Putting the World on Wheels: The Ford Model T

Learn more about the trials and tribulations that gave rise to the Model T – and revolutionized mass production.

Henry Ford Driving His Quadricycle in Detroit, Michigan, 1896 (1896-10)Original Source: Digital Collections

Before the Model T

By late 1902, Henry Ford had built his own “horseless carriage,” developed a reputation for designing race cars, and failed twice at manufacturing commercial automobiles.

Drawing of Alexander Y. Malcomson and his Coal Company's Logo, circa 1905 (1903/1907) by Tower, Louis W.Original Source: Digital Collections

A new partnership with Detroit's largest coal dealer, Alexander Y. Malcomson, helped Ford launch a third attempt at an automobile company.

1902 Ford Runabout (1902) by Ford, Henry, 1863-1947Original Source: Digital Collections

Malcomson funded Ford's purchase of machinery and material to build this prototype runabout. It was impressive enough to attract new investors and Ford Motor Company was incorporated in June 1903.

Ford Motor Company, Mack Avenue, Detroit, Michigan, circa 1904 (1899/1909)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

1903 Ford Model A Runabout (1903)Original Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=48168

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.

Clara Bryant Ford and Myrle Clarkson Driving Ford Model N at the Piquette Avenue Plant, Detroit, Michigan, 1906 (1906)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Portrait of Alexander Y. Malcomson, 1908 (1908)Original Source: Digital Collections

Alexander Malcomson wanted the company to build on the small, inexpensive Model A's success and produce larger luxury cars like other automakers. While they might sell fewer, they would make a higher profit per car.

1905 Ford Model B Touring Car (1905) by Ford Motor CompanyOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Portrait of Henry Ford, circa 1905 (1903/1907) by Spooner & WellsOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

1907 Ford Model K Touring Car (1907) by Ford Motor CompanyOriginal Source: Digital Collections

In 1906, the expensive Model K was introduced, replacing the Model B. Priced at $2,500 (compared to $500 for one of Ford’s two-cylinder runabouts), the six-cylinder K was a slow-selling disappointment.

Ford Motor Company Original Stock Certificate, June 26, 1903 (1903-06-26)Original Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=353197

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.

Portrait of Henry Ford, 1904 (1904) by McMichael StudioOriginal Source: Digital Collections

Ford Takes the Wheel

Now in control, Ford laid out his vision for the car business, stating, “the greatest need today is a light, low-priced car with an up-to-date engine with ample horsepower, and built of the very best material.…It must be powerful enough for American roads and capable of carrying its passengers anywhere that a horse-drawn vehicle will go.” 

1906 Ford Model N Runabout (1906) by Ford Motor CompanyOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Henry Ford Riding in 1906 Ford Model N Car Outside the Piquette Avenue Plant, circa 1906 (1905/1907) by The Hegeman Print CompanyOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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 Model N Chassis in Assembly Room at the Piquette Avenue Plant, 1906 (1906)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Ford Model T Touring Car at Piquette Avenue Plant, 1908 (1908)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

1909 Ford Model T Touring Car (1909)Original Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=140288

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.

Newly Delivered Ford Model T Automobiles on a Street in Lima, New York, 1913 (1913)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Construction of Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, circa 1909 (1908/1910)Original Source: Digital Collections

Building a Robust Factory Complex

Ford's established reputation and a growing market for automobiles created an exceptional level of demand for the Model T. The Piquette Avenue Plant had no room to grow, which limited the company's productivity. In 1908, construction began on a new factory in nearby Highland Park. 

25,000 Employees at the Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, circa 1912, 1911/1913, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Designed by renowned industrial architect Albert Kahn, the plant opened in 1910 and became the second production facility for the Model T.

Machine Shop at Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, circa 1913, Spooner & Wells, 1912/1914, Original Source: Digital Collections
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With facilities for casting, machining, stamping, assembling, and shipping, Highland Park was a comprehensive manufacturing complex.

Stamping Presses at the Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, circa 1913, Spooner & Wells, 1912/1914, Original Source: Digital Collections
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At the plant, Henry Ford could continue to strive towards his goal of lowering the price of his cars by exploring new methods for more efficient manufacturing.

Swift & Company's Meat Packing House, Chicago, Illinois, "Splitting Backbones and Final Inspection of Hogs," 1910-1915 (1915) by Keystone View CompanyOriginal Source: Digital Collections

The Moving Assembly Line

Eager to increase production capacity, Ford engineers studied processes in other industries. Meat packers proved an unusual source of inspiration. Moving “disassembly” lines were a common feature at meat packing plants. Conveyors moved carcasses past meat cutters, who then removed various pieces of the animal. Starting in 1913, Ford and his team adapted this fluid technique to building automobiles.

Magneto Assembly Line at Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, 1913 (1913-04)Original Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=31264

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.

Workers Installing Engines on Ford Model T Assembly Line at Highland Park Plant, 1913 (1913)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

1,000 Ford Model T Chassis, One Shift's Output, outside the Highland Park Plant, 1913 (1913-08)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Newspaper Article, "Henry Ford Gives $10,000,000 in 1914 Profits to His Employes" (1914-01-05) by Ford Motor Company. ArchivesOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Crowd of Applicants outside Highland Park Plant after Five Dollar Day Announcement, January 1914 (1914-01) by UnknownOriginal Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=35765

Money made the monotony bearable, shown by this photograph of eager job applicants outside the Highland Park Plant shortly after Ford’s announcement.

Chassis Assembly Line at the Highland Park Plant, 1914, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1913/1915, Original Source: Digital Collections
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The crude “push and pull” delivery system gradually was replaced by chain-driven lines.

Car Body Assembly Line at Ford's Highland Park Plant, circa 1914, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1913/1915, Original Source: Digital Collections
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Ford could now regulate the speed at which finished cars came off the assembly line, resulting in further productivity gains.

Ford Model T Assembly Line, Highland Park Plant, 1914, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1914, Original Source: Digital Collections
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The moving assembly line revolutionized manufacturing of all types and became standard procedure around the world.

Ford Motor Company Highland Park Plant, 1914 (1914-11) by Ford Motor Company. Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

A Lasting Legacy 

Ford Motor Company's Highland Park Plant was nothing less than the most influential factory of the 20th century. Within its walls Henry Ford and his associates developed the moving assembly line, introduced the Five Dollar Day for workers, and produced millions of reliable and affordable Model T automobiles.

1914 Ford Model T Touring Car, Given to John Burroughs by Henry Ford, 1914, Original Source: http://collections.thehenryford.org/Collection.aspx?objectKey=230567
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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.

Family in Ford Model T in Front of Farmhouse, circa 1910, 1905/1915, Original Source: Digital Collections
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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.

Ford Model T Ambulance Manufactured during World War I, 1917, Ford Motor Company. Photographic Department, 1917-07-23, Original Source: Digital Collections
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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.

Red Cross Training using Ford Model T Ambulances at the Highland Park Plant, July 1918, 1918-07, Original Source: Digital Collections
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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.

Ford "The Universal Car" Sign, 1910-1918 (1910/1918)Original Source: Digital Collections

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.

Henry Ford and Edsel Ford in 15 Millionth Ford Model T Car, 1927 (1927-05-26) by Ford Motor Company. Engineering Photographic DepartmentOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

1927 Ford Model T Touring Car, The Fifteen-Millionth Ford (1927) by Ford Motor Company. Highland Park PlantOriginal Source: Digital Collections

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.

Credits: Story

From The Henry Ford Archive of American Innovation™.

Visit The Henry Ford's Digital Collections for more artifacts related to the Model T.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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