Ford in the 1920s

Ford in the 1920s was in a state of transition. In 1921, William S. Knudsen resigned as production manager of the Ford Motor Company, reportedly with the pithy comment that Henry Ford found it difficult to work with anyone who was smarter than he was.

Ford Image Gallery

This 1923 Ford Model T incorporates some of the model's rare nods to styling.
This 1923 Ford Model T incorporates some of the model's rare
 nods to styling. See more pictures of Fords.

The following year, Knudsen was appointed vice president for production at Chevrolet. Conditions at Chevrolet were so bad at the time that a team of independent auditors had actually recommended the liquidation of the entire division.

It was a challenge exactly to Bill Knudsen's liking; besides, it gave him an opportunity to even an old score with Henry Ford. It wasn't possible to re-engineer the Chevy in time for the coming season, but new styling made the 1923 Chevrolet Superior a much more impressive-appearing automobile than its predecessor. Meanwhile, work got under way on some badly needed chassis improvements, in preparation for the 1925 season.

By 1924, Knudsen was Chevrolet's president and general manager. Shortly afterward, at a meeting of some 2,000 dealers at Chicago's Palmer House, he stood and declared in his thick Danish accent, "I vant vun for vun."

Almost 800,000 1923 Ford Model Ts with demountable rims and self starter were built for the calendar year.
Almost 800,000 1923 Model Ts with demountable
rims and self starter were built for the calendar year.

It took a moment for his meaning to sink in, but when the assembled dealers realized that their new chief was proposing to match Henry Ford's production car-for-car, they rose to their feet in a spontaneous standing ovation.

Now, as stubborn as Henry Ford unquestionably was, stupid he was not. Ford knew better than anyone that Knudsen was the best production man in the business and that meant Chevrolet would soon become, for the first time, a real threat to Ford's sales supremacy.

Still, at that time, the Ford Motor Company was building far more automobiles than all the rest of the industry put together. It was out-producing Chevrolet by about five to one, and justifiably so; the Ford was a tough little machine, while the Chevrolet of the day was notorious for its fragile rear axle, a problem exacerbated by a jumpy, leather-faced, cone clutch.

Aftermarket commercial bodies were often mounted on the factory-cataloged stripped Model T chassis.
Aftermarket commercial bodies were often mounted
on the factory-cataloged stripped Model T chassis.

It was inevitable that Knudsen would soon correct those difficulties and present Ford with greater competition than it had ever faced before. In the meantime, Henry Ford had agreed to make some modest changes to his beloved Model T.

To see the changes made to the Model T for the 1923 model year, continue on to the next page.

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1923 Ford Model T

When the 1923 Ford Model T appeared in the fall of 1922, the windshield on the best-selling touring and runabout types was given a smartly sloping angle; and a new, one-man top was fitted. (Although there was some improvement in appearance, it took almost as much effort to fold the new top as it did the old one.)

A buyer could get a 1923 Ford Model T tourer for just under $300 at the start of production.
A buyer could get a 1923 Ford Model T tourer for
just under $300 at the start of production.

An "instrument panel" was standard, even though instrumentation consisted solely of an ammeter -- and even that came only on cars equipped with the optional (at $65) electric starter. Internally, sheetmetal firewalls began to replace wooden ones early in the model year.

As 1922 drew to a close, a $725 four-door sedan -- which Ford impishly dubbed a "Fordor" -- was added to the Model T roster. It was not well publicized initially, however, and dealers were instructed to "push" the existing center-door sedan, with its two doors that opened into the rear compartment, requiring the driver and front passenger to squeeze through between the two individual front seats in order to be seated. (It seems safe to presume that the frugal Henry Ford was intent upon using up remaining stocks of the older bodies.)

Aside from the additional doors, the Fordor used a rectangular rear window and crank-activated roll-up windows to further distinguish itself from the center-door version. Though mounted on the same 100-inch-wheelbase chassis that was under every Model T, the four-door's body was three inches longer and an inch lower than the older type's coachwork.

This open Ford Model T was modified to serve as a delivery vehicle.
This open Ford Model T was modified to serve
as a delivery vehicle.

Standard equipment on the closed cars included the electric starter and demountable rims, reflecting the fact that Ford customers were beginning to demand more than just basic transportation. (In fact, by this time, even open models with starters and demountable rims outsold bare-bones units by about five to one.)

But it was still the open touring car and runabout models, with base prices of $298 and $269, respectively, that were Ford's hot tickets, accounting between them for well more than two-thirds of the company's passenger-car sales.

By June 1923, there was a larger hood and a taller radiator with a stylish valance beneath it. In combination, these features gave the Ford a smoother, more impressive appearance.

During 1923, a new coupe design replaced the old
During 1923, a new coupe design replaced the old
"telephone booth" style Model Ts.

