The Car which Changed America
One could start a lively debate among historians about which car is the second most influential in American history. Perhaps the Chevy Corvair, which launched Ralph Nader, the consumer movement and the litigation explosion? Or the Volkswagen Beetle, the official car of the 1960s counter-culture? Or maybe the Toyota Prius, which might lead to cars powered by electricity and fuel cells?
But there is zero question about which car has had the biggest influence:
Henry Ford’s Model T, which went on sale 100 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1908. The Model T put America on wheels, created mass mobility, revolutionized mass production, established the American middle class and eventually reshaped the country’s physical landscape with suburban sprawl. Over a two-decade run more than 15 million were built, more than any other car in history except for the Beetle.
The Model T followed Ford’s Model R and Model S, adhering to the fledgling company’s convention of naming cars after letters of the alphabet. Even before it went on sale, dealers had ordered 15,000 Model T’s — more than twice as many cars as Ford Motor had sold the entire previous year. Henry Ford, who was 45 years old and only modestly successful when the T was introduced, promised dealers that the car would be reliable, affordable and versatile. He was right.
The Model T’s two-cylinder engine produced 20 horsepower, less than some of today’s John Deere lawn tractors. But to a farmer used to harnessing two or four horses to a plow, having the equivalent of 20 horses must have seemed a quantum leap. The car could cruise at 45 miles an hour at a time when that speed felt plenty fast on America’s rough roads. It got 15 to 20 miles on a gallon of gas. There were two gears, plus reverse. A chassis crafted of a new type of steel, vanadium, made the Model T lighter but stronger than other cars of its day, and it was the first car with fully interchangeable parts, which made repairs easy and inexpensive.
The first Model T cost about $850, compared with the price-tags of $1,000 or so on comparable Chevrolets. Until 1913 the Model T was available in four colors: red, green, blue and black. But that year Mr. Ford invented the moving assembly line and, with it, modern mass production. He decided that using just
one color would further enhance efficiency, and famously declared that customers could have “any color they want, as long as it’s black.”
A year later Mr. Ford began paying his workers the unheard-of sum of $5 a day, and the American middle class was born. By 1922 Mr. Ford had cut the price of his Model T to $250, while competitors were charging closer to $300. One of every two cars in America — indeed, in the world — was a Ford. Mr. Ford had made good his pledge: “I will build a car for the great multitude. No man making a good salary will be unable to own one, and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s wide open spaces.”
Model T’s could be — and were — converted into speedsters, tractors, fire engines and delivery trucks. New companies made Model T accessories; one allowed the engine manifold to be used as a cooking grill, another powered saws for chopping wood. The Lamsteed KampKar, a forerunner to the Volkswagen micro-bus, was a $535 kit that converted the Model T into a camper, with beds, stove and running water. The KampKar was made by Anheuser-Busch during the 1920s, when Prohibition forced the brewer into other lines of business.
Over the years, Ford regularly improved the Model T, with such additions as headlights and electric starters. What didn’t change were key design quirks, which eventually made the car obsolete and allowed General Motors to pass Ford. The Model T had three floor pedals: a clutch, a reverse pedal and a brake. The accelerator was mounted on the right side of the steering column, where turn signals often are found today. The car never did get turn signals; drivers used hand signals instead.
The car was nicknamed the “Tin Lizzie,” explanations for which vary. Eventually it was made in 19 countries, including Argentina, Australia, Brazil, England, Germany, India and Japan. “It was the first world car,” says Robert Casey, curator at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., and author of an excellent new book, “The Model T: A Centennial History.” Model T enthusiasts gathered in late July on a fairgrounds in Richmond, Ind. — home of the Model T Club of America — to celebrate the car’s 100th birthday. Among the 800-plus Model T’s on hand was a Lamsteed KampKar belonging to Peter and Sally Kable, who shipped it from their home in Kiama, Australia, to Los Angeles. Then they took nearly six weeks to drive it to Indiana, camping out many nights, just like the “tin can tourists” of years past. Eric Gould drove his Model T from Monroeville, Ala., also the hometown of Harper Lee, author of “To Kill a Mockingbird” — a book that changed America in its own way.