The Model T, sold by the Ford Motor Company from 1908 to 1927, was the earliest effort to make a car that most people could actually buy. Modern cars were first built in 1885 in Germany by Karl Benz, and the first American cars in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1893 by Charles and Frank Duryea. But just because they were available didn’t mean that ordinary people could afford them.
The Model T was actually affordable and it became so popular at one point that a majority of Americans owned one, directly helping rural Americans become more connected with the rest of the country and leading to the numbered highway system. The manufacturing needs of the Model T went hand in hand with Ford’s revolutionary modernization of the manufacturing process.
Henry Ford Invents the Model T Engine
By day he was chief engineer at Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit, but at night Henry Ford labored over a gasoline engine. He successfully tested one on Christmas Eve, 1893, with the help of his wife, Clara, taking a break from Christmas cooking. The engine worked for 30 seconds, long enough to confirm for Ford that he was on the right track.
Three years later, Ford developed the Quadcycle, a self-propelled vehicle. After two failed business ventures, the Ford Motor Company was born on June 16, 1903.
The production of the Model T was preceded by eight car models through which Ford developed various aspects that would eventually come together as the Model T.
Official Model T development began in January 1907, when Ford assembled a team comprised of engineer Childe Harold Wills, machinist C.J. Smith and draftsman Joseph Galamb in his small Detroit factory on Piquette Avenue.
Selling the Model T
Released on October 1, 1908, the Ford Model T was a self-starting vehicle with a left-sided steering wheel, featuring an enclosed four-cylinder engine with a detachable cylinder head and a one-piece cylinder block. Fashioned from vanadium alloy steel, it offered superior strength despite its light weight. It also featured a generous ground clearance that could take the worst roads, which made it particularly enticing to rural drivers. The Model T was the first Ford with all its parts built by the company itself.
Selling for $850, it was considered a reasonable value, though still slightly higher than the income of the average American worker. Ford’s goal was to continue lowering prices.
After selling 10,607 Model Ts, Ford announced that the company would cease to sell the Model R or Model S cars, famously remarking that "Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black."
A Publicity Stunt to the Top of a Scottish Mountain
Ford typically engineered publicity stunts to get his cars covered in British newspapers. In 1911, a Scottish car dealer proposed challenging his son Henry Alexander Jr. to drive a Model T to the summit of Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands, the highest mountain in the British Isles at 4,411 feet. The bet was that if he failed to reach the summit Alexander would lose his allowance.
Starting at nearby Fort William, the Model T drove over rocks, across bogs and through snow on a five-day journey. The car ascended to the summit using a zig-zag driving pattern.
After his descent, Alexander was greeted by a cheering crowd of hundreds, after which he made brake adjustments and drove the car back to his father’s dealership in Edinburgh.
Following the publicity, over 14,000 Model Ts were sold in the UK. It was the last time Ford felt a publicity stunt was necessary to sell his cars there.
Highland Park Assembles Model T's in Under 6 Hours
By 1913, a new 60-acre factory was built in Highland Park to churn out Model Ts. At the time it was considered to be the biggest factory in the world, and the number of Ford employees more than doubled.
For this plant, Ford worked to improve the assembly line of the manufacturing process. On April 1 tests were run, an attempt to assemble a flywheel magneto for the Model T. This was the first moving assembly line ever, utilizing conveyor belts inspired by Chicago meatpacking plants.
Each aspect of assembly was transformed into moving assembly, which improved efficiency and cut manufacturing time. In six months the time to build a Model T was reduced from nine hours and fifty-four minutes for one motor to five hours and fifty-six minutes.
The factory was divided into sections, each assembling a single part of the car in an incremental building process. The Highland Park factory eventually featured 500 of these departments in its assembly line.
Origins of 'Tin Lizzie'
The nickname “Tin Lizzie” is often applied to the Model T, though its origin is unknown.
One tradition claims Lizzie was a generic name given to horses and was passed onto the Model T. Later, a San Antonio car dealer complained to the factory about ill-fitting doors on the car and asked if cars could be shipped without doors but include a tool kit for purchasers to cut their own, reminiscent of a tin can opener.
Another claim says that during a 1922 race at Pikes Peak, Colorado, participant Noel Bullock named his Model T “Old Liz,” but its unkempt state made people compare it to a tin can, earning it the “Tin Lizzie” moniker. Unexpectedly, Bullock’s car won and the nickname stuck to all Model Ts.
Anti-Semitic Newspaper Sold With Each Model T
Ford began to adopt anti-Semitic views and the Model T was used to spread them.
Ford’s anti-Semitism was mainly expressed through the Dearborn Independent, which he purchased in 1919.
Also known as the Ford International Weekly, dealers were required to sell a subscription with each Model T, helping it reach a circulation topped only by the New York Post. Many dealers, unhappy with this arrangement, complained and tried to circumvent the policy.
The final Model T went down the assembly line on May 26, 1927. By December, the Dearborn Independent folded as well.
Model T Ends, Model A Debuts
Competition arose in the mid-1920s giving consumers about 10 times more choices of touring car models than a decade earlier. The Model T tried to compete, but sales dropped and it became considered old fashioned and was the frequent butt of popular jokes.
After much hesitation by Ford, it was announced in 1927 that Model Ts would no longer be manufactured. The new Ford called Model A debuted in December after having to scrap 40 thousand tools that could only be used to build Model Ts.
My Life and Work by Henry Ford, Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, Page & Co., 1922
I Invented the Modern Age: The Rise of Henry Ford, by Richard Snow, Scribner, May 2014
Why a Model T was driven to the top of Ben Nevis, by Steven McKenzie, BBC, May 17, 2018