Underscoring Ford's new-found interest in style, two body types that had been scorned for their outmoded appearance were finally phased out. The first of these was a dumpy-looking coupe fitted with what we would now think of as "suicide" doors and bearing no small resemblance to a rolling telephone booth. The other was the center-door sedan, a design dating from 1915.

Taking the place of these two anachronisms were a much handsomer coupe with front-hinged doors and an integral turtle back with a built-in trunk, and a crisp-looking two-door sedan (the "Tudor" in Ford parlance) with doors opening into the front compartment. Both of these models came with the cowl ventilator that had been introduced on the Fordor.

To continue Ford's story with the 1924-1926 Model T, continue on to the next page.

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1924-1926 Ford Model T

Many changes were in store for the 1924-1926 Ford Model T, as the car evolved with the changing times and increased competition.

This 1925 Model T shows off the integral turtle-back deck and built-in trunk introduced for 1923.
This 1925 Model T shows off the integral turtle-back
deck and built­-in trunk introduced in 1923.

Mechanical changes were minor for 1924, although the use of lighter pistons tended to improve performance of the tried-and-true 176.7-cid four-cylinder engine somewhat. Closed cars adopted more all-steel stampings for doors and body panels. Presumably the switch resulted in some manufacturing economy, though the difference -- if any -- was not reflected in the price of the car.

Modifications were negligible when the 1925 models were introduced, but during May, a roadster pickup was added to the line. Priced at $281 in basic form or $366 with electric starter and demountable rims, this double-duty vehicle was an immediate success.

Other late arrivals included 4.40 × 21 balloon tires and varnished natural-wood spoked wheels. The balloon tires, a $25 option, replaced the standard 30 × 3.5 high-pressure skins. Because the softer tires made for heavier steering, the ratio on cars so equipped was advanced from 3:1 to 5:1. The varnished wheels were an alternative to the the standard wooden-spoke wheels, which were painted black.

The 1926 Ford Model T roadster acquired a longer deck and opening driver's side door.
The 1926 Ford Model T roadster had a longer deck
and was available in paint colors other than black.

The 1926 line was billed, justifiably, as "The Improved Ford." Perhaps the title was inspired by Chevrolet's use of the term "Superior." In any event, fatter tires were only the first of many changes in store for buyers of that year's Model T.

With the exception of the Fordor, bodies were attractively redesigned. Fenders were new; running boards were lower and deeper. Chassis height was reduced by 1.5 inches.

Nickel plated radiator shells were standard on all closed body types, optional at modest extra cost on open cars. A hand-operated windshield wiper was standard equipment on all closed cars (and a 50-cent option on open models). But a hand-operated wiper is a nuisance at best and a menace at worst, so for a mere $3.50, the 1926 Ford buyer could have his car
equipped with a vacuum-powered wiper, on the driver's side only.

Seats in all models save the Fordor were lowered, and more deeply cushioned seats were fitted. The fuel tank -- again with the exception of the Fordor -- was moved from beneath the driver's seat to the cowl, greatly increasing the effectiveness of the gravity feed, and eliminating the need for the driver to disembark in order to have his tank filled.

A well-optioned 1926 Model T might include wire wheels, bumpers, and triangular side curtains.
A well-optioned 1926 Model T might include wire
wheels, bumpers, and triangular side curtains.

The Tudor sedan and coupe were lower -- by as much as 4.5 inches -- and longer -- by 3.5 inches -- than before, and both were finished in deep Channel Green, instead of the previously ubiquitous black. Fordor sedans were finished in rich Windsor Maroon. Closed cars were upholstered in gray fabric with respective fine green or red stripes to harmonize with the exterior colors.

Open models continued, for the time being, to be painted black. Bodies stood 4.5 inches lower than before. Front seats were three inches wider, while the rear seat of the touring was widened by a generous five inches. The rear deck of the runabout was stretched, increasing the length of that model by 7.75 inches.

The touring was elongated by 3.5 inches, a difference reflected in increased rear leg room. Most importantly, as far as the open cars were concerned, a driver's side front door was fitted, rendering it unnecessary for the driver to enter from the passenger's side, or swing his leg over what had previously been a "dummy" door.

To read more about the improvements made to the 1926 Model T, continue to the next page.

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Improvements to the 1926 Ford Model T

Improvements to the 1926 Ford Model T, while welcome enough, added about a hundred pounds to the weight of the car, placing an additional burden on the already overworked, 20-bhp Ford engine. (A popular aftermarket item was the two-speed Ruxtell axle, which provided the Model T with the flexibility of four forward speeds instead of two.)

Style changes for the 1926 Model T included a new body for the tourer, 3.5 inches longer than its predecessors.
Style changes for the 1926 Model T included a new
tourer body, 3.5 inches longer than its predecessors.

Color choices were broadened at mid-year, with Gunmetal Blue and Phoenix Brown offered on the open models, and Royal Maroon, Fawn Gray, Highland Green, Moleskin, and Drake Green on the closed cars.

