Robert Lacey.
Ford, The Men and the Machine

New York: Ballentine

1986

[excerpts]

[pages 93-104]

CHAPTER 6

MODEL T

I will build a motor 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.

HENRY FORD, 1907

 

Henry Ford's car for the people, the car that was to make him famous, and which was to transform the face of America, was an unusual notion in 1907. It sprang from Henry's populist instincts, his chip on the shoulder which resented the rich and fat's monopoly on the good life, and from his generous, almost didactic impulse to share the joy of machines with the world.

Yet the idea was not unique to Henry Ford. Other car makers had tried to manufacture an inexpensive, mass-produced car. Henry's ambition was distinguished by generating the technology, the solid engineering innovations, to make it happen.

In 1905 Henry was at a race meeting, watching Malcomson's beloved Model K, the company's top-of-the-range six-cylinder heavyweight, when there was a smashup involving a French racer. Henry had been noticing for some time how certain components of European cars seemed to be much lighter and stronger than their American equivalents, and now, examining the wreckage of the French car, he picked up a little valve strip stem which was exceptionally light and tough.

"That is the kind of material we ought to have in our cars," he said, and he initiated an inquiry into precisely what sort of steel the valve strip stem was made of. It turned out to be an alloy of vanadium, which no American foundry then knew how to incorporate into steel. Making vanadium alloy required a furnace heat of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and ordinary furnaces could not get above 2,700.

Henry found a small steel company in Canton, Ohio, to experiment with the process:

I offered to guarantee them against loss if they would run a heat for us. They agreed. The first heat was a failure. Very little vanadium remained in the steel. I had them try again, and the second time the steel came through. Until then we had been forced to be satisfied with steel running between 60,00 and 70,000 pounds tensile strength. With vanadium the strength went up to 170,000 pounds.

In March 1907, Ford took delivery of what the company claimed to be the first shipment of vanadium steel made in America. Produced in Canton exclusively for Ford cars, it had ten times the tensile strength of metal that the Carnegie Steel Company was currently turning out for armour-plate experiments.

"Vanadium steel resists shock," reported the Detroit Journal,"---either on blow or a series of lighter ones, or minute vibrations. . . to a greater extent than any other metal."

The first Ford to benefit from the use of vanadium steel was the Model N, a robust open car developed from the models A, C, and F, and unveiled in January 1906. On New Year's Day, James Couzens announced that the new car would cost only $450, and that the Ford Motor Company would be producing 10,000 Model N's every year:

We are making 40,000 cylinders, 10,000 engines, 40,000 wheels, 20,000 axles, 10,000 bodies, 10,000 of every part that goes into the car---think of it! Such quantities were never heard of before.

In January 1906, the Ford Motor Company was still entangled with Alex Malcomson. The coal merchant was fighting to hang on to the company he had started, and he did not, in fact, relinquish his shares until May of that year. But Henry Ford and James Conzens already felt confident of their eventual victory, and the proclamation of the Model N was their defiant assertion of the new direction they were now going to take.

Mass production was a long-established tradition in American industry: Singer sewing machines, McCormick reapers, the small-arms manufacturing of Samuel Colt. Now Ford and Couzens were proposing to apply mass production to the car industry for the first time in a thoroughgoing way. Ransom E. Olds had managed to turn out 5,000 of his "Merry Oldsmobiles" in 1903 before his backers took his company upmarket. In 1906, Ford and Couzens were aiming at double that.

They soon discovered that mass production was easier said than done. In the absence of the moving assembly line which was, eventually, to prove the secret to the smooth production of cars in bulk, they had to go for sheer weight of numbers: more workstations, more men, more machines. They had more than doubled their own capacity, thanks to the workshops of the Ford Manufacturing Company, but when Model N production started in the spring of 1906, it was still a two-legged operation, as it had been from the start with the Dodge brothers. The engines and chassis were produced in the manufacturing workshops, then moved over to be assembled at the Piquette Avenue plant.

It was autumn before all the logistics of men and machinery had been worked out properly, and Ford and Conzens found it was impossible to hold the price of $450 which had been their objective. They tried to stick below$500, and then $550, but in the end the Model N came out at $600.

