The Model T Turns 100!
On October 1, 1908, the Ford Motor Company introduced one of the most famous and influential products in the history of American business. By the time the last Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1927, it had made the company and its founder famous, wealthy, and powerful—and altered American society forever. While long hailed for his innovations in mass production, Ford’s genius also lay in his ability to define clearly what Americans wanted in an automobile and then to build it using a combination of established and cutting-edge technologies.
The Model T debuted when the American automobile industry was only a dozen years old. Charles and Frank Duryea of Springfield, Massachusetts, had become the first Americans to build a series of automobiles for sale in 1896, kick-starting a flourishing industry that had sold some 63,500 cars in 1908. That year Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal listed 166 makers of “pleasure cars”—that is, vehicles not designed for commercial use. Yet the automotive landscape remained a muddle: no particular size or price range clearly dominated. There was uncertainty not merely about the right combination of size, power, and features, but also a deep confusion about the ultimate purpose of automobiles. As one historian later put it, “At stake were not only the forms motor-vehicle technology would take, but also the social ends it would serve. How, where, and with what effects, should people use the new machines?” In 1906 Woodrow Wilson denounced automobiles as fomenting socialism by their display of luxury in places where wealth was not otherwise flaunted.
Henry Ford thought he knew what kind of vehicle Americans wanted. In 1906 he wrote to The Automobile magazine that the “greatest need today is a light, low priced car with an up-to-date engine with ample horsepower, and built of the very best material . . . It must be powerful enough for American roads and capable of carrying its passengers anywhere that a horse-drawn vehicle will go without the driver being afraid of ruining his car.”Ford’s genius lay in his ability to define clearly what Americans wanted in an automobile
Ford had been born near Dearborn, Michigan, in 1863, and he built his first vehicle, the Ford Quadricycle, in 1896 while still the chief engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit. Three years later, he left Edison to launch the short-lived Detroit Automobile Company, and he founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903. Ford had natural mechanical abilities, but when he created the Model T, he used an approach he had been developing since childhood. In elementary school he had induced his friends to assist him with projects like damming a small stream to power a waterwheel or building a rudimentary boiler and steam turbine. The friends did most of the work, but they followed Henry’s directions. At least four men—Jim Bishop, George Cato, Ed “Spider” Huff, and David Bell—assisted Ford when he built the Quadricycle. Bell later recalled that he “never saw Mr. Ford make anything. He was always doing the directing.” One of Ford’s greatest talents was his ability to envision a product or process, articulate it to others (who often brought talents and skills that Ford himself lacked), and imbue them with the desire to realize his vision.
The Ford Motor Company had particular success with the Model N, an inexpensive car it introduced in 1906. When it came time to create the Model N’s successor, Ford assembled a small group of well-trained, mechanically adept young men. C. Harold Wills, a toolmaker who studied chemistry and metallurgy at night, was just 21 when he joined Ford at the Detroit Automobile Company in 1899. Hungarian immigrant Joseph Galamb brought a degree in industrial technology from the Royal Joseph University in Budapest, an expressive style as a draftsman, and experience in a variety of German and American industrial plants. Wills had hired him at age 24 in 1905, the same year that Ford brought aboard the 24-year-old, Danish-born Charles Sorensen, with a wealth of experience as a foundry pattern maker. “Spider” Huff may have had the least education of all the Model T’s creators, but one of his contemporaries described him as a genius. He had been only 16 when he worked on Ford’s Quadricycle in 1896, and was only 28 when he designed the T’s magneto.
The unsung hero in the Model T story may be the English metallurgical engineer J. Kent Smith, who demonstrated to Ford the advantages of vanadium alloy steel. Ford claimed that he had first encountered the light but strong metal when he picked up a part from a wrecked French racing car. More prosaically, Wills said that he learned about the alloy at a 1905 engineering conference. Sorensen reported that information about vanadium steel developments in England was available in engineering journals by that year. Whatever the truth, Ford was intrigued by the possibilities of a steel touted as being lighter and stronger than the standard carbon alloy. Smith visited Ford’s Detroit factory on Piquette Avenue in 1906 and discussed the new alloy with Ford and Wills; Ford then visited Smith’s laboratory in Canton, Ohio, where tests demonstrated its qualities. Ford acted quickly, adopting it for axles and gears in the 1907 Model N and Model K; it would play a much bigger role in the Model T.
Early in 1907 Ford ordered the construction of a room in the northeast corner of the Piquette Avenue plant’s third floor, behind whose padlocked door he installed Joe Galamb and his drafting table. Besides Galamb, only a handful of people had access to the room: Wills, machinist C. J. Smith, Ford himself and his 14-year¬old son, Edsel, and perhaps Sorensen. Together they created the Model T in that room.
