By on October 12, 2014

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.

Assembly-Piquette

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.

IMG_0073

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.

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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.

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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.

THF101432-Henry-Ford-in-his-office-at-Piquette-ca

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.

IMG_0056

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.

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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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39 Comments on “Model T Production Began 106 Years Ago This Month...”


  • avatar
    statikboy

    106?

  • avatar
    RogerB34

    Make the T years 106.
    Ford produced his first automobile 1898, 116 years ago.
    Whatever his shortcomings were, Ford transformed America.

  • avatar
    PenguinBoy

    “…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.”

    Sounds like the Steve Jobs of his day.

  • avatar
    Big Al from Oz

    Some more fantastic and interesting insight Ronnie, keep them coming.

    I have previously been shot down on TTAC for my comments regarding Henry Ford.

    Essentially he didn’t invent mass production as most assume. He adopted many of the ideas from the newly created mass production of consumer goods.

    The biggest leap Henry took was the adaptation of the electric motor.

    Henry Ford invented little or nothing, but was innovative and maximize existing technologies.

    I do believe it was people who surrounded him who made him what he was. He managed the dosh and wisely chose ‘friends’.

    • 0 avatar
      Monty

      I don’t think Henry Ford had any original ideas, but knew a good one when he saw/heard it, at least when he was younger. He knew brilliance when he saw it also, as he hired many people who created or bettered inventions and processes. The Ford Motor Company was more or less an amalgam of many ideas and inventions that were known to most of the pioneers of the early auto and manufacturing industries.

      I believe his genius was in determining that the auto was best suited for the general populace, not just the wealthy.

  • avatar
    haroldingpatrick

    Thanks for the reminder. I had the pleasure of visiting the Piquette Ave plant last month while up for the Old Car Festival at Greenfield Village. A retired Ford engineer named Tom (?) gave my group a fantastic tour.

    Car guys anywhere near Detroit should make time to visit and soak in some automotive history.

  • avatar
    VW16v

    I’m sorry to say that some people on this site would have rather seen the first Camry. This will not put that tingly feeling up there legs from the Model T. Put the first Camry up next week and you will hit 300 posts.

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      I think you presume too much. Forgive us if cars from the days of our fathers’ fathers’ fathers’ fathers don’t enflame our passions.

      • 0 avatar
        VW16v

        Go check out Greenfield Village in Dearborn Michigan. It’s an awesome experience for most automobile enthusiast. It might even excite a few about American made products.

        • 0 avatar
          Drzhivago138

          That actually does sound interesting. The thing is that the Brass Era is so far removed chronologically from whippersnappers like myself that even our grandfathers didn’t know a time when somebody drove a Model T, or even a Model A.

          • 0 avatar
            -Nate

            Really ? .

            In the late 1940’s when my Father was just beginning his large Family and couldn’t afford two cars , someone gave my Mother an ‘A’ Model Ford ForDor sedan , it was battered but ran O.K. , she told me she often had to wipe the spark plug connectors dry with paper towels she kept in the car for that purpose , on foggy New England mornings before it’d start & run.

            I drove ‘A’ Model Fords as daily drivers in the late 1970’s through the mid 1980’s and well remember seeing a few here and there around Los Angeles doing Yeoman Duty in the same time period .

            -Nate

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            In the late 1940’s my grandfather was attending the one-room elementary school down the road. Most everyone probably owned a pre-war Ford, Chevy, Plymouth, etc., except for the farm trucks, which were even older.

          • 0 avatar
            wstarvingteacher

            If you are old enough to hold a conversation on a forum, and you certainly are, I doubt that. My parents were born in 1905 and used a model A regularly when first married. Their first car had one horsepower. An actual horse. My first boss had a model T that was seldom driven. My brain freezes when I look at the extra pedal. If you know anyone of driving age in WW2….

            I cannot argue with the spirit of what you are saying. They have certainly passed from the scene.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            My grandfather, God rest his soul, was born in 1940. You might actually be older than he was. My father was born in 1964. I was born 3 months premature, so I got to live through the last days of George H.W. Bush’s presidency. I’m not even the youngest one here, from what I can gather from others’ comments.

            As for the rest, yeah, I don’t think even my experience with hand-clutch tractors could fully prepare me for a Model T. It might help.

          • 0 avatar
            Drzhivago138

            Hmm, it seems the TTAC bot ate my comment.

  • avatar
    petezeiss

    Here’s a nice, brief account of vanadium-steel’s importance to the Model T. Begins with third paragraph on page 158:

    http://books.google.com/books?id=KnpGtu-R77UC&pg=PA158&hl=en#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Ford reportedly could reduce the contemporary chassis’ weight by 1/3 while maintaining strength. Think a 33% weight reduction would interest anyone today?

