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Tin Lizzie Tales

The car that made our automotive culture.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By RICHARD STRINER
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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.