Henry Ford probably did more to put the American farmer on wheels than any other individual in American history. Ford's famous Model T not only carried farmers and their families to town, church and school, but it hauled milk and eggs, as well as livestock and produce to market, powered feed grinders and cream separators, and even pulled plows, mowers and other implements.
Eugene W. Lewis wrote in his 1947 book, Motor Memories, about a conversation he once had with Henry Ford, who founded the Ford Motor Co. 100 years ago. About 1905, Lewis was selling Timken roller bearings. The salesman and the automaker were discussing the fledgling auto business when Ford bragged, '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 finally introduced his dream car, the revolutionary Model T, on Oct. 1, 1908. The car weighed 1,200 pounds, and its four-cylinder engine gave it a top speed of 40 mph. Purposefully built with high road clearance, its tall fenders, strong transverse leaf springs and center-pivot front axle allowed the little car to twist and turn as it crawled over the rough rural roads or even no road at all. The T could grind through deep mud, snow or sand, climb steep grades and cross deep streams, although the driver had to keep the 'C' pedal firmly depressed to keep the transmission in low gear.
The planetary transmission, with its orbital gears, made the car easy to drive. Even so, an early account in The New Yorker magazine made Model T driving sound a little too 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 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.'
By the time the all new Model A was unveiled in 1928, more than 15,000,000 Model Ts had been sold. In fact, the 'Tin Lizzies,' as they came to be called, seemed to be everywhere. 'Tin Lizzie' was only one of the many nicknames given to the car, however. Others included the Flivver, Bouncing Betty, Leaping Lena, the Spirit of St. Vitus and the Mechanical Cockroach.
In addition to the less-than-flattering nicknames, the little Model T was the subject of many jokes. Most poked fun at the Model T's -diminutive size, such as the one about the Cadillac owner who claimed to carry a Model T in his toolbox just in case the bigger car broke down. Others said that Fords didn't need headlights 'because they're light enough without 'em.' Another joke insisted that Ford was planning to paint his odd-shaped cars yellow and sell them in bunches like bananas. One of the funniest jokes involved a man sadly looking up into a tree. Asked why his attention was directed to the highest branches, he explained, 'I was cranking my Ford and it flew off the handle.'
Farmers, known for their wit, joked freely about Ford's invention. The Model T had a well-deserved reputation for being tin-like, a condition that resulted in this humorous observation: A farmer replaced the tin roof on his barn. He bundled up the old, twisted tin and sent it to the Ford factory. Shortly thereafter, he received a letter that said, 'Your car is the worst wreck we have ever seen. It will take us two weeks to repair it.' A popular song from the day asserted that Ford was a great evangelist, because his cars had shaken more hell out of folks than even the famous fire-and-brimstone preacher, Billy Sunday. Other critics suggested that Ford supplied a trained squirrel with each car to pick up the nuts as they fell off.
Despite those wisecracks, most Model T owners thought their Flivvers were dependable vehicles. One farmer's will specified that he be buried in his Model T 'because it's gotten me out of every hole I've ever been in.' Like all early automobiles, the Model T certainly had its faults. Yet, Henry Ford successfully put America on wheels by producing a dependable car that was affordable for farmers and workingmen alike.
In the process, Henry Ford became a very rich man, but the Model T wasn't his only contribution to the industrial revolution. He also developed the moving assembly line to build cars, and introduced enlightened labor practices, such as paying workers $5 for an eight-hour day, which began in 1914 to the horror of other auto makers. As a result of the $5 wage announcement, Ford became so famous that some wanted him to run for president as a Democrat.
While Ford himself was not the least bit interested, the possibility gave rise to yet another joke by Will Rogers. '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].' FC
- Sam Moore became interested in agricultural machinery growing up on a farm in western Pennsylvania. He now lives in Salem, Ohio, and collects antique tractors, implements and related items.
Now I don't know but I believe I'm right the auto's ruined the country; Let's get back to the horse and buggy and try to save some money. 'You can talk about your evangelists you can talk about Mr. Ford too; But Henry's shaking more hell out of the folks than all the evangelists do.'
-Lyrics from the song Jordan Am A Hard Road To Travel by Dan Emmett, author of Dixie, written about the turn of the 20th century.