The Model T Ford

A Centennial History

by Robert Casey

Johns Hopkins, 166 pp., $24.95

For the Model T Ford's centennial year, Johns Hopkins University Press has produced an extremely handsome, short, and informative book about Henry Ford's great creation. The author, Robert Casey, is transportation curator at The Henry Ford, the rather awkward new name for what used to be the Edison Institute, an organization founded by Ford himself "to convey the inspiration of American genius to the young."

Casey has succeeded in examining the Model T from a variety of angles. Beginning with a survey of automobile technology in 1908, he shows how Ford found a way to adapt the best European automobile configuration of the time--the "Mercedes-style" car, with a front-mounted engine--to the pocketbook of the American middle-class consumer and the dreadful conditions that prevailed on American roads.

As Ford put it himself, he wanted to design a car that was "powerful enough for American roads and capable of carrying its passengers anywhere that a horse-drawn vehicle will go without the driver being afraid of ruining his car." That was a very tall order, given what Casey calls the "abysmal thoroughfares" of the day: roads that were "dusty in dry weather, muddy morasses in the rain, and creased with frozen ruts in the winter."

Ford's solution was to build a very flexible vehicle of lightweight but sturdy vanadium steel with ingenious triangular shapes in the suspension that distributed weight so remarkably well that the undercarriage of the Model T (the "chassis") could deliver the contortions that were needed on the horrible surface of the roads.

"Like a reed bending in the wind," Casey writes, "the Ford chassis twisted with the ruts, holes, and bumps of American roads, but did not break." These features, combined with its low price, made the Model T Ford "a classic example of the right product at the right time." Before long, it had worldwide appeal.

Casey also describes the manufacturing process that produced the Model T. He tackles the job of explaining industrial procedures by using architectural diagrams and photographs of the assembly floor as Ford shifted it around from year to year. Instead of using the photographs to supplement explanatory text, Casey's text is driven by the photographs. What he does is to explain the pictures, prompting the reader to look and look again at these revealing glimpses of Ford mass production at work. In making technical procedures superbly clear, this section of the book is nothing less than a minor tour de force.

From Ford's earlier shops to the ultra-modern Highland Park plant, designed by the architect Albert Kahn and built north of Detroit in 1908, to the immense River Rouge plant (1917), an industrial complex so utterly gigantic it contained its own internal steel mill, we behold the emergence of Henry Ford's industrial empire.

In some ways, Casey's most interesting text is related to the selling of the car. The personalizing of the sales campaign around the figure of Ford himself--the famous "Ford script" logo made it seem as if Henry signed every car as an individual work of art--sent the message that a rugged individualist was empowering the common man (and common woman) everywhere.

As to the latter, Ford advertising made a pitch to the feminist movement of the times. A 1915 Ford brochure called The Woman and the Ford proclaimed that "It's woman's day. No longer a 'shut in,' she reaches for an ever wider sphere of action--that she may be more the woman. .  .  . The car is a real weapon in the changing order."

But Ford the progressive and modernizer was, in many ways, tragically at odds with Ford the retrogressive crank. This is an oft told tale. The Model T succumbed to competition by the 1920s, and Ford was resistant to change. Other firms embraced improvements that made their cars more comfortable and easier to drive, while Henry, by then the sole owner of the firm, became stubborn and defiant, an out-of-touch autocrat.

He resisted credit sales, which he regarded as bad for the morals of his customers. He had a "Sociological Department" investigate the private lives of his workers, lest they slip into decadence. He developed a horror of the personal freedom that the Model T might provide. For this reason he resisted a number of improvements that could give his customers a carefree driving experience: He wished to "build their character" instead.

Ford the liberator was at war with Ford the punitive paternalist. Casey concludes that he "saw the tough, utilitarian, slowly evolving Model T as not only all the car that people would ever need--it was all the car they should ever want."

By the twenties, however, this attitude led to falling sales. The ruggedness, the sheer primitivism, of the Model T seemed worse with every passing year. The car had to be cranked, and yet the crank could kick back and break your wrist. The gas tank was under the car's front seat, and there was no gas gauge provided. You had to check the level of the gas by using a dipstick--very hard (and dangerous) at night. To check the oil, you had to crawl under the car and open two completely separate petcocks. There was no windshield wiper until Ford offered one that was cranked by hand as the driver tried to steer. There was no heater.

As early as 1914 an independent publication called The Fordowner did a lively business giving troubleshooting tips to Ford drivers. This could not go on. Ford, surrounded by yes-men--his best designers and production men began defecting to Chevrolet--was persuaded at last by his clever son Edsel to discontinue "T" production in 1927. But he did so bitterly.

The Model T Ford is especially effective in describing what it felt like to drive one. Robert Casey's powers of description make it easy for us to imagine what it must have been like when the driver had to race from the front of the car after cranking the engine to adjust the faraway "spark lever" on the steering column. Or when the driver had to manage three different pedals on the floor. They controlled the car's "planetary transmission" (no gear-shift lever in the "T") in coordination with the throttle lever on the steering column and the separate hand lever to the left of the driver that held the transmission in neutral while locking the emergency brakes on the rear wheels. (These emergency brakes were intended to prevent the car from rolling in a stationary position.) But to stop the car in motion, one had to use a pedal that applied direct force to the transmission instead of to the wheels.

Was this dangerous? Very dangerous, and Casey's book makes all of this beautifully clear. It is a masterpiece in many different ways. A short study of a man and his machine, The Model T Ford explores all the quirky contradictions of both. It shows the brilliance and myopia that animated Henry Ford's vision. Through the limited task of presenting this centennial study, Casey has found a way to write an exemplary work that has synthesized biography, corporate history, cultural commentary, engineering analysis, and elements of psychology--individual and social--without a trace of intellectual pretension. And there are no false notes in this book. None at all.

Richard Striner, professor of history at Washington College, is the author, most recently, of Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery.

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