Henry Ford did not invent the automobile. Nor did he start the production line. What he did do was put the two together. This changed the way first Americans, then the rest of the world, worked, lived and travelled. The car that could be afforded by the average American was being produced for the first time rather than machines designed only for the very wealthy.
The project really started back in 1903 when the model A was produced. Henry Ford, the owner was looking for something different. By 1906 he had reached Model N. Ford then attended a race in Florida and went to examine the wreckage of a French car. He picked up bits of the body of the car and noticed how light they were. It was a different type of steel not understood or made in the U.S. called vanadium. Immediately he set up his own steel mill and started to produce it. A man called Charles Sorensen then joined up with Ford. This is what he said about the production line process.
“What was worked out at Ford was the practice of moving the work from one worker to another until it became a complete unit, then arranging the flow of these units at the right time and the right place to a moving final assembly line from which came a finished product. Regardless of earlier uses of some of these principles, the direct line of succession of mass production and its intensification into automation stems directly from what we worked out at Ford Motor Company between 1908 and 1913…
“By August, 1913, all links in the chain of moving assembly lines were complete except the last and most spectacular one – the one we had first experimented with one Sunday morning just five years before. Again a towrope was hitched to a chassis, this time pulled by a capstan. Each part was attached to the moving chassis in order, from axles at the beginning to bodies at the end of the line. Some parts took longer to attach than others; so, to keep an even pull on the towrope, there must be differently spaced intervals between delivery of the parts along the line. This called for patient timing and rearrangement until the flow of parts and the speed and intervals along the assembly line meshed into a perfectly synchronized operation throughout all stages of production. Before the end of the year a power-driven assembly line was in operation, and New Year’s saw three more installed. Ford mass production and a new era in industrial history had begun”
As can be seen it took a long time to perfect the system. The first factory was in Piquette, Detroit, before another was opened in Highland Park, Michigan. It was on August 12th that the first Model T was finished, although full production did not start until October. However between 1909 and 1927, when production stopped, over 15 million had been made.
By 1913 they had speeded up the process of producing the chassis from 12 hours 8 minutes to 1 hour 33 minutes and by the following year were producing 308, 162 cars a year – more than all the other two hundred and ninety nine manufacturers combined.
Originally costing $825 every dollar Ford made from selling them was put back into the production meaning that by 1912 each car was to cost $575. There were different styles of body that could be put on the standard 100inch chassis. These ranged from a 5-seat touring car, a 2-seat runabout and a 7-seat town car. With a top speed between 40-45mph and 20 horsepower most of the cars were started by a hand crank mechanism. By 1920 battery powered starters had been introduced. Contrary to popular belief at the start of their production cars were available in red, green, blue and grey. Black was not even an option. In 1913 though, to keep costs down, black became the only colour until 1926 when different shades were re-introduced due to falling sales. This gives us the famous quote from henry Ford that “You can have any colour as long as it’s black.” There were however thirty different types of black paint used between 1913 and 1926. Again, against popular held belief, the reason for black was not due to its quick drying properties but simply because it was cheaper and lasted longer.
The nickname of the Model T, ‘Tin Lizzie’, comes from a race in 1922 in Colorado. All car manufactures were trying to get good publicity for their vehicles but Henry Ford could not have imagined the piece of marketing/advertising that was to follow. Driving in the race was Noel Bullock and his Model T called ‘Old Liz’. It was not in the best of states with no hood or paint. His fellow competitors and spectators likened it to a tin can, and by the start of the race this no-hoper was nicknamed ‘Tin Lizzie’. The rank outsider was to beat all others across the line. Newspapers told this story across the country, using the new nickname, and the legend was born.