Clunkers & Creampuffs


Chapter 2: Ford's Model T and the Masses (1908-1927)

by James M. Flammang

Ford launched the Model T in 1908
with a hefty $850 price tag, but
price soon began downward slide.

Back in 1923, a Ford ad touted a $265 runabout "for the Young Business Man." (That budding entrepreneur appears to be selling magazine subscriptions – evidently considered an appropriate "business" in that day.)

One year later, a different Ford ad promoted a sedan for use by the businesswoman. While the Model T may never have been quite the car for "everyone," more and more potential customers had to be sought as it passed its phenomenal selling peak and entered its declining years in the marketplace.

Debuting on October 1, 1908, the first Model T Ford cost $850. By 1916, the cheapest version (a runabout or roadster) was down to just $345, while the touring car went for $360. According to historian John Rae, the Model T reached its lowest selling price of $290 in 1926, near the end of its two-decade run.

During its first full year of production (1909), a modest 12,000 Model Ts came out of the Ford factory: less than 10 percent of total American production that year, which came to 124,000 autos. In 1913, with the introduction of the moving assembly line, 182,000 of the 462,000 automobiles sold were Fords. By the end of the teens, Ford was making fully half of the cars produced in America.

As early as the turn of the century, observers of the growing auto business were talking about cars for the average man – and the average family. Most of them were not referring to the workingman, or everyman, of course. They meant the average well-to-do man: the refined gentleman, who could truly appreciate such a wondrous device as the automobile and put it to proper use.

Advertised as "the universal car" and often referred to as "the people's car," the Model T was clearly promoted to suggest its appeal – and availability – to the masses. Affectionately referred to as the "flivver" or "tin lizzie," the down-to-basics Ford obviously served as the entry into motordom for many.

Yet, those who insist that the Model T singlehandedly provided transport for the masses generally write from a middle-class perspective. They often discount completely the folks on the bottom who never could buy a new Ford, even at its lowest selling price. At least not without destroying the family budget and taking food from the dinner table. Even when installment buying came into prominence, low-income people were hardly likely prospects.

See Chapter 4 for more on installment buying

The first thousand Model T Fords had just two pedals to control the planetary transmission. All subsequent versions had three: one for high/low propulsion, a second for reverse, and a third that acted as a brake on the transmission. Under the hood, the 177 cubic-inch (2.9-liter) four-cylinder engine developed a modest 20 horsepower. Assessing the Model T decades later, the Wards trade magazine noted that it was the first production car with left-hand steering.

Model Ts often are thought to have been offered only in a single color: black. That was true for most of the model's lifespan, but other hues were available in the earliest years.

To the uninitiated, operating a Model T might not sound so easy, but driving ease was a strong selling point. A high stance made the T suitable for rough rural unpaved roads and rutted pathways. Lack of a standard self-starter until the 1920s set the Ford apart from most vehicles on the road of the teens, and numerous people were injured using the hand crank to fire 'er up.

It is also worth noting that the first Ford Model T, rolling off the line in 1908, was not exactly cheap. Certainly not the least expensive auto of that year. In fact, some earlier Ford models had actually cost less, such as the four-cylinder Model N, selling for just $600 in 1906-07. On the other hand, a two-cylinder Model F in 1904 ran a hefty $1,100. The six-cylinder Model K sold for a mighty $2,800 during its 1905-08 production period; hardly what we think of as a car for everyman, by any means.

"Of the 109 models produced in 1908 by companies holding membership in the Association of Licensed Automobile Manufacturers, reported Automotive Transportation: Trends & Problems, only three sold for less than $1,000."

Ford did have lower-cost competitors. The Brush runabout, for example, sold for $500 between 1907 and 1912, with its solid tires and chain drive. Easily-satisfied shoppers might choose to pay a mere $375 for an Orient Buckboard, whose name implies its primitive persona and likely ride quality.

In 1908, when the Model T was introduced, the average wholesale price for new cars was $2,130, dropping to $1,288 the following year. The average worker in all non-farm industries in 1908 earned $563 per year; full-time manufacturing workers a bit less ($548); and motor-vehicle employees a more substantial $650.

By 1915, though, the Model T would be selling for less than $400 – largely by virtue of vastly-improved manufacturing efficiency. The T of the Teens was clearly on its way to becoming truly a "people's car," coming closer than most observers had imagined.

To help promote sales, Ford in 1914 offered a rebate to buyers if more than 300,000 cars would be sold between August 1914 and August 1915. The actual amount paid turned out to be $50.

What made the Model T phenomenon possible was a dramatic change on the factory floor. First conceived in 1908, the moving-belt assembly line went into actual use in a Ford factory in 1913. Ford's version was hardly the first attempt at mass production, but the one that had the greatest ultimate impact.

Several years earlier, C.B. Wilson of Oldsmobile had set up what one historian described as a "rudimentary system of progressing assembly." Ford and others elaborated upon his and other previous ideas, putting them into practice on an unforeseen scale.

