Henry Ford on his 1896 Quadricycle, one of two built.
In 1896 Henry Ford was the Chief Engineer of Thomas Edison’s electrical lighting plant in Detroit, Michigan. He had acquired a fascination with internal combustion engines and set out to create a vehicle propelled by one, which he christened the Quadricycle. By 1901 he had been a supervisor and stockholder in two early automobile companies, but a penchant for wanting to build racecars in combination with a deep distrust of bankers kept him and his investors constantly at odds. Finally in 1902 he started the Ford Motor Company with an initial investment of $28, 000. One of his early plans to thwart bankers who sought to invest in his company was to offer dealer franchises, which required the dealers to pay for their automobiles when they were received, rather than when they were sold. This gave him additional capital to expand his manufacturing enterprise and invest in research to improve the product. After producing nine models, including the racing Model B and the luxurious (for its time) Models L and R, in 1908 Ford introduced what was to become a sometimes-dubious yet socially significant icon, the Model T. Near the end of the moving assembly line circa 1915. Ford’s desire was to build a car that everybody could own and drive. Being that most cars to that time had been custom-built or built one at a time in limited quantities, Ford had the vision to implement and successfully demonstrate how he could revolutionize the assembly process by using identical interchangeable parts. For a crowd of skeptical newspaper reporters he had two Model T’s disassembled, the parts mixed up, reassembled (impressively with speed and efficiency), and driven off to prove his point.
The next step to enable lowering the cost of the Model T, which had been introduced at $850 for the passenger body styles, was to perfect (as opposed to invent) the moving assembly line. With the help of William Klann he built a mass production facility starting in 1909, which when completed in 1913 was producing at least 1000 vehicles per day. By using moving belts, workers could remain at one location and do one task well, rather than be counted on to cover a multitude of duties. In an attempt to literally put a Ford in every garage, Ford was able to bring the cost of a Model T down to 0 by 1915, a year in which he produced nearly half the world’s automobiles. (By 1923 production was 1.8 million per year.)
The final body assembly line outside the Ford Model T plant in Detroit. At the same time, he created further nightmares for jealous bankers through his innovative sales and financing techniques, and was the first to offer blue-collar workers a minimum daily wage of .00 in 1914, a princely sum for that time. It also enabled all of his employees to drive their product. In fact, now that the average American had affordable mobility, there were many societal shifts both geographic and economic.
The proliferation of the Model T over and above the combined production of all other cars (fifteen million were ultimately built by 1927) required a network of new roads, petrol stations, traffic control, and a variety of other new or expanded industries, not the least of which was tourism. It also was responsible for the initial growth of suburban areas around major cities.
The down side of this assembly line methodology were that it reduced the necessary skill set of the average worker making each employee less viable, created an environment for repetitive work injuries, and turned employees into robots of sorts, making them effectively indistinguishable from the machines in the plant.
The venerable Tin Lizzie
Transportation for the masses The car itself was both a blessing and an enigma. The engine was started with a hand crank, which, unless the spark was retarded, would kick back upon starting, causing a familiar shoulder or wrist injury known to many doctors. The array of three pedals and the two steering column mounted levers required some practice in coordination. The pedals were used in various combinations for specific gears. Due to the gravity feed of gas to the carburetor and the difference in gear ratios (3:1 in first, 4:1 in reverse), drivers sometimes had to back their car up a hill for extra power and to keep the tank higher than the carburetor. They were also noisy, initially produced only in black, and were the brunt of many jokes, songs and cartoons.
However, the “Tin Lizzie” as it was affectionately dubbed was also durable and versatile. The basic frame could be used as a touring car, pickup, delivery van, fire engine, paddy wagon, ambulance, taxi, school bus, farm vehicle, and even a camper. They were also basic enough that most owners could also be their own mechanic.
While the Model T barely exists in the memory of the younger generations now, there are many avid and active Model T collectors and clubs throughout the world, with about 200, 000 running and working Model T’s and TT trucks. It will always be the progenitor of today’s automobile industry and manufacturing methods. It Put The World On Wheels!