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Ford’s "big idea"
Jul 31, 2008

Soaring gas prices and a faltering United States economy have put a damper on Henry Ford’s original dream to “build a car for the great multitude.”

While the Ford Model T, which revolutionized the car-making industry, is celebrating its 100th anniversary, the Ford Motor Company is reeling from a reported second quarter loss of $8.7 billion. In the second quarter of 2007, just as the American economy was entering its tailspin, the company reported a new profit of $750 million.

Just what does today’s world owe to Henry Ford and the Model T? 

Foremost, Ford transformed much of the world into a consumer-oriented society, expecting to purchase cheap products mass-produced by assembly lines whether it be soft drinks, washers or automobiles.

And as Joni Mitchell sang in the song Big Yellow Taxi, “They paved paradise to put up a parking lot.”

The advent of the first mass-produced cars in the world allowed for the creation of the suburbs and the subsequent decline of inner cities. Ford’s “big idea” also almost put an end to public transit systems across North America due to declining ridership. In combination with air travel, the carrying out of his “big idea” did effectively curtail rail passenger service.

As long as North American gas to feed vehicles was cheap, living in the suburbs and further afield in bedroom communities while commuting to a city to work was a relatively cheap lifestyle choice. But US $125 a barrel oil and gas hovering around $1.35 CDN a litre has added to the impression that all is not rosy in the brave new world Ford helped to build.

The Model T, sometimes known by the nicknames the “Tin Lizzy” or the “Flivver,” was introduced in North America on October 1, 1908, and soon became the most influential car of the 20th century.

“I will build a car for the great multitude,” Ford proclaimed. “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 the big selling feature of the Model T was its price — far below the hand-crafted cars produced by his competition. A lower price was made possible by mass-production on an assembly line using interchangeable parts. Workers stood in place as the car parts came to them. By the time the car reached the end of the assembly line, it was fully operational and ready to be sold to the public.

Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line, but he perfected its use as a method to produce low-cost cars. Until Ford came up with his “big idea,” cars were laboriously made by  craftsmen who assembled individual cars, and the cost in the thousands of dollars reflected this mode of construction. 

By the time the assembly line process for the Model T was perfected in 1914, it took only 93 minutes to assemble a car. In that year, the Ford Motor Company produced 308,162 cars, more than the 299 other auto manufacturers combined. When the last Model T was produced in 1927, a vehicle came off the assembly line every 24 seconds.

The original idea of using an assembly line to mass-produce cars is said to have been formulated by Ford employee William C. Klann after he visited a Chicago slaughtering plant where animals were cut up as they moved along a conveyor belt. But the revelation was reported to Ford who had the wherewithal to implement the “big idea.” To pay tribute to the opportunity presented to him, Ford watched as Klann drove the first completed Model T off the assembly line at the Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit, Michigan.

It took two years to design the Model T in secret at the Piquette plant with Ford using knowledge he gained from earlier models such as the Ford Model N. Ford also examined the wreckage of a French race car to discover the secret of a new vanadium alloy, which produced lighter steel with three times the tensile strength of the steel used by the other auto makers. For five years, only French luxury cars and the Model T used vanadium steel.

A 1908 dealership advertisement said a Model T Ford Coupe cost $950. “If the price has deterred you from buying a coupe car, now is your chance to secure a car that will answer your every purpose. Beautiful in finish and design, powerful, easily controlled, and at a price that seems incredible.”

A 1909 Ford Model T Touring Car (although the car was produced in the fall of 1908, it’s model year was 1909, a practice still followed by automobile companies) was advertised in Winnipeg at a cost of $975, with the claim made that “of all the motor cars made in the world, none has ever so fully met all expectations as has the Ford Model T for thorough reliability.”

The Model T was an instant success. In its first year of production, 10,000 cars were sold. The Model T became so popular that when the 10-millionth car came off the assembly line, nine out of every 10 cars in the world was a Ford.

It was not uncommon to see Model Ts crowding North American city streets. Of course, all the Model Ts were black as Ford famously said, “You can paint it any colour, so long as it’s black.” The paint the Ford company used was a shade of black that dried quickly and didn’t slow the assembly line process to the same extent as using other colours would. But that was after 1913, as before that year other colours such as green, red, blue and grey were available. One can imagine Ford becoming increasingly frustrated by the delays in the assembly line caused by waiting for various hues to dry and then decided black would be the only “option” offered to car buyers. It wasn’t until 1926 that Ford offered more colour options to boost flattering Model T sales.

The Model T also featured a 20-horsepower motor noted for its reliability, which in 1908 could travel at the then amazing speed of 45 mph when the less-than-stellar roads of the day allowed. In fact, the Model T was designed to take the punishment of deep-rutted near-impassible dirt roads then common in North America — the era of paving over the countryside to accommodate burgeoning vehicular traffic was still years in the future.

It wasn’t until over 15-million Model Ts had been produced that Ford realized consumer tastes were changing and the Model A came into existence. By this time, the world had been changed forever by Ford’s “big idea.”