By on October 7, 2013

radiator

Regardless of what you may read elsewhere today, October 7, 1913 was not when the first automotive assembly line was started up. Yes, 100 years ago today, after some experimentation at the Piquette Ave. factory, and then tested with magneto assembly, Henry Ford’s lieutenants at his Highland Park factory for the first time started up a moving conveyor line for the assembly of complete Model T automobiles. Ford Motor Company, though, was not the first automobile manufacturer to use an assembly line process. That honor goes to Ransom Eli Olds, who, according to many sources, patented an assembly line in 1901 which allowed him to increase production by 600% the next year. Oldsmobile was making thousands of cars a year on a Lansing assembly line before Ford Motor Company even existed.

Making Model T fenders

Making Model T fenders

This is not to diminish Ford’s contribution to mass production, but he was one of many innovators who contributed to that process. Olds had a big role as did another Detroit area automotive pioneer, Henry Leland, whose use of standardized parts made Cadillac the standard of the world.

Assembling springs

Assembling springs

Ford’s primary contribution to mass production was simplifying the labor needed down to discrete tasks that could be performed by relatively unskilled labor. Leland may have used interchangeable parts, but those parts were assembled by skilled workers.

Henry Ford wanted to be able to hire men just off of the farm, as he once had been himself. Another contribution that Ford Motor Company made to the assembly line process was the moving line itself. Olds had most of the elements of what today we’d call an assembly line, defined repetitive operations performed at fixed worked stations that have parts supplied to the assembler as the work moves from worker to worker.

Frame assembly

Frame assembly with gas tanks stacked up in the background.

Ford added mechanized conveyors and belts to speed the process. In doing so, Henry Ford created the situation where another of his innovations was needed, the $5/day wage.

dash assembly

Assembling dashboard, steering wheel and instrument panel

Assembling cars one bolt at a time with a moving assembly line improved productivity dramatically but it also made the job mentally stultifying. Doing the same thing over and over again, with the production line moving according to the theories of Frederick Taylor, enforced with stopwatch precision, meant that Ford found himself with a massive turnover rate of new hires. He had to hire something like 45,000 people a year just to keep about 14,000 on the job.

paint wheels

Painting wheels with a centrifugal device

The photos illustrating this post were taken of the assembly line producing Model Ts at Ford’s Highland Park plant by the Keystone View Company.  While the Model T was put together on a moving assembly line, if you note from the photos, some subassemblies or components were not assembled with that process. At the time the photos were taken, it took Ford Motor Co. about 21 minutes to assemble a Model T once they started putting parts on the frame.

Painting bodies

Painting bodies

Before there was television, radio and motion pictures, people entertained themselves with stereographs, stereo cards of photos taken literally around the world. They were a big deal. Supreme court Justice Oliver Wendel Holmes even invented a viewer that is still in use today.

Installing upholstery

Installing upholstery

That particular 3D fad died out in the 1930s, after Keystone had shot millions of photo pairs. Eventually, the Keystone company’s archives were donated to the University of California at Riverside’s photography museum and many of the original prints have been digitized and are online at the Online Archive of California. Going through the archive for automotive related photos I came across this series. I’m not sure of the date, it’s not indicated on the Keystone originals, so if you’re a Model T expert, please let us know. If you’d like to see them in stereo, there are cross-eye versions in the gallery below. Other 3D formats are available at Cars In Depth.

Final assembly begins with adding springs and axles to the chassis.

Final assembly begins with adding axles to the chassis.

Engine drop. Isn't that a great look on the worker's face? Proud, stoic and just a little annoyed at being interrupted.

Engine drop. Isn’t that a great look on the worker’s face? Proud, stoic and just a little annoyed at being interrupted.

Wheels and gas tank get installed

Wheels and gas tank get installed

radiator

A foreman supervises installation of the radiator as dashboard are installed in the background

The body drop had not yet been mechanized at this point. Note the wide grin on one of the workers' face.