    Interestingly, it was French metallurgy from a wrecked race car that hipped him to vanadium.

  • avatar
    Jeff S

    @Big Al–Ransom Olds was the first to use an assembly line to produce cars, but Henry Ford improved upon the assembly line and made a car the masses could afford. Steve Jobs is a lot like Henry Ford.

    • 0 avatar
      jhefner

      ^ This. I think one of the things that Henry Ford and his engineers did to greatly increase the capacity of the auto assembly line process was having workers at fixed stations doing the same repetitive tasks over and over; it is my understanding that in previous assembly lines, the workers followed each vehicle down the line, adding parts at each station. It was reducing work down to a single repetitive task for each worker that greatly improved productivity; but also make the work mind-numbing and stressful to do for long periods of time; forcing Ford to raise their wages in order to stop the turnover in workers.

      Yes, electric motors played a part because now the pieces and assemblies were moved throughout the entire plant by conveyors driven by electric motors rather than being carried or pushed through the plant by the workers themselves; the workers remaining at their stations.

      It also make Highland Park, the epitome of Henry Ford’s dream; a place that Henry Ford himself despised; so he spent most of his time in Greenfield Village after that rather than in the factory.

    • 0 avatar
      VW16v

      Great point on the assembly line. Do to the demand of the model T. I think Dodge also built some of the engines for Ford.

  • avatar
    wmba

    ” 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 skill.”

    ” 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.”

    Teaching courses, then 20 years later unable to read. ………….?

    Henry Ford was indeed an enigma. Either that or he was selectively untruthful. It’s a bit of a stretch to standing up in front of students, maybe scratching a few things on a blackboard, to being borderline “illiterate” . You know, the students just might have noticed if something was completely out-of-whack.

    • 0 avatar

      I don’t know how much “book knowledge” there was available to the circle of Detroit automotive tinkerers and inventors at the turn of the 20th century like Charles King, Walter Marr, Oliver Berthel, Henry Ford, David Buick, the Dodge bros, Ransom Olds and Henry Leland. Ford was savvy enough to rise to be chief operating engineer for Edison’s Detroit branch so he was no idiot and likely could have taught a class to his fellow tinkerers but he was also not a trained engineer.

      My guess is that if you went back in time to the phone phreak get togethers that Woz and Jobs attended before starting Apple, some of the presenters might have had some learning disabilities or stuff like Aspergers.

      Michael Lamm gets upset with me when I say it, but I think Henry Ford, in some ways, was an idiot savant. He was so, so crazy in so, so many ways. Still, you can’t deny the man his due.

  • avatar
    jhefner

    Happy Sukkot, Ronnie; and thank you for a great article. I know Henry Ford did not have a good opinion on the Jewish people (to put it mildly), so your evenhanded outlook on his life is even more commendable. I tip my hat to you sir.

    “…and also likely designed the nearly identical first Cadillac automobile and Ford Motor Company’s first car, the 1903 Model A.”

    I thought they looked identical, and does not surprise me they had the same designer. Thanks for the confirmation.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    Another fine article ! .

    I’d love to see this Museum but I always here these stories about Motor City….

    I haven’t been there since Summer 1969 .

    -Nate

    • 0 avatar
      haroldingpatrick

      Go see it. I’ve spent my entire life in or near the Appalachians from SC to PA and didn’t feel scared or threatened in any way when I went to visit. What ran through my head was “Where is everyone?”. It was the emptyness that struck me as I drove around. I don’t carry, but do keep a can of bear repellant in my car, not that I’d imagine accidently startling a bear is a common occurence around Detroit.

      • 0 avatar
        outback_ute

        Ditto, I visited Detroit including the Piquette Ave museum last year and while we did drive through some dodgy-seeming areas, the area around the museum was very quiet (it is not far from the old Packard factory) and there is off-street parking. Definitely worth a visit.

  • avatar
    wstarvingteacher

    Love the story. Keep it up.

    Have been trying to talk the wife into going to Michigan next summer. She is from Lansing and still has a half brother in Kalamazoo. Doesn’t seem to be much involved in going to the Ford Museum if I can get her there.

  • avatar
    JimC2

    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 ;)

    • 0 avatar
      Drzhivago138

      Best advice I ever heard to fix that problem is to fold your thumb over the other way as a fifth finger so you don’t spend an extra tenth of a second having to unclench your hand.

  • avatar
    -Nate

    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


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