Ford and the Model-T

109 years ago today, the world changed.  In the fall of 1908, the world’s first “automobile for the masses” rolled off the assembly lines ready for the public.  The Ford Motor Company’s Model-T debuted to the world.  And it went on to radically change, for good or ill, not just the way humanity went from point A to point B, but the way we work, live, and organize our cities and countries.  It and its descendants have altered practically all aspects of our lives.

Its conception and birth, however, was not so auspicious.  Henry Ford wasn’t the first to build a car.  In fact, automobiles had been around for years, but they were expensive and were essentially things that only the rich or truly dedicated could or would want to afford.

Ford wanted to change all of this.  He said:

“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”

His competitors scoffed.  His backers balked.  To pull this off, he needed to bring together engineering and economics together like never before.  He needed to make the machine simple and rugged enough for the non-gearheads to be able to use and inexpensive enough that an average middle-class American of the time could buy it.

Now, this tale isn’t about the technology and design of the Model-T, as revolutionary and ground breaking as it was.  It’s also not about the introduction of a whole new way of manufacturing consumer products, and the building of an organization around this concept, as revolutionary as that was also.  No, today’s tale is about what went into building and developing the Model-T in the first place.  And the cojones it took to do it.

When Ford went out to build the Model-T, he actually had a fairly successful car company and was selling a decent number of cars – in fact, his Model-N (and the Model-R and –S variants) were the best selling cars in America.  But these cars were not being bought by the wide, general public.  SO “best selling cars in America” really only reached a small segment of the population.  Moreover, these cars were not designed as all-purpose family cars.  They were not designed to be used by the farmer as well as the storekeeper, or the soldier or the factory worker.  The Model-T would change all of that.  It was Ford’s dream to build a car that anyone could use for anything, and this dream, everyone said, was folly.

So Ford took to creating a “skunk” team within his own company.  He brought together his best engineers and sequestered them in a special workshop on the third floor of a brick building in 461 Piquette Ave in Detroit, Michigan.  This would be his R&D lab, and his specially gathered team would be his “experimental department” to create a truly innovative car.  They would be kept out of the view of his competitors, but also the doubters and naysayers.

The design was led by Childe Harold Willis and two Hungarian immigrants, Jozsef Galamb and Eugene Farkas.  The lab was self-contained, filled with blackboards, milling presses, and all manner of industrial and mechanical devices.  To build this new car, the team would have to come up with new designs for engines, transmission, suspensions, and the like.  They’d need to figure out a new type of steel that’d be stronger and lighter than anything made in American yet (e.g. Vanadium steel).  And before Ford could figure out how to manufacture such a car in volume economical, the team would have to build a prototype that could showcase all this new technology to quell the critics.

What’s remarkable and well known is that, of course, Ford pulled it off.  What’s not so well known is that he almost didn’t.

I found this aspect of the story of the building of the Model-T in a wonderful book called Crazy Is A Compliment” by Linda Rottenberg.

By 1908, the experimental department had put together the new engine made of a single block of metal with separate bolt down cylinder heads on top.  The design was innovative, so much so that the engine would actually sometimes outlive the car in many people’s homes, sheds, and farms.  This design is also essentially the same framework that internal combustion engines would follow to the modern day.

Ford’s team had assembled the chassis and all they had to do was to bring the two together to create a working prototype that could effectively show what lay in store for the future of the automobile.

Inside the “Experimental Department”

So in early 1908 forty members of Ford’s secret team and many of his critics gathered for the ceremonial assembling of the first prototype.  Workers wrapped the engine in fifty feet of rope, hoisted it into the air and slowly lowered it into the awaiting chassis.

The Model-T engine.

As the engine lowered, it started to slowly wobble and spin.  The workers try to steady it but to no avail.  The engine continued to spin faster and faster.  Soon, the rope that held the engine aloft was stretched to the breaking point until – it broke.  The engine, and possibly the future of the whole company, smashed into a million pieces on the shop floor.

While everyone stared the disaster dumbstruck, Ford stepped onto the floor and calmly announced that he’d personally build a replacement engine and the project would proceed without interruption.

This took some major stones to say.  He had already spent a significant amount of capital and time, diverting resources and manpower on this secret project.  He had yet to show any functioning prototype.  His best hope to show such a prototype lay in a million pieces.  But he had such confidence in the innovations, the new designs, and on his team that he felt compunction to state to the world “no worries, we’ll just make it again”.  His critics were not so confident, but he’d prove them wrong.

In October of 1908, Ford finally unveiled the completed Model-T, and he went on to sell more than 16 million units of the car.  The Model-T brought the automobile to the general population and helped to transform everything from the personal economics of the farmer and the housewife, to the way entire cities were designed.  The Model-T sold well into the 1920s, often seeing life well beyond its use as a family vehicle.  The engine was even more popular, being retrofitted and recycled to run tractors, combines, even early aircraft.

When Ford first announced he wanted to build a car for the masses, he was ridiculed and derided, even called a socialist for wanting to democratize the automobile.  The Model-T, as much as it was a technological and industrial innovation for its time, was also a giant “screw you” to the industrialists and elites of Ford’s age.  It was also a giant “screw you, you just watch me” to anyone who said it couldn’t be done.  That Ford simply owned the disaster of the smashed engine and brushed it off to forge full steam ahead is what made him a business titan.



Crazy Is A Compliment by Linda Rottenberg