate. One pedal controlled the clutch for high/low gear change, one pedal controlled reverse gear and a hand lever combined the neutral and parking-brake functions.
5. Flywheel Magneto
Henry Ford was a stickler for keeping mechanical devices as simple as possible. This dogma included integrating the T’s ignition-system magneto into the engine flywheel. This setup eliminated the storage battery-just another thing to go wrong, thought Ford-and helped ensure a car that started reliably with its hand crank, anytime.
6. Fully Enclosed Powertrain
Unlike most other cars of its era, the Model T featured a one-piece steel cover enclosing the underside of its engine, flywheel, transmission and universal joint. This cover dramatically helped contain the lubricants within and kept the car cleaner than many of its contemporaries.
7. Three-Point Suspension
Henry Ford was raised on a farm, so he wanted the T to handle the worst rural roads. So he designed the car with a suspension system in which the engine/transmission unit and front and rear axles were mounted in a triangular configuration, atop front and rear transversely-mounted leaf springs. The three-point arrangement gave ample axle articulation on rough terrain, while permitting the chassis to flex without twisting the engine.
8. Left-Hand Drive
By placing the steering column on the left side of the car, Ford spearheaded the left-hand-drive configuration. The T’s incandescent success quickly forced standardization of the layout in the U.S. and European auto industries.