Just a year after introduction of the new assembly line, Ford could produce a Model T in just 93 minutes – eight times faster than any other auto company. In 1923 alone, a whopping 2,011,125 Model T Fords were built – the highest figure ever for a single car model.

See Chapter 3 for more on automobile production

Ford's famed "five-dollar day" (for eight hours of work) was initiated on January 5, 1914. Previously, auto workers earned 22 to 35 cents an hour, depending on the job; or, $13 to $21 per week. Though it represented a sizable increase over prior wages and, according to a Ford announcement, targeted "the commonest laborer who sweeps" the floor, the $5 day did not apply to every Ford worker. An employee had to be on the job for six months, be married, and taking good care of his family (or a single man over 22 years of age and of "thrifty habits"). A younger man (or woman) who served as the sole support of a close family member also was deemed eligible.

Just 60 percent of Ford's workers qualified at first, but the figure reached 75 percent by 1916. The wage was raised to $6 per day in January 1919; but already by 1915, Ford's wage rate was somewhat lower than the average weekly wage in the auto industry. Clearly, the employer/employee relationship was being challenged a bit, though debilitating labor woes and bitter battles lay ahead.

The importance of Ford cars in American economic life is illustrated by the fact that the mild recession in 1927 was at least partly caused by potential car buyers waiting for the introduction of the new, dramatically different Model A.

In 1920, the Model T's price in 1920 reached as high as $575 for a touring model, but prices were cut in September of that year. In its final days, the price sunk as low as $290. Looking backward in 1940, the Automobile Trade Journal listed Model T prices at $355 in 1921, $290 in October 1923, and $290 to $310 through 1926. One author noted that the 1924 starting price was $290, but cost totaled $375 when the Model T was sold with a self-starter and demountable wheel rims. In contrast, he gave the price of a 1904 Ford touring car as $1,200 (without any extra equipment).

Ford's highest share of the auto market came in 1921, when it sold 60 percent of the total.

Ford T production rose dramatically in the early years, while prices tended to fall. From $950 in 1909, when just 18,664 Fords came from the factory, the price fell to $780 in the following year, and $690 in the next. By 1916, it sank to $360, when a massive 785,432 Model T Fords were manufactured.

Auto production as a whole increased markedly, too, during the teens, partly as a result of general prosperity in the early war years, before the U.S. entered the conflict. Production of 569,000 in 1914 jumped to 969,000 the next year, and hit 1,617,000 in 1916.

Falling prices did not continue after World War One. By 1919, car prices were in fact almost twice as high as they had been in 1916. This led to a serious business slump in 1920, which continued into 1921 – a period during which the overpriced vehicles were cut down to size via what has been called "savage price-cutting."

Ford, then, was not quite the supplier of total mass motoring for which it is often given credit, but the company did make a good start. A new Ford for as little as $260, stripped or not, did make motoring a reality for millions – especially for those who took advantage of the weekly coupon offer, or who could somehow obtain credit to make their purchase.

That era came to an end in 1927, when production halted for a year to make way for the new, advanced Model A Ford. Instead of continuing his practice of offering basic transportation for a low price – trying for "the $300 car" that many people wanted and could afford – Henry Ford turned instead to competition with the automakers just above him on the price scale. When it arrived as a 1928 model, the Model A was more of a middle-range vehicle than a basic, rock-bottom one, available in a variety of colors and styles, with a safety glass windshield, conventional three-speed gearbox, and more power than before. A lively machine it was, but no longer qualifying as a contender for the "people's car."

During the same year that the first Model T rolled out of Ford's Dearborn, Michigan factory, another event was taking place that would eventually shake the industry. In 1908, General Motors was formed from a conglomeration of smaller automakers. Suffering a lengthy list of shakeups and tribulations in top management over the next decade or more, GM would eventually emerge as the fiercest of Mr. Ford's competitors, knocking him out of the Number One spot before the Model T ceased production in 1926-27.

Click here for Overview: Casual History of the Used Car

Click here for Chapter 1: Early Days – Rich Men's Playthings, Poor Men's Dreams

Click here for Chapter 3: Production and Prosperity

Click here for Chapter 4: "Easy" Payments

Click here for Chapter 5: Family Cars and Family Life

Click here for Chapter 6: Five-Dollar Flivvers

Click here for Chapter 7: Rise and Fall of the Used Car

Click here for Chapter 8: Saturation and Salesmanship

Click here for Chapter 9: A Global Blowout

Click here for Chapter 10: Selling in Hard Times

Click here for Chapter 11: Wheels for the Workingman

Click here for Chapter 12: Okies, Nomads, and Jalopies

Click here for Chapter 13: Motoring in Wartime

Click here for Chapter 14: The Postwar Boom

Click here for Chapter 15: Chromium Fantasies

Click here for Chapter 16: Dealers Face Image Problem

Click here for Chapter 17: Wheels for the Fifties Workingman

Click here for Chapter 18: Teens, Rods, and Clunkers

Click here for Chapter 19: Everybody Drives

Click here for Chapter 20: Personal History of Clunker Ownership

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