By MALCOLM GUNN
It's a given that the genius of Henry Ford revolved around the Model T.
The success of the 'Tin Lizzie', however, would require an even bigger chunk of Ford's ingenuity: getting it into the hands of millions of Americans at an affordable price.
It's this combination of having the right product at the right time, and being able to market and mass produce it that would become Ford's legacy. His assembly-line principles have since been applied to virtually every modern convenience that we currently enjoy.
The Model T was remarkable for being utterly simple. Other automakers struggled with how to best harness the miracle of the international combustion engine to provide reliable transportation. Their results tended to be unduly complex and their labor-intensive methods yielded automobiles that were no more than play toys for the wealthy.
By contrast, Ford?s grasp of making things work simply, efficiently and durably, resulted in a manufacturing revolution that is scrupulously followed by the world's leading corporations to this day.
The path that led Henry Ford to produce the Model T was not conquered overnight. A farmer and part-time mechanic by trade, and an inventive entrepreneur by nature, he had endured a succession of ups and downs since building his first car, called the Quadricycle, in 1896. Ford's initial investment in the Detroit Automobile Company (later to become Cadillac) had ended disastrously and, by 1901, he was out of work and out of money.
Undaunted, the 38-year-old regrouped and, with the help of some wealthy backers, formed the Ford Motor Company. From 1903-'07 his factory made low-volume and relatively expensive cars, as did most other manufacturers.
At the same time, Ford was making a name for himself as a race-car driver, entering various endurance and land-speed competitions. He actually set a world record of more than 91 mph in 1904 driving on the frozen Lake St. Clair in Michigan.
Buoyed by a significant amount of personal fame, the revolutionary Model T (most of the letters A through S had already been used on earlier vehicles) made its debut on Oct. 1, 1908. Originally built as an open touring car, it was not only inexpensive ? a base price of $825 meant it cost about half as much as other cars ? but represented a breakthrough in automotive technology. The body was made using expensive vanadium steel, a metal known for its strength and malleability. The inline four-cylinder engine, which generated 22 horsepower and 83 lb.-ft. of torque, was made from a single iron block, defying the common practice of separately casting each cylinder. The motor also featured a removable cylinder head, a previously unproven and unreliable building method.
Other characteristics of the Model T included a foot-pedal-operated two-speed transmission and a throttle that was controlled by hand. The hand brake didn't actually keep the car from rolling, but disengaged the gearbox. Although simple in its design, learning to drive a Model T required considerable practice and patience.
The rudimentary suspension consisted of transverse leaf springs for both front and rear axles along with 30-inch wheels fitted with solid rubber tires. Ground clearance was exceptional, a necessity given the rutted trails that passed for roads nearly 100 years ago.
First-year Model T production exceeded 10,000 cars and grew to more than 200,000 by 1913. By that time, Ford was making more vehicles than all other manufacturers combined, due in no small part to a radical change in his assembly-line thinking. Instead of sending the necessary parts along conveyor belts to be attached to each vehicle, Ford switched to a moving assembly line in which various components were added as the basic body shell moved from station to station. A Model T ? took about 90 minutes to complete, slow by today's standards but considered amazing in the day.
Attempts to streamline production and lower the selling price were a constant undertaking. In 1914, buyers could no longer choose from a variety of paint schemes and had to follow Henry Ford's edict that "...the public could have any color it wants, so long as it?s black." The reason was that the black enamel dried faster than other hues and allowed workers to turn out the Model T's faster.
With each successive year came ever greater sales and ever lower prices. By 1924, more than 10 million Model T owners, paying as little as $260 ? one-third of the price 15 years earlier ? for their vehicles, helped swell the ranks on North America?s fledgling road network. But in a strange twist, the car that made Henry Ford a celebrated household name almost spelt his demise. Other competitors had caught up to the company's technology and low-cost production methods and, in fact, surpassed them. Sales were in sharp decline and an aging Henry Ford refused to consider building a more modern replacement. Although the Model T had visually evolved, mechanically, it remained similar to the original. Only after urging from his son, Edsel, and other company executives did he finally relent. In May of 1927, the last of the more than 15 million Model Ts left its Dearborn, Mich, home, ending one of the most successful chapters in automotive history.
In the 100 years since the Ford Motor Company's founding, the miracle of the Model T remains unsurpassed for its profound impact on every aspect of our modern society.