Still, even at this price, the first of Henry Ford's cars for the people represented better value than anything else on the market. The Model N had a compact and rugged four-cylinder engine, the first time an inexpensive car had ever had such a strong power unit. Its ignition, developed by Spider Huff along with Ford and Wills, still was not perfect, but it was the basis of an electrical system superior to any of the competition. Above all, the Model N was a comparatively light car, and it got lighter over the months as Henry Ford and Harold Wills worked vanadium steel into its components.

It seemed obvious that Ford should set up its own metallurgical laboratory to further its expertise with vanadium and other alloys, and Harold Wills, who had taken a special interest in the vanadium breakthrough, proposed that this be headed by a qualified scientist. Henry Ford disagreed. "Make an expert of Wandersee!" he said, John Wandersee being a mechanic who had started his career with Ford sweeping the factory floor.

Throughout his career, the Dearborn boy who had left the one-room schoolhouse before he was fifteen was touchy on the subject of higher education. It was much overrated, in his opinion---job seekers who touted their university qualifications to Henry Ford invariably received short shrift---and John Wandersee proved the point. Cars for the people, by the people. The former factory-floor sweeper went away for three months' training, and on his return, he set up and ran a set of metallurgical laboratories for Ford which remained, for many years, the foremost in America.

After its initial production delays, the Model N eventually vindicated all that had been hoped for by Ford and Couzens---as well as proving the wisdom of their split with Malcomson. In the twelve months up to September 1906, when the company had been offering quite a range of models, they had sold only 1,599 cars---96 less than they had sold in the previous year. But dropping almost everything to concentrate on the mass-produced Model N, they achieved spectacular results. By September 30 1907, they had sold a total of 8,243 cars, almost five times more than in their best year ever. This brought them a gross return of $4,701,298, and for the first time, an annual profit of over $1 million. Henry redesigned the Model N to produce an upmarket version, the Model R; and further tinkerings were incorporated into a vehicle with a single-seat tonneau to the rear: the Model S. By the sales season of 1908, the Ford Motor Company had just seven letters to go before they would reach the end of the alphabet.

Soon after the 1905 move to Piquette Avenue, Henry Ford had offered a job to an ambitious young woodworker of Danish birth, Charles E. Sorensen. Ford had got to know Sorensen in 1902 while he was working on his racer 999, for the young Dane, muscular and athletic, was a bicycling friend of Tom Cooper, and Cooper had brought Sorensen in on the project to make models---or"patterns"---of various components out of wood.

Henry Ford liked this. Never very happy with blueprints, he found it so much easier to work three-dimensionally, and he hired Sorensen---at $3 a day---to bring his pattern-making skills to the Ford Motor Company. As Henry worked on refinements to the Model N, he came to rely quite heavily on Sorensen's ability to convert his ideas and rough sketches into solid form, and early one morning in the winter of 1906-07, he turned up as usual in the pattern-making department.

"Come with me, Charlie," he said, "I want to show you something."

Ford led Sorensen to the top floor of the building, one end of which had not been occupied by assembly work.

"I'd like to have a room finished off right here in this space," he said. "Put up a wall with a door in big enough to run a car in and out. Get a good lock for the door.... We're going to start a completely new job."

Charles E. Sorensen always dated the inspiration for the Model T Ford from Henry's experiments with vanadium and heat-treated steels. These had demonstrated how it was possible to build a car that was stronger, lighter, and faster than any that had been built before, and while these new steel alloys were first tried out in parts of the Model N, they were now to be deployed much more ambitiously in the "completely new job" that was taking shape behind the locked door at the top northern end of Piquette Avenue.

Joseph Galamb, a gifted young Hungarian engineer who had worked in German automobile plants before coming to Detroit, was in charge of the think tank.

"Mr. Ford first sketched out on the blackboard his idea of the design he wanted," remembered Galamb later. "He would come in at seven or eight o'clock at night to see how they were getting along. "

By the end of the year the team was working till ten or eleven every night.

"Mr. Ford followed out the design very closely," said Galamb," and was there practically all the time. There was a rocking chair in the room in which he used to sit for hours and hours at a time, discussing and following out the development of the design."

The rocking chair had belonged to Henry's mother.

