As simply as possible, for the most economical and efficient production to date.
The Model T was the car for the masses, the car that revolutionized the industry in its early days, that ten years after its appearance sold for an average of $400 retail while Ford netted over $80 million annually.
“You can have any color so long as it’s black,” quipped Henry Ford, who for years before the car’s birth in 1908 had dreamed of a “universal car,” which would eliminate the frills and high production costs that previously had confined cars to the garages of the super rich.
For several years his closest colleagues, including Charles Sorensen, foreman of the pattern shop, and Joe Galamb, head of transmission engineering and design, brainstormed in secrecy in a special room set aside for this purpose. The beloved Tin Lizzie that resulted was made possible in part by the introduction to the United States of English vanadium steel at that time. This light steel, whose tensile strength was triple that of the steel then used, was first produced in this country at the United Steel Company’s plant in Canton, Ohio, in 1905, and Ford was quick to perceive its possibilities. With it he could, and did, produce a lighter, cheaper, and better car.
Perhaps more significant for the history of industry and for consumers of the early 20th century than the materials used was the novel manner in which they were assembled. Prior to the Model T, each car was built by hand. The chassis was stationary and each part designed for that car was brought to it by skilled workers.
Ford realized that time and money could be saved by incorporating and improving upon mass-production techniques used sporadically in the past. Eli Whitney’s machines had rapidly produced large numbers of interchangeable parts for muskets as early as 1798. The Chicago meat-packers of the 1860s used conveyor belts that transported the carcass from worker to worker, each of whom performed one task. Elihu Root furthered the idea of dividing and simplifying steps in the manufacturing process, thereby achieving faster production of Colt six-shooters in 1849.
Ford, for his part, got his cars into stands that moved from one team of workers to the next, but these cars were still hand built. So he developed machines to make masses of interchangeable parts at high speeds and then machines to assemble the parts, finally achieving perfect synchronization between the moving assembly line with its growing car and the surrounding feeder lines.
This could first be seen in 1913 at his famous plant at Highland Park, Michigan, covering 60 acres, containing 15,000 machine tools, presses to stamp out steel frames, elaborate systems of chutes, gravity slides, and conveyors. These were attended by unskilled laborers who by the early 1920s earned a minimum daily wage of $5.00, double what they took home before the successes of the Model T. In its first year the Model T sold over 10,000 units; over 2 million were bought each year in 1923, 1924, and 1925; and Ford had sold a total of over 15 million by 1927 when the car was discontinued.
At top speed the Tin Lizzie sailed along at 45 miles per hour, getting 20 miles to the gallon. It had a 20-horsepower, 4-cylinder engine, weighed 1,200 pounds, and cleared those rustic early roads by 10 1/2 inches.
Wherever possible, the light, strong vanadium steel was used: in the crankshafts, connecting rods, pistons, pins, and valves, for example. Ford and his colleagues strove for the simplest engine design possible; the crankcase and cylinder barrels were in one unit, and for the first time, a gas engine was designed with a separate, detachable cylinder head. The car had three foot pedals: one for the brake, two for the two-speed transmission. Ford incorporated only the most efficient elements of his former models, streamlining and developing new units for his assembly-line production.
The result: Americans began for the first time to view cars as feasible, and then necessary, not to mention desirable, possessions—yet another inalienable right.