And by the beginning of calendar 1926, the familiar 30 × 3.5 high-pressure tires had been replaced by 4.40 × 21 balloons as standard issue, leading to the general use of the slower 5:1 steering ratio. For an extra $25, the wood artillery wheels could be replaced at the factory with welded steel wires, adding a stylish touch to any Ford.

But the most significant improvement to the 1926 Fords had to do with the brakes. Owners had complained for years about the Ford's service brake, a single drum located in the transmission and acting on the driveshaft.

Not only was it inefficient (though it performed about as well as the two-wheel external binders employed by Chevrolet at the time), but the brake band tended to wear out long before it was necessary to open the planetary transmission and change either the low or reverse bands. (Many Model T drivers attempted to balance the wear among the three bands by occasionally using the reverse pedal to slow the car. The remedy may sound radical, but it worked rather well with no negative effects on the car.)

A new radiator design and longer hood were ushered in for the 1926 Ford Model T.
A new radiator design and longer hood were
ushered in for the 1926 Ford Model T.

For 1926, Ford widened the transmission brake band from 1.125 inches to 1.75 inches, providing it with both greater stopping power and substantially longer life. At the same time, the emergency brake drum was increased in diameter from eight to 11 inches and lined for the first time with asbestos.

Until then, what braking action the device provided -- and it wasn't much -- had resulted from unlined iron shoes pressing against steel drums. Brake and low-speed pedals were widened and supplied with a lip to prevent the driver's foot from slipping off.

Oddly enough, despite these numerous improvements, some important factors remained unchanged. Dashboard instrumentation still consisted solely of an ammeter, though an increasing number of buyers paid extra for the dealer-installed speedometer.

Since the engine was lubricated by the time-honored splash system, no oil-pressure gauge was needed. Nor did the Model T driver require a temperature gauge to tell him when his engine was overheating; steam rising from the radiator would signify such a problem. The fuel level was measured by dipping a stick into the gas tank.

One is reminded of a verse that some wag added to the popular song,
"My Bonnie":

My Bonnie leaned over the gas tank,
The depth of its contents to see.
I lighted a match to assist her,
Oh, bring back my Bonnie to me!

Nickel-plated radiator shells were an extra-cost item on open 1926 Fords like this tourer.
Nickel-plated radiator shells were an extra-cost
item on open 1926 Fords like this tourer.

With the arrival of the 1926 models, in mid-1925, closed models came with demountable rims and electric starters as standard equipment, while the open cars continued to charge extra for that equipment. By January 1926, however, a special order was required of the handful of buyers who opted for the non-demountable skins and the hand crank. (Later in the year, this equipment was dropped all together.)

But for all of the advantages offered by Ford for 1926, and despite the fact that the Model T was still the industry's sales leader, Ford's share of the American automobile market was steadily shrinking. Even a substantial reduction in the prices of the closed models (as much as $115 in the case of the Fordor sedan), which took effect June 6, 1926, failed to stimulate sales. Overall, between 1923 and 1926, U.S. annual production fell from 1,817,891 to 1,368,383, a drop of 24.7 percent.

Meanwhile, Chevrolet, although its numbers were still significantly smaller than Ford's, showed a sales gain of 41.6 percent over the same three-year period.

To see how the 1927 Ford Model T stacked up in the face of this competition, continue to the next page.

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1927 Ford Model T

Unquestionably, the 1927 Ford Model T was better than ever. Unfortunately, however, even the "Improved" Ford wasn't improved enough as far as the public was concerned.

Of 1927 Ford Model Ts, the Tudor was the most popular closed model with more than 78,000 built.
In the 1927 Model T production run, Tudor was the
most popular closed model with over 78,000 built.

It was tough and reliable, and far cheaper than the competition. But it remained rough, noisy, slow, and comparatively homely. In earlier times, the Ford's shortcomings had mattered little. But by 1927, under Bill Knudsen's leadership, Chevrolet was turning out cars that were quieter, better looking, more comfortable, and a little faster than the Ford -- and very nearly as sturdy.

Even Henry Ford was compelled to recognize that it was time for him to offer a new car. Fortunately, thanks in large measure to his son, Edsel, such a car was already under development.

Ford rode on into 1927 with a Model T that was virtually unchanged from 1926, except that effective February 21, 1927, drop-center wire wheels were supplied as standard equipment on all closed cars. Eventually they became available on the open models as well, in a range of colors that included Casino Red, English Vermillion, Green, Straw, and Black. Another running change during the year was the addition of a headlamp tie bar.

Ford sales continued their steep downward trend and late in May 1927, after a paltry (by Ford standards) 356,188 cars had been produced in just less than five months, Ford shut down production in preparation for the Model A, the first really new Ford in more than 18 years. The plant remained shut for more than six months as far as passenger cars were concerned, although trucks remained in production for a time.