The Model N's four-cylinder engine had been an innovation in the low-priced field, but the engine itself had not been that simple. Each enclosed cylinder had been cast separately, then bolted together. " Henry Ford's idea for the Model T was that the core of the power unit should be one single casting that contained all four cylinders. After Sorensen had struggled for some time with the practical difficulties of this, Henry came up with a further suggestion: why not slice the block off across the top?"

Thus was born the basic configuration of the modern internal-combustion engine: the single cylinder block with a separate, bolt-down cylinder head on top. Open at top and bottom the block could be machined and manufactured to close tolerances, and it made for an arrangement that was easy to service.

Henry wanted something strong and flexible in the way of gears. The teeth on the soft steel transmission cogs used in many cars of the day were easily stripped, so Joseph Galamb refined quite an old, pre-automotive gearing system which involved continuously circulating fabric bands---the system which Ford had already been using on its previous models. Henry never believed in novelty for its own sake. The moving-band system was less obviously strong than an all-steel transmission, but it was much lighter, and since it did not rely on resistance, it was also immensely more durable. Sorensen made wooden models of the gearing wheels involved, and he showed them to Henry Ford.

"First designs were way oversize on what Mr. Ford thought they should be," remembered Sorensen. "It was astonishing to see how closely he sensed the sizes required for the different gears."

From these experiments came the Model T's memorable "planetary" transmission, a primitive sort of automatic gear worked by three foot-pedals: a brake, a pedal for forward, and a pedal for reverse. Orchestrating them was an acquired art, rather like playing the organ. The whole body was engaged. But once mastered, all sorts of tricks became available---notably the capacity to shoot straight from forward into reverse, thus making it possible to "rock" the car out of a pothole.

Spider Huff worked, as usual, on the electrics, coming up with a heavy flywheel studded with sixteen copper coils and magnets---a magneto---which would, for the first time in a low-priced car, produce sparks for the cylinders. Until this date, dry batteries had usually supplied the sparks for auto engines, and Huff's magneto meant that the Model T, when well tuned, could actually start and operate without a battery of any sort. When tested on the road, however, Huff's ingenious device kept failing---until Henry Ford came into the workroom one day with several large maple syrup boiling kettles that he had brought in from Dearborn.

"Charlie," he said, "the trouble with that plate [the magneto] is that we have not insulated it properly."'

Sorensen and Ford worked on the syrup kettles to turn them into pressure cookers, put the magnetos inside, and then pressure-packed the kettles with heavy impregnating varnish of the type used at this time for electrical insulation. They then removed the varnished-soaked magneto, placed it in a paint baking oven, waited six hours, and observed the result. The varnish had totally hardened in and around the magneto coils, rather like a modern plastic coating, and there were no insulation problems with the device again.

"Mr. Ford and I worked about forty-two hours without letup," remembered Charles E. Sorensen, "from the time we started until the job was complete."

For more than a year Henry Ford laboured, night and day, with his helpers in the room at the top of the Piquette Avenue plant. As Galamb and Sorensen both remembered it, he was involved in everything: the electrics, the transmission, the four-cylinder block, and the extensive use of vanadium steel. When the team looked at the crankshaft made of the new alloy, they could not believe it would work. It seemed so frail and small compared to any other crankshaft they had seen. But when they gave it a shock test, it easily withstood double the load that it would get in the actual operation of the engine. "

Now approaching his mid-forties---he celebrated his forty-fifth birthday three months before the Model T was unveiled--- Henry Ford was at the height of his powers. He had consolidated control of his company, and he had also consolidated control of himself. He was tinkering, playing, and testing as he had a dozen years earlier in his spare room at the Edison plant, but now he had the money to try just about anything---special forgings, wooden models, impact tests. He had built up a team which, though largely self-taught like himself, ranked among the finest automotive engineers in Detroit---and Henry himself was seeing so sharp and so true. He threw himself into every detail, insisting on getting small things absolutely right, going for innovation when it tested properly, but sticking to the tried-and-true when it did not. He never lost sight of the ultimate, overall objective. He had a vision of what his new car should look like. From all the improvisation, hard thought, and hard work came a machine that was at once the simplest and the most sophisticated automobile built to date anywhere in the world. When advance circulars for the Model T were sent out to Ford dealers in the spring of 1908, the reception of the claims made on behalf of the car verged on incredulity.