Development proceeded straightforwardly. Ford brought his ideas and concepts. Galamb drew them, often on a blackboard. Ford and his colleagues critiqued the designs and made changes. At some point Ford moved in a lathe, a milling machine, and other machine tools. Smith machined some prototype parts, Sorensen made others from wood patterns, and some were cast in metal. As Galamb noted, Ford “liked to see a model working first. He didn’t like to go just by the blueprint. He never did. He always liked to have a sample made first.” A Model N chassis provided the initial test bed for prototype parts, but by October 1907 two hand-built Model Ts were ready for testing.
Ford believed that Americans wanted a light car, and the finished Model T touring car fit the bill, weighing only 1,200 pounds. No other popular four-passenger car came close. The Buick Model 10 Tourabout ($1,050) weighed 1,570 pounds, and the Overland Model 32 Toy Tonneau ($1,500) was 1,750 pounds. Even flimsy “high wheelers” based on carriage designs exhibited little advantage over the Model T. The four-passenger version of the popular Holsman ($740) weighed only a hundred pounds less.
Without question, the Model T’s engine met Ford’s requirements to be “up-to-date” and have “ample horsepower,” its most striking features being its one-piece cylinder block and its detachable cylinder head. Most contemporary cars, regard less of cost, used cylinders cast singly or in pairs and bolted to a separate crankcase, resulting in large, heavy, and expensive engines.
Horseless Age noted that, among the cars exhibited at the 1909 Grand Central Palace show in New York, only 7 percent had engines cast in one piece, the only such American car being Ford’s. The detachable cylinder head was even more unusual. As late as 1911, a standard treatise on gasoline automobiles mentioned only two American cars with detachable heads: the Ford and the much more expensive Knox. The Ford’s removable head offered advantages for both producer and consumer. The separate block and head were simpler and cheaper to cast and machine than the typical one-piece units, and they also made maintenance tasks such as grinding the valves easier to perform.
The Model T engine’s 20 horsepower hardly seems “ample” today, but it made the 1,200-pound Ford a lively performer. Typical American cars of the day weighed about 80 pounds for each horsepower. The Model T’s 60 pounds per horsepower stacked up well against that of expensive cars, such as the Thomas Flyer, which won the New York-to-Paris race in 1908. The Thomas weighed 64 pounds for each horsepower, but it cost $3,500.
The Model T was indeed “built of the very best material.” Vanadium steel played an important part, but so did the company’s own heat-treating techniques. Relying on his instinct for yet unrealized talent, Ford picked out John Wandersee, a man with no previous experience in metallurgy, who, working with August Degener under Wills’s supervision, was able to establish methods for treating vanadium and other alloys with heat so as to tailor their chemical composition and physical characteristics for particular uses. These efforts yielded strong, tough parts that were no larger or heavier than they needed to be.
Ford was preparing his car for a country with dreadful roads. To deal with ubiquitous deep ruts in the winter and mud baths in the spring and fall, Ford gave the Model T 10 inches of clearance between the road surface and the vehicle’s lowest point on the chassis. Harder to solve was the problem of creating a chassis capable of absorbing punishment. Most carmakers resorted to building big, strong, rigid frames. But that approach conflicted with Ford’s objective of making his car inexpensive as well as light. Instead, Ford’s team designed a chassis that could absorb pounding without coming apart. Drawing on experience gained with the Models B and N, they based the new car’s suspension and engine mounting on a series of triangles. The Model T’s front suspension had a single leaf spring that allowed the axle and wheels to move with the contours of the road. The axle and the two stiffeners known as radius rods formed a triangle that kept the axle ends from moving back and forth and prevented the axle from twisting about its own axis. The Model N had used a similar system, and Ford transferred it to the Model T with little significant change.
The major addition to the rear axles was a driveshaft that connected the transmission to the differential housing. A tubular housing known as a torque tube enclosed the driveshaft and was connected to the transmission by a universal joint. As with the front suspension, the triangle formed by the radius rods and the axle permitted the axle ends to move up and down but not back and forth and kept the axle from twisting. Versions of this arrangement had appeared in the Models B and N, only with two parallel elliptical springs rather than the single transverse spring.
The final triangle involved the Ford motor itself. On most cars of the day, the motor was mounted to the frame at four points, two on each side. When ruts or bumps twisted the frame, the movement was transmitted directly to the motor, sometimes breaking the mounts. Ford engineers attached their motors at only three points: two in the rear and one in the front. The front mount was not rigid; it was a cylindrical bearing that rested in a trunnion mounted on the frame’s front cross- member. Thus when rutted road conditions wrenched the frame, the twist was not transferred to the motor. This arrangement improved on the system developed for the Model N, which lacked the front bearing and trunnion and sometimes suffered from broken front cross-members. These three sets of flexible mountings proved essential to the Model T’s success and longevity. Like a reed bending in the wind, the Ford chassis twisted with the ruts, holes, and bumps of American roads but did not break.
