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History and Background

Ford Model T: The Beginning – How the Model T Came to be

At the beginning of the 20th century the automobile was a plaything for
the rich. Most models were complicated machines that required a
chauffer conversant with its individual mechanical nuances to drive it.
Henry Ford was determined to build a simple, reliable and affordable
car; a car the average American worker could afford. Out of this
determination came the Model T and the assembly line – two
innovations that revolutionized American society and molded the world
we live in today.

Henry Ford did not invent the car; he produced an automobile that was
within the economic reach of the average American. While other
manufacturers were content to target a market of the well-to-do, Ford
developed a design and a method of manufacture that steadily
reduced the cost of the Model T. Instead of pocketing the profits; Ford
lowered the price of his car. As a result, Ford Motors sold more cars
and steadily increased its earnings – transforming the automobile from
a luxury toy to a mainstay of American society.

The Model T made its debut in 1908 with a purchase price of $825.00.
Over ten thousand were sold in its first year, establishing a new
record. Four years later the price dropped to $575.00 and sales
soared. By 1914, Ford could claim a 48% share of the automobile
market.

Central to Ford’s ability to produce an affordable car was the
development of the assembly line that increased the efficiency of
manufacture and decreased its cost. Ford did not conceive the
concept, he perfected it. Prior to the introduction of the assembly line,
cars were individually crafted by teams of skilled workmen – a slow
and expensive procedure. The assembly line reversed the process of
automobile manufacture. Instead of workers going to the car, the car
came to the worker who performed the same task of assembly over
and over again. With the introduction and perfection of the process,
Ford was able to reduce the assembly time of a Model T from twelve
and a half hours to less than six hours.

Developing the Model T

The Ford Motor Company manufactured its first car – the Model A – in
1903. By 1906, the Model N was in production but Ford had not yet
achieved his goal of producing a simple, affordable car. He would
accomplish this with the Model T. Charles Sorensen – who had joined
Henry Ford two years earlier – describes how Ford had him set up a
secret room where design of the new car would be carried out:
“Early one morning in the winter of 1906-7, Henry Ford dropped in at
the pattern department of the Piquette Avenue plant to see me. ‘Come
with me, Charlie,’ he said, ‘I want to show you something.’
I followed him to the third floor and its north end, which was not fully
occupied for assembly work. He looked about and said, ‘Charlie, I’d
like to have a room finished off right here in this space. Put up a wall
with a door in big enough to run a car in and out. Get a good lock for
the door, and when you’re ready, we’ll have Joe Galamb come up in
here. We’re going to start a completely new job.’

The room he had in mind became the maternity ward for Model T.
It took only a few days to block off the little room on the third floor back
of the Piquette Avenue plant and to set up a few simple power tools
and Joe Galamb’s two blackboards. The blackboards were a good
idea. They gave a king-sized drawing which, when all initial
refinements had been made, could be photographed for two purposes:
as a protection against patent suits attempting to prove prior claim to
originality and as a substitute for blueprints. A little more than a year
later Model T, the product of that cluttered little room, was announced
to the world. But another half year passed before the first Model T was
ready for what had already become a clamorous market…
The summer before, Mr. Ford told me to block off the experimental
room for Joe Galamb, a momentous event occurred which would
affect the entire automotive industry. The first heat of vanadium steel
in the country was poured at the United Steel Company’s plant in
Canton, Ohio.
Early that year we had several visits from J. Kent Smith, a noted
English metallurgist from a country which had been in the forefront of
steel development…
Ford, Wills, and I listened to him and examined his data. We had
already read about this English vanadium steel. It had a tensile
strength nearly three times that of steels we were using, but we’d
never seen it. Smith demonstrated its toughness and showed that
despite its strength it could be machined more easily than plain steel.
Immediately Mr. Ford sensed the great possibilities of this shockresisting
steel. ‘Charlie,’ he said to me after Smith left, ‘this means
entirely new design requirements, and we can get a better, lighter, and
cheaper car as a result of it.’
It was the great common sense that Mr. Ford could apply to new ideas
and his ability to simplify seemingly complicated problems that made
him the pioneer he was. This demonstration of vanadium steel was the
deciding point for him to begin the experimental work that resulted in
Model T…
Actually it took four years and more to develop Model T. Previous
models were the guinea pigs, one might say, for experimentation and
development of a car which would realize Henry Ford’s dream of a car
which anyone could afford to buy, which anyone could drive
anywhere, and which almost anyone could keep in repair. Many of the
world’s greatest mechanical discoveries were accidents in the course
of other experimentation. Not so Model T, which ushered in the motor
transport age and set off a chain reaction of machine production now
known as automation. All our experimentation at Ford in the early days
was toward a fixed and, then wildly fantastic goal.
By March, 1908, we were ready to announce Model T, but not to
produce it, On October 1 of that year the first car was introduced to the
public. From Joe Galamb’s little room on the third floor had come a
revolutionary vehicle. In the next eighteen years, out of Piquette
Avenue, Highland Park, River Rouge, and from assembly plants all
over the United States came 15,000,000 more.”

