Some cars make a mark in automotive history Others go far beyond that to fundamentally alter history. Henry Ford's Model T is the definitive example of the latter. In fact, a case can be made that the Model T is the single most significant car in history.
Produced from 1909-1927, the Model T truly lives up to its tagline of "the car that put America on wheels." Henry Ford's big idea of building simple, affordable cars via a mass production line created the first car for ordinary Americans. As he put it, "I will build a car for the great multitude.
It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces." In 1914 it took a typical Ford assembly line worker four months labor to earn the price of a Model T.
Ford shocked the business world when he increased his factory workers’ pay to $5 per day, enough so they could afford to buy his cars. Over sixteen million were sold.
Henry’s plan worked fantastically well, making his Model T the most successful car ever built in terms of sales, with over 15 million sold. The Model T’s simple design made it well suited to an agricultural country just finding its way into a brave new motor age. In an age filled with all kinds of crazy attempts to figure out what a car should be, it was simple and reliable. All drivers had to do was crank it and go, at least until 1919, when all Model Ts came equipped with self-starters.
During 1908-14 Model Ts were offered in a choice of gray, red, or green. In 1912 they were all painted blue with black fenders. From 1913 on, black was the only color offered. Ford chose black because that was the fastest drying paint color of the day.
Nicknamed the “Tin Lizzy,” the Model T’s quirks endeared it to drivers. Due to the cars’ gravity-fed fuel delivery, they often had to be driven backwards up steep hills. Since the gas tank was located beneath the front seat, drivers checked the fuel level by lifting the seat and dipping a stick into the tank. Foot pedals controlled the Model Ts’ planetary transmission, but there was no clutch pedal, nor was there a gas pedal--a steering column lever controlled acceleration. Its four-cylinder engine produced 20 horsepower, giving it a top speed of 45 m.p.h. America had few paved roads when the “T” was introduced. The rugged, high-riding “Lizzy” was perfect for an agricultural nation.
Fun Facts About Ford’s Model T
- By 1914, Ford was building more cars than all other automakers combined.
- Model T replacement engines remained in production until late 1941.
- The last Model T was built in 2002 when Ford Motor Company built six examples as a part of their centennial celebration.
- The car’s body was framed with hardwood. Kingsford Charcoal Company was founded to recycle scraps of wood left over from Model T production.
- Its four-cylinder engine produced 20 horsepower
- It had a top speed of 45 m.p.h.
- There weren’t proper brakes on the wheels, just an engine brake.
- By 1925 Ford was building 9,000 Model Ts per day.
- By the time the 10 millionth T was built, half of all the world’s cars were Fords.
Ford expected to build Model Ts with incremental improvements far into the future. Then came Chevrolet with a more advanced car at only a small price premium. Ford fired the executive that first suggested moving on from the Model T and starting over, but declining sales eventually convinced him to kill the T and introduce an all new model known as the Model A.
Today, Ford’s Model T is fondly remembered. Hot rodders of the 1950s-60s are still aped by today’s modifiers who build “T-bucket” rods. The wild variety of Model Ts (Run about, sedan, coupe, delivery, “Depot Hack” station wagon, stake bed, “Touring” four-door convertible, flatbed truck, and pickup) still regularly appear at car shows to inspire fond memories in old timers and wonder in the young.
Written by Jim Cherry
We've also featured a story about the Model T transmission.
And there's a story about how to start the famous Model T.