Huge gathering of Model Ts in Indiana marks centenary of iconic Ford
It was available in “any colour you want as long as it is black, ” according to Henry Ford, although in fact, the very first Model T Ford, which was launched 100 years ago, came in a choice of colours.
It was only when Ford shifted production of his iconoclastic car to a moving production line in 1914, that he restricted customers to having their cars finished in black japan enamel paint, because it was the only colour that dried fast enough to keep up with the production line.
Celebrations for this most famous of motor cars have been going on all year in the US and in the UK, where it was also built but the biggest event is in America this coming weekend when more than 10, 000 enthusiasts, 1, 000 Models Ts and the Indiana state governor Mitch Daniels gather in Richmond for a ‘Model T Party’. It is thought to be the largest gathering of Model Ts since the start of production. In the UK a Model T has been exhibited in a glass case outside the Design Museum in East London and there was a display of cars at the Goodwood Festival of Speed two weeks ago.
Part of its significance is that the Model T was so much more than a mere motor car. Affectionately known as the Tin Lizzie, over 16.5 million Model Ts were built between its world debut at the London Motor Show in October 1908, and 1927, when the last car drove off the Detroit production line. It was the first car to be built on a moving production line (using ropes and windlasses in 1913 and on rails by 1914), the first model to have a million examples built, the first car to have a radio fitted and the first car to drive to the summit of Ben Nevis. In 1999 it was voted the Car of the Century by a panel of experts in front of the second-placed Mini and the third-placed Citroën DS.
With its birth coinciding with that of the film industry, the distinctive-looking Model T had a number of film roles, most of them in comedies. It starred with comedians Laurel and Hardy in Perfect Day (1929) and had many roles with stars, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd and even the Keystone Cops. It even had a role in this year’s George Clooney retro baseball flick, Leatherheads.
For his Model T, Henry Ford took the idea of mass production from the simplified butchery techniques used in the Chicago Union cattle stock yards into the automobile industry. Previously skilled craft and engineering jobs became a series of simple actions. When these labour techniques were combined with modern technical innovations like simultaneous welding on wire wheels, production was hugely speeded up. Prior to the introduction of the production line, assembly time for a Model T was 12.5 hours, afterwards it was about 1.5 hours. The Model T marked the birth of the modern motor car. Henry Ford also paid his workers well, reasoning that they would then be able to afford their own Model Ts. In 1914 he doubled his hourly-paid workers wages to an unprecedented $5 for an eight-hour day and the Ford plant was besieged by 10, 000 men seeking work. Mass production also reduced prices. The Model T was launched at a price of $850, but by 1917, the price was just $345.
“It is an important car, because the men who built it could afford it, it was the first example of mass production in the car industry and parts for it could be purchased anywhere in the world – and they would fit, ” says motoring historian David Burgess-Wise. “In fact Ford claimed he invented the words ‘service’ and mass production’.”
Powered by a 2.9-litre, four-cylinder engine with a two-speed transmission, the Model T was simple and reliable, but surprisingly fast for its day. Top speed was around 45mph, with fuel economy of around 40mpg depending on how the car was driven. It was originally designed to run on bio ethanol, but the decreasing cost of oil (and US prohibition) meant that most were run on oil-derived petrol.