Birth of the Assembly Line

A few months later- in July 1908 – Sorensen and a plant foreman
spent their days off developing the basics of the Assembly Line:
“What was worked out at Ford was the practice of moving the work
from one worker to another until it became a complete unit, then
arranging the flow of these units at the right time and the right place to
a moving final assembly line from which came a finished product.
Regardless of earlier uses of some of these principles, the direct line
of succession of mass production and its intensification into
automation stems directly from what we worked out at Ford Motor
Company between 1908 and 1913…

As may be imagined, the job of putting the car together was a simpler
one than handling the materials that had to be brought to it. Charlie
Lewis, the youngest and most aggressive of our assembly foremen,
and I tackled this problem. We gradually worked it out by bringing up
only what we termed the fast-moving materials. The main bulky parts,
like engines and axles, needed a lot of room. To give them that space,
we left the smaller, more compact, light-handling material in a storage
building on the northwest comer of the grounds. Then we arranged
with the stock department to bring up at regular hours such divisions
of material as we had marked out and packaged.

This simplification of handling cleaned things up materially. But at
best, I did not like it. It was then that the idea occurred to me that
assembly would be easier, simpler, and faster if we moved the chassis
along, beginning at one end of the plant with a frame and adding the
axles and the wheels; then moving it past the stockroom, instead of
moving the stockroom to the chassis. I had Lewis arrange the
materials on the floor so that what was needed at the start of
assembly would be at that end of the building and the other parts
would be along the line as we moved the chassis along. We spent
every Sunday during July planning this. Then one Sunday morning,
after the stock was laid out in this fashion, Lewis and I and a couple of
helpers put together the first car, I’m sure, that was ever built on a
moving line.

We did this simply by putting the frame on skids, hitching a towrope to
the front end and pulling the frame along until axles and wheels were
put on. Then we rolled the chassis along in notches to prove what
could be done. While demonstrating this moving line, we worked on
some of the subassemblies, such as completing a radiator with all its
hose fittings so that we could place it very quickly on the chassis. We
also did this with the dash and mounted the steering gear and the
spark coil.”

Implementation

The basics of the Assembly Line had been established but it would
take another five years for the concept to be implemented.
Implementation would await construction of the new Highland Park
plant which was purpose-built to incorporate the assembly line. The
process began at the top floor of the four-story building where the
engine was assembled and progressed level by level to the ground
floor where the body was attached to the chassis.
“By August, 1913, all links in the chain of moving assembly lines were
complete except the last and most spectacular one – the one we had
first experimented with one Sunday morning just five years before.
Again a towrope was hitched to a chassis, this time pulled by a
capstan. Each part was attached to the moving chassis in order, from
axles at the beginning to bodies at the end of the line. Some parts took
longer to attach than others; so, to keep an even pull on the towrope,
there must be differently spaced intervals between delivery of the
parts along the line. This called for patient timing and rearrangement
until the flow of parts and the speed and intervals along the assembly
line meshed into a perfectly synchronized operation throughout all
stages of production. Before the end of the year a power-driven
assembly line was in operation, and New Year’s saw three more
installed. Ford mass production and a new era in industrial history had
begun”

Source: “Henry Ford Changes the World, 1908,” EyeWitness to History (2005)

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