Ford Model T: The greatest car of 1890–1910

driving a 1908 Model T

As Classic Car Appreciation Day (July 13) approaches, we’ll be counting down each day with the greatest vehicle of each decade, from the earliest days of the automobile to the present. It’s by no means a final, definitive, for-all-time list, so please weigh in—respectfully—in the Forums with your comments, endorsements, and disagreements. Today: 1890–1910.

Maybe the most significant car of all time, the Model T almost single-handedly changed the culture of worldwide industry during its near 20-year production run of over 15 million vehicles. Let’s just say that the T’s significance is hard to overstate.

Prior to the T, cars were considered toys for the wealthy with few exceptions, and most were crude and unreliable. The Ford T was simple, affordable, sturdy, durable, and easily repaired. It became the catalyst through which humanity could easily expand its travel horizons beyond a few miles from home.

Ordinary folks could go exploring, sightseeing, or get to towns and cities from their farms for shopping or selling their goods (nearly half of Americans still lived on farms in 1908) and, of course, go on tours across the country on the mere 18,000 miles of awful, muddy roads.

Henry Ford with a Model T in 1921
Ford
Henry Ford with a Model T in 1921

Development for the Model T started in January 1907 in an upstairs corner of Ford’s small Piquette Avenue factory in Detroit. Henry Ford, draftsman Joseph Galamb, engineer Childe Harold Wills, and machinist C.J. Smith made up the team.

Initially, the car cost $850 upon its autumn 1908 introduction. It proved to be so popular that Ford Motor Company had to build a much larger factory in Highland Park, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, and moved production there in 1910.

Highland Park would remain the “home factory” for the Model T, which ended up also being built in dozens of factories across many states, as well as in Canada, Ireland, the United Kingdom, Germany, Australia, France, Denmark, Belgium, Italy, Spain, Japan, Argentina, Mexico, New Zealand, South Africa, Indonesia, Egypt, India, Singapore, Malaya (modern Malaysia), and Turkey.

Starting in 1913, Ford revolutionized mass production by reversing the processes used in Chicago meat processing plants, developing the first assembly lines to further increase efficiency and reduce costs.

By 1914, Ford had a problem. Workers were not used to the speed of the assembly lines, and his factory became a revolving door of employees who came and went, which added to his costs. Ford’s solution astounded and infuriated his competition—he doubled the daily pay packet for his employees to $5 per day.

1908 Model T
Ford
1908 Model T

After that, there were lines of people looking to work at Ford and stay there. The other benefit was that it essentially began to expand the middle-class in the United States, and allowed Ford’s own employees to have sufficient money to actually buy the cars they built, for their own family use. Ingenious.

At one point, half of all automobiles on planet earth were Ford Model Ts, and in the United States, at the height of its popularity, 40 percent of all new cars sold were Model Ts.

Henry Ford continually reduced the car’s price to as low as $260 late in 1923, by using industrial vertical integration. In other words, Ford bought iron mines, smelters, foundries, made his own glass, and built his own ships to ferry materials, passing on the savings to customers.

Honorable mention:

The 1901 Oldsmobile Curved Dash was the first actual mass-produced car, although it was built without benefit of an assembly line.

The 1903 Cadillac Model A was the first high-precision manufactured car which did not need individual parts worked by hand to fit; instead parts could actually interchange between cars.