The body drop had not yet been mechanized at this point. Note the wide grin on one of the workers’ faces.

From start to finish in 21 minutes.

From start to finish in 21 minutes.

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can dig deeper at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside. Please contact UCR/California Museum of Photography for information about the copyright status of this item. Some materials in these collections may be protected by the U.S. Copyright Law (Title 17, U.S.C.). In addition, the reproduction, and/or commercial use, of some materials may be restricted by gift or purchase agreements, donor restrictions, privacy and publicity rights, licensing agreement(s), and/or trademark rights. Distribution or reproduction of materials protected by copyright beyond that allowed by fair use requires the written permission of the copyright owners. To the extent other restrictions apply, permission for distribution or reproduction from the applicable rights holder is also required. Responsibility for obtaining permissions, and for any use rests exclusively with the user.

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29 Comments on “This Day In Automotive History: Model T Assembly Line Starts For First Time – October 7, 1913...”


  • avatar
    Windy

    Thanks for this Ronnie
    I have my grandparents mahogany box folding viewer for stereo pair photos and still enjoy getting out the boxes of cards and sitting by the fireplace of a snowy. Evening but my cards are all pre 1900 I was not aware of the keystone archive being on line… Looks like I will be using a lot of printer ink making some new cards

    For some reason when viewing with out a viewer the pair of the fitting the axel seems to have the distant parts floating in front of the nearer. Is this a problem with my cross eye technique? All the other pairs I could look at with proper perspective being retained.

    • 0 avatar

      You’re welcome. You’re correct about that photo. Sorry about that, it appears that I saved that particular image pair as side by side, not cross eyed. The Keystone archive is here:

      http://www.oac.cdlib.org/findaid/ark:/13030/ft1q2n999m/

      There are also stereographs archived at the Smithsonian site, but the people running the government would rather spend money taking that site offline than making what Americans have already paid for accessible to them, so that site’s offline currently. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such petulance.

      But I digress. The originals at the OAC site were scanned in very high resolution, much higher than the versions you can download. Rather than download the printable images, click on the image to zoom to full page, center it and then copy the screen with Print Screen and paste it into a photo editor. That way you’ll have better resolution. You can then use Stereo Photo Maker to print out stereo cards in standard formats. One nice thing about using SPM is that it has alignment tools. All those old Keystone stereograph prints were aligned by eye. With modern software you can actually improve on their results.

      http://stereo.jpn.org/eng/stphmkr/

  • avatar
    brettc

    Interesting piece of history, thank you for sharing it. Hard to comprehend that these pictures were taken 100 years ago but it is 2013 so I guess it’s true (I’m old). I wonder what the average assembly time is in 2013 for a car or truck?

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Amazing .

    I remember stereo cars still being sold in thrift stores for .05 CENTS .

    -Nate

  • avatar
    tresmonos

    You know your sh*t, Ronnie.

    I have a IE degree and my ethics professor at Kettering made us analyze Frederick W. Taylor’s work and present it to the class. My favorite class (was the ethics course – senior seminar) taught at a automotive engineering school was from a PhD whose father was an Irish police officer in Flint (buried across the river from Chevy in the Hole). He opened my eyes up to the pitfalls of manufacturing. Nothing prepared me for my NAFTA globe trotting, but his course made me analyze every bit of my career along the way.

    • 0 avatar
      bikegoesbaa

      I think we had the same class with the same prof.

      If so, I agree with your assessment and my experiences mirror yours.

      • 0 avatar
        tresmonos

        It was Callahan. I hated it when he made us all read aloud to the class. I mispronounced ‘banal’ and he publicly humiliated me for it. He was spot-on when he lamented (with fervor) about my lack of care. Why hadn’t I looked up the word in a dictionary when I was reading for homework? I will always remember that incident whenever I see that word, and I saw it in Derek’s review today.

