Model T Production Began 106 Years Ago This Month
Sorry for missing an important automotive anniversary, but ’tis the season for those of the Mosaic persuasion. On October 1, 1908, at least according to some sources*, the first production Model T was assembled at the Ford Piquette Avenue factory, Henry Ford’s second plant for his third, finally successful, automobile company. There are lots of myths about Henry Ford. Some of them are actually true, but many are the stuff of legend. For example, people think that the Model T made Henry Ford a wealthy man. Henry was a very wealthy man before he started making the Model T. He was one of the leading automobile producers in the world and he was the leading automaker in Detroit. Ford Motor Company was a success almost from the outset and when Henry hit on the idea of a simple, inexpensive car that folks who weren’t affluent could afford with the Model N and then the Model S, the Model T’s immediate precursors, he was selling thousands of cars a year.
The Ford mansion in Detroit’s Boston-Edison district, and the one up the street built by Ford’s lawyer and investor, Horace Rackham, were constructed in 1907, the year before the Model T was introduced. Henry was a successful man. That success gave him the freedom to develop the ultimate simple and inexpensive car, the Model T. Henry, though, was a big idea man who loved engines and power (in all of its meanings) but he was not the most technically proficient person.
Oliver Berthel, who designed Ford’s first two racers, the Sweepstakes and 999 cars that predate the Ford Motor Company, and also likely designed the nearly identical first Cadillac automobile and Ford Motor Company’s first car, the 1903 Model A, had first met Ford when the latter was teaching courses on the automobile. Berthel described Ford as an average teacher with similar mechanical skills. He had made himself into the chief operating engineer of the Edison Illuminating company of Detroit, but he had no formal engineering training. Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle was highly dependent on the work of Detroit’s first motorist, Charles Brady King.
Ford Model N. Full gallery here.
While Henry Ford was no mechanical genius, he had a small number of very good ideas and, more importantly, he was indomitable. I believe that if Ford had genius, that genius was in his ability to identify and hire genuine mechanical and business geniuses with an even rarer talent, the ability to get a megalomaniac to agree with you. Ford surrounded himself with men like Farkas, Galamb, Sorensen, Martin, Wills, and Couzens and it could be argued that they were just as important to the success of the Ford Motor Company as Henry Ford was.
Ford Model S, the immediate precursor to the Model T. Full gallery here.
Besides being a megalomaniac, Ford quite possibly was dyslexic. When he later sued the Chicago Tribune for libel, he was embarrassed by the jury’s $0.06 judgment in his favor, but even more so, he was humiliated as publisher Robert McCormick’s lawyer showed that not only was he not familiar with many things that had been published in his name, he could barely read. He’s also recorded as favoring wooden models to blueprints. Dyslexic or mostly illiterate, you take your pick. As Farkas, Galamb and Wills developed the Model T in the Piquette plant’s secret “experimental room” at the back of the factory’s third floor, Henry would sit in his rocking chair and his workers would bring him the models for his approval. It was “Spider” Huff, Ford’s riding mechanic in his early racing days, who developed the Model T’s innovative magneto (and likely also invented the porcelain spark plug insulator while developing one of Ford’s racers) and it was C. Harold Wills who introduced Ford to vanadium steel, one of the key ingredients to the success of the T.
The Experimental Room where Ford and his associates developed the Model T. Full gallery here.
On the Model T’s birthday, I visited its birthplace, the Piquette Avenue plant that is now a museum in progress, to see what changes have taken place since my last visit. The director, Nancy Darga, graciously gave me permission to take the accompanying photos (some are from previous visits since they were setting up for an event hosted by a non-profit – the facility is available for rental so if you’re looking for a way cool venue for a wedding, benefit, or corporate event, I recommend it). Even more graciously Ms. Darga gave me access to Henry Ford’s now reconstructed corner office, which has been furnished to replicate how it looked in a historical photograph taken for the Ford Times publication just before the Model T’s introduction. The desk in the office is a reproduction made by the grandson of Peter Martin, who was Ford’s production manager.
Unlike just about everyone mentioned above, Peter Martin stayed with Ford Motor Company for his entire career. Henry had few lifelong business associates. Even James Couzens, without whose business acumen and management skills Ford Motor Company would likely have not succeeded in the early days eventually got fed up with being spied upon and resigned, later serving as Detroit mayor and U.S. Senator. Offhand, Charlie Sorenson, Peter Martin, Harry Bennett and Ford’s son Edsel are the only people that I can think of that spent their entire careers in Ford’s employ. Gene Farkas hired in and quit twice before staying on for more than a decade and even he eventually got tired of working for Henry.
Henry Ford’s restored office at the Piquette Ave plant. Full gallery here.
His employees may have tired of working for him, but Henry Ford is undoubtedly one of the more fascinating personalities in automotive history and it’s hard to get tired of writing about him, his enterprise and his associates. A piece of work for sure, he changed the world. We’d be driving automobiles today whether or not Henry Ford came along, he was just one of many pioneers, but I think the automotive world and the world in general would be a different place without him.
In the background is a reproduction of the rocking chair where Henry Ford would sit in the experimental room and approve wooden models of proposed Model T components. In the foreground is sculptor and master clay modeler Giuliano Zuccato, who carved the first clay model of the Ford Mustang, and who was shooting a documentary the day I visited the museum.
*The Piquette Ave museum has the date of the first Model T being assembled as Sept. 27, 1908.
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 get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If you think that 3D is a conspiracy to get you to buy yet another new television set, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS
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Quite possibly the most important thing to know about using a Model T as a daily driver is to watch out for the kickback when you're hand-cranking. If you're not careful--and especially if you lock your elbow or push too hard on the crank--and it kicks back when you're not ready, then it'll break your arm. It's not at all like a Briggs & Stratton Easy Spin. C'mon, B&B, I'm not THAT old and even I know that much ;)
RE : hand cranking to start FWIW , you never , _EVER_ push down on the crank handle ! . You fold your thumb into your palm , slowly rotate the engine to it's compression point then rotate the crank handle back wards until it's down then sharply pull (not yank) _UP_ to start it . Failing to do this , risks a broken wrist , not arm . BT , DT , folks were always amused to see a young man hand cranking a vintage engine , my old '57 VW Typ 211 double doors 3/4 ton panel truck had the unused original hand crank under the driver's seat when I rescued it fro Aadlen Bros. Auto Wrecking in Sun Valley , Ca.in 1980 or so . -Nate