"We must say it is almost too good to be true," wrote a Detroit dealer to the company, while an Illinois agent seems to have treated the thing as a huge joke. "We have carefully hidden the sheets away and locked the drawer, throwing the key down the cold-air shaft. " The dealer's anxiety appears to have been that if the Model T was really as good as Henry Ford said it was, and if his customers found out, then he would not be able to off-load his existing stocks of the Model N.

When the car finally went on the market at the beginning of October 1908,the wildest predictions were fulfilled. The first public advertisements for the Model T appeared on a Friday, and "Saturday's mail," reported the Ford Times, "brought nearly one thousand enquiries. Monday's response swamped our mail clerks and by Tuesday night, the office was well nigh inundated."

Orders flooded in, with hard cash, and by the end of the winter Ford had to announce that the company could not take any more. They had sufficient advance orders to consume the entire factory output until the following August---and by the end of September 1909, more than 10,000 cars had been sold, bringing in over $9 million, a 60 percent increase on the turnover of the previous year.

The immediate appeal of the Model T was based, as Henry Ford had intended, on its sturdiness, power, and value for money. It was not really that inexpensive as yet---reductions in price were to come in later years, with increases in production. In 1908 the car cost $825, which was quite a substantial price when compared to the average teacher's annual salary of $850. When adjusted to modern values, the sticker on a Model T Ford would work out today at around $9,400. (Ford's closest modern equivalent in terms of size and capacity, the Ford Tempo, retails at just under $7,000 )

There were cheaper cars on the market in 1908, but not one could offer such a combination of innovation and reliability, making the Model T genuinely state-of-the-art. The formidable four-cylinder power unit, the semi-automatic planetary transmission, the magneto which did away with the need for heavy, dry-storage batteries---all these were new, as was the fact that the transmission, axles, and general workings of the car were completely enclosed and protected against rain, dust, and knocks by lightweight steel casings.

These pressed-steel stamping were engineering breakthroughs in themselves. They came from a Buffalo machine shop, the John R. Keim Mills, which had illustrated the creative possibilities of the relationship between car manufacturer and supplier. Keim's engineers had wondered whether they could apply their steel-stamping techniques to automotive parts, had approached Ford with the idea, and had then worked with Harold Wills and Charles Sorensen to perfect the stampings for the Model T. At this stage in his career, Henry Ford was not too proud to accept ideas from elsewhere.

There was scarcely a component of the Model T which did not contain some fresh development to excite automotive enthusiasts, but the guiding theme of all of them was simplicity---and this was Henry Ford's supreme contribution to his supreme creation.

Ford's gift was to cut through to the essence of things, to disentangle complexities, to plough through detail to arrive at the unvarnished idea at the back of his head. Ordinary motorists did not need to know about the tensile strength of vanadium steel, nor the mysteries of the planetary transmission. They just knew that their Ford stood up to bumps, and that it did not strip its gears.

"No car under $2000 offers more," proclaimed the Model T's advertising, and for once, in the long and dishonourable history of automobile advertising, the claim was absolutely correct. Hard thinking, imaginative innovation, and thorough testing had produced a vehicle that was to prove more than just a means of transportation: it was to provide America, and the world, with a whole new way of life.

One of the attributes of the Model T was its ability to inspire affection in its drivers. People gave it a name, usually female---though not invariably so. When E. B. White was a young writer just out of Cornell in the early 1920s, he decided to drive across America in search of work and raw material, and for the expedition he purchased a Model T, which he christened Hot spur.

Starting the Model T's engine, White later remembered, was a ritual all its own. You had to be careful not to put your thumb around the starting handle. If you did, you risked breaking an arm or wrist:

The trick was to leave the ignition switch off, proceed to the animal's head, pull the choke (which was a little wire protruding through the radiator) and give the crank two or three nonchalant upward lifts. Then, whistling as though thinking about something else, you would saunter back to the driver's cabin, turn the ignition on, return to the crank, and this time catching it on the down stroke, give it a quick spin with plenty of That. If this procedure was followed, the engine almost always responded---first with a few scattered explosions, then with a tumultuous gunfire, which you checked by racing around to the driver's seat and retarding the throttle. Often, if the emergency brake hadn't been pulled all the way back, the car advanced on you the instant the first explosion occurred and you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can skill feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.