        I prioritized all my other classes and I felt awful about it. I wrote a killer end of term report (I researched that SOAB for 7 nights at the Kettering library), but when it came time to present, I had drank my ass off the night before (because I got done with some heavy lifting tests / final DOE projects in Tony Lin’s Stats class) and gave a still-drunk presentation at 9 AM. I still feel bad for it, but he at least saw the effort I put forth in my thesis paper and gave me a 96. God I was a walking disaster in college. I had a dual purpose funnel inserted into my head for all that knowledge and cheap booze.

  • avatar
    tresmonos

    LOL, that last photo is where ‘fluid fill’ must have been located as you can see the paved floor is soaked. No traps on the floor (how could you when this was probably the top or bottom level of the plant. Multi stories of manufacturing!). I doubt they had any form of rolls / prerolls test, either, and if they did, no way to vent the exhaust besides an open window.

    Damn I wish I had started my career 100 years ago.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know about early Ford test tracks, but after the Dodges stopped supplying Ford and started building cars under their own name they first tested new cars on Detroit streets but soon built a test track in 1915 next to Dodge Main in Hamtramck. I believe that was the first automotive test track in the Detroit area. It predates the Packard Proving Grounds by 12 years.

      dodgemotorcar.com/factories/hamtramck/photos_58.php

      Whether any Detroit car companies used chassis dynamometers in their factories in the early days or not I don’t know. Packard used a rather famous towing dyno, a Packard sedan equipped with a dynamometer so the company could get true road power measurements. It still exists in storage at the Packard Proving Grounds, waiting for restoration. Pics then and now here:

      carsindepth.com/?p=1946

      Here’s a pic from the Keystone archive of some early V8 engines (I’m guessing pre-WWI from the priming petcocks on the heads) being dyno tested.

      http://www.oac.cdlib.org/ark:/13030/kt358013j7/?order=2&brand=oac4

      • 0 avatar
        tresmonos

        What I would have given to be able to walk around inside Dodge Main Plant before they knocked it down. Way before my time. It’s incredible to think they used that old multi story building to build cars up until 1980. Same goes for any multi story facilities that survived the 50′s and 60′s. Thank you very much for the links.

  • avatar
    schmitt trigger

    “Ford’s primary contribution to mass production was simplifying the labor needed down to discrete tasks that could be performed by relatively unskilled labor…”

    This fact, a century later, opened the floodgates to manufacturing complex products in the unskilled, unregulated, ultra-low wage hellholes of the world.

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      “unskilled, unregulated, ultra-low wage hellhole”

      Sounds like what the USA was back in 1913. Funny how globalization works.

      unskilled, regulated, high wage locales just transform back into hellholes. AKA the rust belt and ex-textile region.

      • 0 avatar
        skor

        Right. Just like Germany and Japan are currently transforming back into “hellholes”.

        I say this as nicely as I can, you truly are an imbecile.

        • 0 avatar
          redmondjp

          No, he’s correct; you need to do your homework. Detroit was one of the prominent manufacturing cities (what the Bay Area is to tech today) of the world, just a few decades ago – look at it today.

          Japan is in trouble, especially now that they’ve regressed to importing hydrocarbon fuels to replace energy from all of the nuclear plants that will never reopen.

          As for Germany, talk to anybody who lives there and ask them how they think things are going.

          We are on the losing end of globalization. When people here are too poor to even shop at Walmart, we are in a world of hurt. Manufacturing was the engine of our economy – what is it now? Iphones? Coffee stands? Social Media? Housing? Government?

          I studied at Kettering as well, back when it was still GMI.

          • 0 avatar
            tresmonos

            Walmart is the USA’s largest employer, at 8.50/hr. It’s a sad state we’re in. Even as little as 20 years ago, we were in much better shape.

            On the bright side, the middle class in Mexico is growing. While living there for the past year, I got to see some of the benefactors of globalization.

          • 0 avatar
            Athos Nobile

            $16K with change a year. Damn, that’s bad.

        • 0 avatar
          tresmonos

          Last I hear, Ford is cutting Belgium operations and engineering out of the picture.

