Tin Lizzie: The Story of Henry Ford’s Model T

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Above: This 1927 Model T Ford roadster pickup illustrates the changes in the T over the years. The suspension, engine and transmission, though, were unchanged.
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Above: A 1911 Model T Ford Runabout at the Canton (Ohio) Classic Car Museum. Photos by Sam Moore.
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Left: A 1925 ad for the Model T truck aimed at farmers. From the July 1925 issue of Farm Mechanics magazine.
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Left: A 1924 Model T 1-ton truck equipped with tracks and front skis for use in deep snow.
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Below: For $79.50 (in 1935), this conversion kit from Sears, Roebuck & Co. would convert an old Model T Ford car into a farm tractor.
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Oct. 1 is the 100th anniversary of the introduction of the famous Model T Ford. Here’s the story of the ubiquitous “Tin Lizzie.”

Just four weeks after Pickett’s famous 1863 charge at Gettysburg, Henry Ford was born in Wayne County, Mich. His father, William, was a fairly prosperous farmer, but young Henry hated the hard work and drudgery of farming, writing years later, “My earliest recollection is that, considering the results, there was too much work on the place.”

Always fascinated by things mechanical, Ford left the farm in 1881 to work in a Detroit machine shop and became an expert watch repairman as well. Later he learned about electricity at the Edison Illuminating Co., and tinkered with steam and gas engines. On Christmas Eve in 1893, he tested (on the kitchen sink) a 1-cylinder engine he had built. In June 1896, he finished building his first car, the 4 hp, 20 mph Quadricycle.

After three false starts, Ford launched Ford Motor Co. in 1903 with $28,000 in borrowed cash, two lathes, two drill presses, a planer, saw, grinding wheel and forge. In 1919, Ford bought out the original stockholders. One woman who had reluctantly risked $100 on the venture received $335,000.

The first Ford car was the Model A, with a horizontally-opposed, 2-cylinder, 8 hp engine and a 2-speed transmission, both of which were built by Dodge Bros., which later built a car of its own. From 1903 to 1908, Ford progressed through Models B, C, F, K, N, R and S.

In his 1947 book Motor Memories, Timken bearing salesman Eugene W. Lewis wrote about a 1905 conversation with Ford. The two men were discussing the fledgling auto business when Ford said, “I am going to make a motor car that will be light and strong and clean so that women can drive it. And it will have enough power to do any kind of work called for, and it will be sold so any man who can own an average horse and buggy can afford to own a car.”

Ford introduced his dream car, the revolutionary Model T Ford, Oct. 1, 1908. The car weighed 1,200 pounds and its 20 hp, 4-cylinder engine gave it a top speed of 40 mph.

A planetary transmission made the car easy to drive, although an early account in The New Yorker magazine made driving a Model T sound pretty exciting. “To get underway, you simply hooked the third finger of the right hand around a lever (hand throttle) on the steering column, pulled down hard and shoved your foot forcibly against the low-speed pedal. These were simple, positive motions; the car responded by lunging forward with a roar. After a few seconds of this turmoil, you took your foot off the pedal, eased up a mite on the throttle, and the car catapulted directly into high with a series of ugly jerks and was off on its glorious errand. The abruptness of this departure was never equaled in other cars of this period.”

Built purposely high to provide plenty of road clearance, its high fenders, strong transverse leaf springs and a front axle pivoted in the center allowed the little car to twist and turn as it crawled over rough rural roads, or no road at all. The T could grind through deep mud, snow or sand, climb steep grades and ford deep streams (although the driver had to keep the “C” [clutch] pedal firmly depressed the whole time to keep the transmission in low gear).

Ford kept his promise to make the car affordable. In the days when most automobiles sold for considerably more than $1,000, the Model T was introduced at $850 and the price was reduced nearly every year after, hitting an all-time low of $290 in 1924.

In 1913, Ford originated the moving assembly line to build the Model T chassis. That innovation, which soon became the norm in automobile manufacture, cut the time required to build a chassis from 12 hours, 30 minutes, to 1 hour, 33 minutes. It also allowed Ford to reduce the car’s price and pay his workmen an unheard of wage of $5 per day.

For the first few years, the Model T was available in black, red, green and two shades of gray, but from 1914 until 1925, the famous “any color, so long as it’s black” policy was in effect. Electric lights became available in 1915 and an electric starter in 1919.

By 1925, the Model T was looking pretty crude and old-fashioned, especially compared to its main competitor, the Chevrolet. Henry Ford refused to recognize that his beloved Model T was long past its “use by” date, although, at the prodding of company officials and his son, Edsel, he did agree to offer wire wheels and balloon tires, as well as different body colors.

Finally, mostly because of slumping sales, even Ford had to admit the car was done for. After building more than 15 million Model T’s in nearly 20 years of production, the assembly line was shut down at the end of May 1927. When the line began rumbling again six months later, the first of the equally famous Model A Fords rolled out the door. (Having used, in one form or another, every letter of the alphabet in model names, Ford started over with A in 1927. Thus, the company produced two Model A’s and two Model B’s. After the 1932 Model B, the alphabetical model identification system was abandoned.)

Despite the faults of the Model T, the little car put America on wheels. For the working man and the farmer, it was an affordable, dependable automobile. In the process, Henry Ford became a very rich man, but his development of the moving assembly line as well as his enlightened labor practices (such as $5 pay for an eight-hour day that was introduced in 1914, to the horror of other manufacturers) ultimately benefited every working man in the country. As a result of the $5 wage announcement, Ford became so famous in America that there was talk of running him for president on the Democratic ticket, a post in which Ford was not the least bit interested. FC

Sam Moore grew up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items. Contact Sam by e-mail at letstalkrustyiron@att.net.

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