Open cars were still the most popular 1927 Model Ts, with the roadster leading the way.
Open cars were still the most popular 1927
Model Ts, with the roadster leading the way.

Replacement Model T engines continued to be built, though in diminishing numbers, as late as August 1941. That was testimonial enough to the toughness of the Model T -- and to the loyalty of many of its owners, some of whom, including noted journalist Arthur Brisbane, had urged Henry Ford to keep at least one Model T assembly line in operation indefinitely.

Still, it had been a sensational run. Between October 1908, when the Model T made its debut, and May 26, 1927, when the last one came off the line, a little more than 15 million of these remarkable little cars had been produced. What an impact it had made! For it was the Model T, far, far more than any other automobile, that had put America -- and indeed the world -- on wheels.

And if Henry Ford had continued for too long to build it, well beyond the time when the motoring public had come to demand something newer, more powerful, more comfortable, and more stylish than the "T," who could really blame its creator for clinging to the car that had brought him such fabulous success, and had, in the process, radically changed the way Americans live?

To see models, prices, and production numbers for the 1923-1927 Ford Model T, continue to the next page.

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1923-1927 Ford Model T Models, Prices, Production

The simple, reliable Model T turned a former farm boy into a multimillionaire and democratized the motor car in the United States. But by the mid-1920s, many of those relatively new motorists were developing a taste for more car than Henry Ford's "Tin Lizzie" could provide. Here are the specifications for the 1923-1927 Ford Model T:

A stripped-down 1926 Ford Model T roadster could be purchased for $260.
A stripped-down 1926 Ford Model T roadster
could be purchased for $260.

1923 Ford Model T Models, Prices, Production

Model T (wheelbase 100)
Weight
Price1
Production2
touring
1,500$298136,441
touring with self-starter, demountable rims
1,650393792,651
roadster
1,39026956,954
roadster with self-starter, demountable rims
1,540364238,638
2-door sedan3
1,87559596,410
4-door sedan4
1,950725144,444
coupe4
1,760530313,273
chassis
1,0602359,443
chassis with self-starter, demountable rims
1,210330 42,874
Total 1923 Ford


1,831,128

1924 Ford Model T Models, Prices, Production

Model T (wheelbase 100)Weight Price1 Production2
touring 1,500$29599,523
touring with self-starter, demountable rims 1,650380673,579
roadster 1,39026543,317
roadster with self-starter, demountable rims 1,540350220,955
2-door sedan4 1,875590223,203
4-door sedan41,95068584,733
coupe4 1,760525327,584
chassis 1,0602303,921
chassis with self-starter, demountable rims 1,21029543,980
Total 1924 Ford


1,720,795

1925 Ford Model T Models, Prices, Production

Model T (wheelbase 100)WeightPrice1Production2
touring 1,500$29064,399
touring with self-starter, demountable rims1,650375626,813
roadster1,39026034,206
roadster with self-starter, demountable rims1,536345264,436
roadster pickup
1,47128133,795
roadster pickup with self-starter, demountable rims
1,621366
2-door sedan41,875580195,001
4-door sedan41,95066081,050
coupe41,760520343,969
chassis1,0602256,523
chassis with self-starter, demountable rims1,210290 53,450
Total 1925 Ford


1,703,642

1926 Ford Model T Models, Prices, Production

Model T (wheelbase 100)WeightPrice1Production2
touring5 1,633$290364,409
touring with self-starter, demountable rims1,738375
roadster51,550260342,575
roadster with self-starter, demountable rims1,655345
roadster pickup5
--28175,406
roadster pickup with self-starter, demountable rims
1,736366
2-door sedan41,972580270,331
4-door sedan42,004660102,732
coupe41,860520288,342
chassis51,16722558,223
chassis with self-starter, demountable rims1,272290
Total 1926 Ford


1,502,018

1927 Ford Model T Models, Prices, Production

Model T (wheelbase 100)WeightPrice1Production2
touring1,738$38081,181
roadster
1,65536095,778
roadster pickup
1,73638128,143
2-door sedan
1,97249578,105
4-door sedan
2,00454522,930
coupe
1,86048569,939
chassis
1,272300 19,280
Total 1927 Ford


395,356

1Prices shown are early-season prices. Mid-year price changes, both increases and decreases, were common in these years.
2Calendar year, 1923-1925; model-year, 1926; fiscal-year, 1927. Includes foreign production.
3May include a mix of center-door and later conventional-door styles. Includes self-starter and demountable rims.
4Includes self-starter and demountable rims.
5Available by special order only during calendar year 1926.

Sources: 90 Years of Ford, by George H. Dammann, Motorbooks International, 1993; Standard Catalog of Ford, 1903-1990, by Robert Lichty, Krause Publications, 1990.

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