          ‘Japan’ is breaking ground for Mexican production. My Japanese company just purchased a joint venture operation in Mexico.

          I realize I made a canvasing statement, but please keep your niceties to yourself. I hope you treat strangers better than people on the internet, tough guy.

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    Ronnie— Looking at my Model T Ford restoration handbook my best guess is that this is a 1913 model. I have a picture of a body being painted with garden hose sprinklers and then letting the excess drip off into troughs and reused. One gallon of black japan enamel would do 11 bodies. The body would then go through a low temp oven. I dont know what years this was done. Your picture shows a rather modern spray gun being used. 218324 cars were built 1913-1914 and the touring car price was $550.

  • avatar
    LeMansteve

    Today there are few mysteries behind the science of assembly lines. Olds, Ford, etc were breaking ground 100 years ago on techniques that are extremely common today. I wonder what we are doing today that will be looked back on in the same light as we are looking back at moving assembly lines.

    • 0 avatar
      tresmonos

      Only thing that I can think of are flexible body shops – which were responsible for the last wave of assembly plant closures. When you can run multiple platforms through a body shop, there was no need for so many regional assembly plants. Most regional assembly plants existed due to the mindset on savings for logistics. Then vehicles became more complex (unibody construction in place of body on frame) then that savings was nullified.

      The Final Assembly portion of vehicles has largely remained unchanged. BMW is working on better (automated) labor / throughput forecasting based on marketing packages and their impact on bill of materials, but that is done by hand in most OEM’s.

      All advancements have been minute in nature and progressive as vehicles have become more complex. Examples: robotic IP installation, various ergonomic presentations to the assembly worker – smart ‘pallets’ (rather than chain powered assembly), forms of Automated guide vehicle’s, DC tooling, automation in line sequencing, etc.

      • 0 avatar

        Lately I’ve been thinking about just how much of a cost difference there is between assembling something like a Dodge Dart and a Chrysler 300. There really can’t be that much of a labor differential between cheap cars and expensive ones, they all seem to need just about the same components installed. I think the big difference comes in from the price of those components.

        • 0 avatar
          Athos Nobile

          Parts count for the 300 will be higher than the Dart, I would guess by 25-30%. Assembly time would be a 1-1.5 hrs more for the 300.

          The cost difference between the too may be in the 25% range. And at this point I am overstretching my limited knowledge.

          The question you should ask is how much more expensive is to manufacture a 1-Series BMW / A-Class Merc compared to a Dart.

          Next time you go to a dealership have a look at both cars and you will notice, maybe using one door as example, how more complex is the 300 related to the Dart.

          • 0 avatar

            Actually, the reason why I cited those two particular cars is that I had press cars of the Chrysler 300 back to back with the Dart and there’s a clear difference between them in terms of solidly-closing-doors kind of perceived quality. I just wondered how much of the $14,000 difference in base MSRP is actually the higher cost of building the 300.

  • avatar
    pgcooldad

    My grandfather used to paint the rims on the Model T’s. Sadly we don’t have any photos of him during that time period. At one time he also worked for Packard Motors.

    While working for Ford, my grandfather who was a musician, got an hr lunch. He played the trumpet with the band for the first half-hour for the hourly then sat down for lunch with the salary for the next 30 min. Interestingly, this setup still exists where salary wait for all line personnel to eat first. Basically it’s to keep the line down at the cafeteria counter so hourly doesn’t waste their lunch time standing in line.

    The painting process my father described is different from what’s shown above. I’ll definitely have make my way to my parents this week and pull this up for him.

    Thanks Ronnie!

  • avatar
    50merc

    Ronnie, thanks so much for this great article and the illustrations.

    Was spray painting widely used in the ‘teens? I had thought cars were painted with brushes into the 20′s.

    For the Model A, Ford obtained bodies from Briggs and Murray, with small but noticeable differences between the two suppliers. As the pictures show, Ford built bodies for the T. Why did it outsource bodies in the Model A years?


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