The nuzzling came from the planetary transmission, which gave the Model T a constant, trembling impulse to move forward, even when the car was in neutral. This may have been why people felt that their Model T had a personality which they wished to enhance. White remembered how, the moment he acquired Hotspur, he drove straight to the blacksmith to have his army trunk fixed to the running board with two iron brackets. Supplying accessories for the car became an industry in its own right: A Ruby Safety Reflector for a glowing red rear, radiator "Motor Wings" for a Pegasus touch in the front, a set of antirattlers (98 cents), and a rearview mirror. The list was endless. At the height of the Model T's popularity in the early 1920s, the Sears, Roebuck catalogue featured no less than 5,000 different items that could be bolted, screwed, or strapped to the vehicle.

It was partly that the car emerged almost naked from the showroom: the original models came without speedometer, windshield wipers, or even doors, and the gas gauge was a long thin stick that you had to find for yourself and insert in the tank. But perhaps it was also because, when confronted with the first truly standardised machine for individual conveyance, human nature felt an irresistible need to personalise it.

The Model T turned out to be exactly what was needed by a restless population trying to fill up a continent. Farmers took to it in large numbers. The car had quite extraordinary suspension, two huge, crude, transverse springs, one in the front, one in the back. These springs were little more sophisticated, from the engineering point of view, than the suspension on the average hay wagon, but this suited them ideally to the rutted mud and gravel roads of the time. When E. B. White travelled across the continent as late as 1922, he encountered not a single inch of made-up roadway all the way from Minnesota to Spokane, Washington, a distance of more than 1,000 miles; and when Edsel Ford travelled from Detroit to San Francisco in 1915 on a similar expedition, he encountered conditions that were still worse: potholes, fissures, clouds of dust, and ceaseless bumping.

These were the conditions for which the Model T was designed, and which it so triumphantly overcame with its transverse springs and wobbly, almost double-jointed wheels. Many car makers of the time aimed at rigidity, but the Model T was so flexible that if you drove it diagonally across railroad tracks, you would actually feel it bend. It was the car of rural America, the twentieth-century equivalent of the covered wagon---and until the 1920s America was still very much a rural society. Almost as soon as the Ford Motor Company started making money, Henry Ford had started trying to develop a tractor, transferring the mechanics of the Model A and its successors to primitive machines which he tried out on land he bought at Dearborn. As his motorcar components succeeded or failed in these tough, demanding test beds, so the Model T took shape. A machine that could not work on the land was not a real machine, to Henry Ford's mind ---hence the resilient steel, the one-piece cylinder block which could not shake to pieces, and those springs.

Henry Ford took great delight in demonstrating how his beloved Model T was the farmer's friend. He would cock it up on one side and remove a wheel in order to run a power belt from the exposed hub to a circular saw or corn husker, as if the car was old 345 reincarnated. But the American farmer had no need of such a lesson. He knew that he had found a friend the day that his Model T got him into town in half an hour---and the same went for the farmer's wife.

"You know, Henry," wrote a farmer's wife to him from Rome, Georgia, in 1918, "your car lifted us out of the mud. It brought joy into our lives. We loved every rattle in its bones. "

A woman need no longer be imprisoned in the farmhouse, or in any other house. The Model T could take her to the shops, to a job, to study. Gertrude Stein loved her Model T, demonstrating her liberation by driving it through the snow and the mud of Flanders, where she served as a volunteer nurse during the First World War [1], and she delighted in mechanical discussions. According to Ernest Hemingway, Stein's famous phrase about a lost generation, une génération perdue, originally came from a French garage owner's diatribe against a young mechanic who had failed to look after Miss Stein's Ford properly.

By the end of the First World War, Ford had achieved such dominance of the automobile market in North America---and virtually everywhere else in the world---that almost half the cars on earth were Model T's. More than 15 million of them were produced before Henry finally shut down the line in 1927. They swarmed everywhere, transforming the way people lived and thought and had fun---family outings, picnics, lovers' trysts. The freedom which the car offered loosened existing ties and created new ones. Together with radio, it was the people's car which transformed America from a continent of separate settlements into one vast neighbourhood.


NOTE: The author is waxing poetic here. Gertrude Stein was no nurse and actually drove a supply truck for the American Fund for French Wounded --- in the south of France, far from the snow and mud of Flanders.