In about 1905, Henry Ford told Eugene W. Lewis (a Timken bearing salesman), “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 will be sold so any man who can own an average horse and buggy can afford to own a car.”
Henry introduced his dream car, the revolutionary Model T Ford, on Oct. 1, 1908. The car weighed 1,200 pounds and had 20 hp while its high clearance, transverse leaf springs and front axle pivoted in the center, which allowed the little car to twist and turn as it crawled over the rough rural roads. The T could grind through mud, snow or sand, climb steep grades and ford deep streams, although the driver had to keep the pedal firmly depressed the whole time to keep the transmission in low gear.
|A beautifully restored 1911 Model T Ford delivery wagon. Photo by Sam Moore.
The planetary transmission made the car easy to drive, although an early account in The New Yorker made driving a Model T sound pretty exciting. “To get under way, 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 (left) 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 jerks and was off on its glorious errand. The abruptness of this departure was never equaled in other cars of this period.”
By the time the all-new Model A came out in 1928, more than 15 million Model T Fords had been sold, and the ubiquitous “Tin Lizzies” were everywhere. Tin Lizzie was only one of the many nicknames given to the car. Others were Flivver, Bouncing Betty, Leaping Lena, the Spirit of St. Vitus and the Mechanical Cockroach.
In addition to the nicknames, there were probably more jokes about the little Ford than there are about Pat and Mike. Most of the jokes kidded about the car’s diminutive size, such as the one about the Cadillac owner who carried a Ford in his toolbox for use in case the Caddie broke down. It was said that Fords didn’t need to have headlights “because they’re light enough without ’em.” Another joke maintained that Ford was going to paint his cars yellow and sell them in bunches like bananas. Another told about the man looking sadly up a tree. When asked why, he said, “I was cranking my Ford and it flew off the handle.”
T’s had a well deserved reputation for being tinny and rattling, resulting in jokes such as: A farmer replaced the tin roof on his barn. He bundled up the old twisted tin and sent it to the Ford factory. Shortly after, he got a letter back saying, “Your car is the worst wreck we have ever seen. It will take us two weeks to repair it.” It was said that Henry Ford was a great evangelist because his cars had shaken hell out of more folks than Billy Sunday. Wags said that Henry was going to supply a trained squirrel with each car to pick up the nuts that fell off.
Most owners thought their flivvers were dependable, including the farmer whose will specified that he be buried in his Ford, “because it’s gotten me out of every hole I’ve ever been in.” When Ford bought Lincoln, people joked that a man was hired to paint whiskers on Fords to make them look like Lincoln. Finally, there was the one about the guy who asked a friend, “Did ya hear the latest Ford joke?” To which the man replied with feeling, “I certainly hope so!”
Despite the jokes, the Model T put America on wheels by being a dependable car that was affordable for farmers and working men. 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 introduced in 1914, to the horror of other manufacturers) ultimately benefited every working man in the country. As a result of the $5 wage, Ford became so famous that there was talk of running him for president on the Democratic ticket. While Ford himself was not the least bit interested, the possibility gave rise to another joke; Will Rogers said, “Ford could get elected president all right. He’d only have to make one speech: Voters, if I’m elected I’ll change the front (of the Model T).”