Carol M. Highsmith, via Library of Congress
What made the Model T so special, and why it still matters today
– Mechanically innovative
– Cheap enough for any worker to afford one
– Dominated the world’s car trade for decades
Few cars can claim as much influence in the world of motoring as the Ford Model T. At a time when cars were still new and slightly scary, it brought motoring to the masses. The Toyota Corolla may have shifted more units over the years, but I’m yet to see someone turn one of those into an incredible hot rod.
The Model T remains an icon of motoring precisely because it’s pretty likely that someone in your family owned one. It’s a car that most people in the United States, and many countries around the world, can stake an ancestral claim to. But how did the cars come about? What was quite so revolutionary about them? That’s what we’re going to explore.
Origins of the Model T
When designing the Model T, Henry Ford and his team of designers were well aware of the problems that many cars of that era faced. There were only 200,000 on the road in 1909, and they were plagued with reliability issues. How do you solve these issues? You make the car’s mechanical components as simple as possible.
The engine was fed fuel by gravity, and could be powered with a whole multitude of fuels, including gasoline, kerosene, and ethanol. The engine itself was a simple unit that was designed to be easy to repair, with a detachable cylinder head. Cooling was taken care of in the earliest models with a mechanical water pump, but this was replaced by a thermosiphon system that offered passive cooling.
It would be unfair to call the Model T unsophisticated, however. While it was designed to be as simple as possible, it was incredibly innovative, too.
The most significant innovation brought by the Model T wasn’t even on the car itself: mass production. New tools, automation, and the assembly line creating cars from ready-made components allowed the cars to be churned out, up to 10,000 made per day in 1925. This also drastically reduced the car’s price. In 1925, the car cost just $260, or just under $4000 in today’s money.
Vanadium steel was another considerable innovation: this lightweight steel, developed in France, held strong against stress and was used in the most sensitive areas of the Model T. The flywheel magneto system, which eliminated the need for a battery, kept weight down.
Up to 10,000 Model T’s were made per day in 1925
The enclosed drivetrain kept the components clean and operating smoothly, and its three-point suspension allowed the chassis to flex on rough roads. What’s more, the Model T could easily be modified, with untold numbers becoming vans, small trucks, and tractor-trailers. Parts were delivered by mail order, and thanks to its simplicity, it could be created and attached by just about anyone.
The impact of the Model T
Where do we even begin here? The impact of the Model T is almost beyond description. First and foremost, when Henry Ford aimed to design a car for the masses, that was precisely what he got. Over its 19 years of production, 16.5 million cars were sold. This wasn’t just in the USA either, 57 percent of the world’s automobiles were Model Ts by 1921.
Anyone could own this car: it was cheap enough that any working person would have been able to afford one, with Ford’s own workers being no exception. The factory adopted a $5 daily minimum wage in 1914. This handsome paycheck would likely not have been possible without the Model T.
Over its 19 years of production, 16.5 million cars were sold
It standardized American cars from 1908 onwards: steering was now left-hand drive. Before the Model T, steering was often right-hand drive in American cars. Its trim levels were flexible, with the standard Roadster being produced alongside the pickup truck-style Runabout.
Finally, it was the first global car. As well as being produced in the United States, factories sprung up in England, Mexico, Spain, France, Denmark, and Japan, among other nations.
It was the car that put the world on wheels and kickstarted the car culture we have today.
A deeper dive — Related reading from the 101:
The story of one of Henry Ford’s most interesting friendships.
It’s fair to say these cars were never as influential as the Model T.
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