Ford’s twin lodestones of simplicity and light weight also drove the development of two of the Model T’s most idiosyncratic features: its transmission and its magneto. The internal combustion engine has one inherent weakness as an automobile power plant: it delivers its maximum driving effort—what engineers call torque—at high speeds and its minimum torque at low speeds. But an automobile needs maximum torque when starting from rest (zero speed) and needs much less at higher speeds, thus requiring some arrangement of gears or pulleys (the transmission) to increase torque to the driving wheels at low speeds and decrease it at high speeds. It also requires some device (the clutch) to temporarily disconnect the engine from the transmission when the car stops or when the driver shifts gears from one speed to another. Both clutch and transmission posed major design challenges for early automobile builders.
The most popular form of transmission was the sliding gear, in which a lever moved spinning gears from one position to another. Making these changes smoothly, quietly, and without damage to the moving parts themselves required practiced, coordinated movement of the lever, clutch, and engine throttle. An alternative was the planetary transmission, whose gears were always meshed. Drivers changed speeds by means of brakes (usually called bands) that stopped or released the shafts connected to the gears. Planetary transmissions were easy to shift but were generally not rugged enough to use in larger cars, and at the time were limited to two forward speeds. All previous Ford Motor Company vehicles had planetary transmissions, and so would the Model T. Even though such transmissions were falling out of favor, Ford knew that people with no driving experience would prefer the easy-to-learn planetary transmission over the more complicated sliding gear transmission.
The most original element in the Model T’s design was probably the flywheel magneto, which generated the electricity that ignited the gasoline/air mixture inside the engine’s cylinders. The magneto (and all electrical generators) worked on a principle first documented by Michael Faraday in 1831. When a coil of wire passes through a magnetic field (or vice versa), an electric current is induced in the coil. Most automotive magnetos were discrete de-vices mounted under the hood of a car and driven from the engine with a belt or gears. Ford’s solution was characteristically lighter and more compact. He built the magneto into his engine flywheel. The flywheel itself carried 16 V-shaped permanent magnets, while 16 wire coils were fixed in a circle at the rear of the engine. As the flywheel revolved, the magnet’s fields passed through the coils, generating the needed current.
This basic concept went back at least as far as December 1903, when engineer Vincent G. Apple tried out a flywheel magneto on a 1903 Ford engine. Ford and Apple never came to an agreement, so Ford moved on. In 1904 Charles Marie Francois Alfière received a French patent on a flywheel magneto closely resembling the final Model T device; it may have influenced Ford’s efforts. The job of designing the Model T magneto fell to “Spider” Huff, who worked as an outside consultant, not as an employee of Ford Motor. He spent over a year developing a reliable magneto. In the end, Ford mounted the engine, magneto, and transmission together end to end, enclosed as a compact, lightweight, oil- tight, dust-tight package.
Curiously, no record survives explaining the decision to put the Model T’s steering wheel on the left side of the car. All previous Fords had had right- hand steering, the standard arrangement for American cars. Perhaps the company’s own advertising best explains Ford’s reasoning. A 1909 Ford brochure illustrated the advantages of having the passenger, in this case a woman, enter and exit a Ford from the curb (right-hand) side, away from the traffic and the muddy street. The text also explained that left-hand driving allowed the driver to judge more accurately the distance between the driver’s car and one passing in the opposite direction, and gave the driver a better view of oncoming or overtaking traffic when passing or turning left. Over the next few years, no doubt because of the Model T’s vast popularity, left- hand steering became standard in the United States.
The first running prototype Model Ts rolled out of the Piquette plant in October 1907, and the company tinkered with the car for another year, even after serial production began. The Model T had its first great shakedown trip in late September 1908, when Ford drove one of the prototypes from Detroit to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula by way of Chicago and Milwaukee, a 1,357-mile round trip. The most significant problem on the trip was a punctured tire. The Model T’s fundamental design was clearly sound. It was time to stop testing and to start building and selling.
Henry Ford’s Model T turned out to be an earthshaking technological device. It filled deep, abiding desires that most people barely knew they had — desires for rapid, unfettered mobility; for control of something powerful; for ownership of something valuable, modern, and complex. Ford understood the public’s latent attraction for automobiles and believed that a capable and inexpensive automobile was the key to tapping into that attraction. His product aligned with the times so perfectly that its sales made him the richest man in America. Yet before the Model T reached the end of its long production run, Ford experienced doubts about the consequences of what he had wrought. We share those doubts today and add many of our own. But we also continue to share the same desires that motivated Ford’s customers in the first place.
Adapted from The Model T A Centennial History by Robert Casey. © 2008 The Henry Ford. Published with permission of The Johns Hopkins University Press.