Learn more about the trials and tribulations that gave rise to the Model T – and revolutionized mass production.
Setting up shop in a former wagon factory on Detroit’s Mack Avenue, Ford’s crew assembled automobiles from components made elsewhere -- a common practice in the auto industry’s early years.
Based on the prototype runabout, Ford Motor Company's first product, the Model A, was conventional by the standards of the day. Henry Ford contracted with John and Horace Dodge, owners of one of Detroit’s major machine shops, to manufacture the engine, transmission, and chassis of the Model A. Ford Motor Company added the wheels, body, and trim. The Dodges started making their own car in 1914.
Ford Motor Company profited from the success of the Model A, outgrowing its original Mack Avenue Plant. In late 1904-early 1905 the automaker moved to a much larger facility on Piquette Avenue, in Detroit's Milwaukee Junction area.
Introduced in 1905, the Model B was Ford's first four-cylinder car and the first to have the engine mounted up front in the European manner. Priced at $2,000, the Model B was the most expensive Ford yet, and sold poorly.
Henry Ford disagreed with Malcomson. He believed that low-priced cars targeted to the mass market would lead to greater sales and higher profits based on the volume produced. Malcomson continued pushing for the company to build large luxury cars.
Unable to reconcile with Henry Ford about the direction of the company, Malcomson sold his Ford Motor Company stock in 1906, making Henry Ford the majority stockholder.
Two-seater runabouts, like the Ford Model N introduced in 1906, were favored by middle-class Americans. Fast and rugged, most runabouts featured one- or two-cylinder engines with bicycle-style chain drives. But this Ford Model N offered four cylinders and a shaft drive, plus it cost less. At $500, it became the bestselling car in America.
For Henry Ford, the Model N represented his ideal of "raising the automobile out of the list of luxuries, and bringing it to the point where the average American citizen may own and enjoy his automobile." Henry followed the bestselling Model N with the fancier Models R and S, but because they held just two or three people, they only partly fulfilled Ford’s vision.
Ford built cars at the Piquette Avenue Plant using the stationary assembly process -- conventional practice at the time. Each car was made, from start to finish, by a single team of workers. The cars in this photo are Model Ns, but Ford was already looking ahead. In 1907 he built a small room in a corner of the Piquette plant. Inside, Ford and his handpicked team began design work on the company’s next car.
In September 1908, this prototype emerged from the work sessions in the Piquette plant’s secret room. It was Henry Ford’s vision made real -- an affordable car big enough for families. Called the Model T, the car included many technical innovations which made it lightweight, rugged, and inexpensive compared to other cars its size.
When Ford Motor Company introduced its new Model T on October 1, 1908, it was a textbook example of the right product at the right time. Using lightweight but strong vanadium steel alloy, an engine with a removable cylinder head for easier repair, and a flexible three-point suspension system designed for the awful roads typical in America at the time, the Model T was a great value at $850.
The Model T was an immediate hit, straining Ford’s production capacity. Six months after the car’s debut, the company stopped taking new orders until it could catch up with those already placed. Henry Ford found himself with a problem: He could sell as many Model Ts as he could make, but he couldn’t make as many as he could sell.
Ford developed the moving assembly line in stages. It started with magnetos, the generators that produce electricity for the spark plugs. Each worker added a few parts and simply shoved the flywheel on to the next employee. The idea saved so much time that engineers applied it to more complex items like engines and transmissions.
In this picture, a worker at Ford's Highland Park Plant connects a Model T driveshaft to its transmission, while another lowers an engine onto the chassis using a chain hoist. This 1913 assembly line was relatively crude -- workers pushed or pulled vehicles to each station.
As the moving assembly line evolved, Ford Motor Company promoted its growing manufacturing prowess with clever promotional photographs. This image shows 1,000 Model T chassis lined up outside Ford's Highland Park Plant. The chassis represent a single nine-hour shift's production in August 1913 -- an impressive total reached even before the assembly line was fully implemented.
With its enormous productivity gains, the moving assembly line also brought tedium for workers. Employees who had rightfully considered themselves skilled craftsmen now found themselves working at a single, routine task hour after hour, day after day. By late 1913, the labor turnover rate at Ford was 380 percent. On January 5, 1914, Henry Ford announced that he would pay his workers $5 for an eight-hour day -- more than double the previous rate of $2.34.
Money made the monotony bearable, shown by this photograph of eager job applicants outside the Highland Park Plant shortly after Ford’s announcement.
The popular Model T gave its owners an unprecedented degree of freedom in their travel. Car owners no longer were dependent on railroads, streetcars, horses or bikes.
The Model T was particularly beneficial to farm families. While those in the city had access to railroads and streetcars, or could bicycle on paved roads, the farmer was limited to the distance his horse -- or feet -- could travel. The affordable Model T ended that isolation for good.
The basic Model T chassis was highly adaptable for various uses. As some of the first motorized ambulances, Model Ts made up a large percentage of the vehicles in service during World War I.
The lightweight Model T's ability to traverse the war-torn environment, along with its easy maneuverability, made it popular among ambulance drivers. Medical professionals could tend to the wounded quicker than ever before.
Henry Ford's Model T was also the first successful "world car"-- a car that could be sold around the world with only minor modifications to its basic platform and parts. This advertising sign boasts the universal appeal of a car made and sold not only in the United States but also in South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia.
The Model T’s exceptional longevity -- 19 years in production -- was also its undoing. Ford continued to build the car with no major design or engineering changes. But what was state-of-the-art in 1908 was, of course, woefully outdated two decades later. On May 26, 1927, Edsel and Henry Ford drove the fifteen-millionth Model T out of Highland Park Plant -- marking the symbolic end of Model T production.
While the Model T hadn’t changed significantly in 19 years, its customers had. Affordability and reliability were no longer enough as buyers demanded flashier styling, greater horsepower, higher speed and grander comfort. But the T’s legacy was secure. Ford’s “Universal Car” had put the world on wheels and made the automobile a staple of daily life.
From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.
Visit The Henry Ford's Digital Collections for more artifacts related to the Model T.