1908-1927 Ford Model T

Henry Ford built a fine car in the Model T, using only top-quality materials such as Vanadium steel. The 1909 Touring Car (above) listed at $850 and 7,728 were built. But the genius of Henry Ford -- with help from others, to be sure -- was the moving assembly line that allowed him to control the cost. See more classic car pictures.
©Nicky Wright

It was on October 1,1908, just about a month before William Howard Taft defeated William Jennings Bryan for the Presidency of the United States, that the Ford Motor Company unveiled the little machine that many historians think of as the most significant automobile of all time -- the 1908-1927 Ford Model T.

Henry Ford called it the Model T-hardly surprising since Henry had already run through the alphabet from A to S, though a lot of letters were skipped along the way. It was built only as a touring car at first, but within a few months a number of other body styles would be added to the line. Strictly a utilitarian vehicle, the Ford took no beauty prizes, and it won no speed contests.


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Still, its 22-horsepower, four-cylinder engine could propel the 1,200-pound car to a top speed of between 35 and 40 miles an hour, adequate for the mostly unpaved roads of the era. Cooling was by the primitive thermo-siphon method, lubrication via a splash system. The gas tank nestled beneath the front seat, its fuel being fed to the engine by the force of gravity. Meanwhile, the driver shifted the two-speed planetary transmission with foot pedals. The car didn't even have demountable rims at first, though in 1919 they became available for an extra $25.

Widely known as the "Tin Lizzie," the little Ford became the butt of a thousand jokes. But it was this machine, more than all the others combined, that was responsible for putting America -- and ultimately the world -- on wheels. On the strength of the Model T, Ford's yearly production would increase from 10,000 cars in 1908 to nearly two million 15 years later. As early as 1913, in fact, Ford was literally outproducing all the rest of the nation's automakers put together!

On the next page, you will learn about the creation of the Ford Model T.

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The formula for the Ford Model T's success was a very basic one: It was simple, it was tough, and it was cheap (but not cheaply built). In some respects it was even ahead of its time. The engine, for example, was cast en bloc at a time when most manufacturers cast their cylinders singly or in pairs. Further, the cylinder head was removable, a daring innovation at the time. People, including many so-called experts, said it would leak, but it didn't.

And Ford's metallurgy, under the direction of C. Harold Wills (who would later build the Wills Sainte Claire), was superior to that of most cars selling at many times the Model T's price. That figure, $825 at first, was steadily reduced as output increased, until by 1924 a brand new Ford runabout could be purchased for as little as $260!

By 1913, the year Ford production first topped the 200,000 mark, Henry had to abandon his original notion of using conveyor belts to bring component parts to the assembly point. Instead, he substituted a moving assembly line, operated at first by means of a windlass. By year's end he was able to assemble a complete car in 93 minutes, while most of his competitors still measured their production time in days.

It was in 1914 that Henry Ford is said to have issued his now-famous declaration that "the public can have any color it wants, so long as it's black!" There was a certain arrogance to the pronouncement, and indeed Ford could be an arrogant man. But in this instance the dictum made sense, for in those days the only available finish that would dry fast enough to keep up with the hectic pace of the Ford assembly line -- now turning out more than 300,000 cars annually -- was black Japan enamel.

The true success of the Ford Model T lay in its engineering. On the next page, learn about the features of the Ford Model T.

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The first versions of the Ford Model T were way ahead of their time, though many of the features will probably seem archaic to today's standards.

In the early years one had to crank a Model T in order to get the engine started. And woe betide the driver who forgot to retard the spark before doing so -- doctors had to set many a broken arm resulting from the Ford engine kicking back while being cranked. An electric starter was offered as optional equipment commencing in 1919, but it added $75 -- about 15 percent -- to the price of the car. Many, possibly most, buyers elected to keep on cranking.

The technique of driving a Model T has almost become a lost art. Having cranked the engine into action, the driver had to advance the spark, then turn the ignition key from "battery" (used only for starting) to "magneto." At that point, he was ready to go.

The handbrake, located to the driver's left, was almost totally useless for stopping the car, nor would it hold the car very effectively if parked on a hill. Its real purpose was to disengage the gears, for once the brake was set the transmission was in neutral. Then as the driver released the hand brake, he opened the hand throttle a bit (there being no foot accelerator).

At the same time, he depressed the left pedal, placing the car in low gear. Amid a shrill whining sound, the Ford got under way. Then at a speed of perhaps 10 miles per hour, the driver released that pedal so that the transmission would shift itself into high gear. In the hands of a novice, the shift often took place with a pronounced jerk, but with a bit of practice most operators learned how to accomplish it more smoothly.

Reversing the Model T required the coordination of both feet and the right hand. The left foot depressed the "low" pedal halfway, thus releasing the transmission from high gear. The middle pedal (there were three) was then fully depressed, engaging the reverse gear. And of course the driver had to control the throttle with the right hand. Perhaps this helps explain why Henry Ford didn't bother to outfit the Model T with a foot accelerator, since a third foot would have been required in order to make use of it.

Then there was the service brake. Located in the transmission, it was operated by the pedal on the right. By modern standards it wasn't very effective, but truthfully it wasn't any worse than the conventional two-wheel binders used in those days by Chevrolet and other makes.

There was just one problem -- the brake band tended to wear out faster than the transmission's "low" or "reverse" bands. But that was solved if about every third time the driver slowed down he hit the reverse pedal, rather than the brake. No, this procedure wouldn't cause any damage, for the mechanism was tough enough to withstand a lot of punishment, and it helped assure that all three bands -- low, reverse, and brake -- wore out at about the same time.

Finally, we should mention the dashboard instrumentation. It consisted of an ammeter. Period. Of course, a speedometer was available to anyone willing to spend a few extra dollars. The fuel supply, meanwhile, was measured by dipping a stick, preferably a clean one, into the gas tank. And if the engine overheated, the driver was summarily notified by means of a geyser spouting out of the radiator. A gauge would have been superfluous! And since lubrication was by the splash system, an oil pressure gauge would likewise have been quite useless. As we've said, it's all very simple!

On the next page, you will learn about the 1924-1927 Ford Model T.

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Henry Ford expected to continue producing the Model T indefinitely, making only minimal changes and improvements. But by 1924, the year the 10-millionth Model T was built, it had become apparent that a new car would have to be developed if Ford was to remain competitive.

Ernest Kanzler, brother-in-law and confidant to Edsel Ford, and himself a Ford vice-president, wrote a long letter to old Henry. In it he tactfully refrained from any criticism of the T, but he managed delicately to suggest that it was time for something new. Kanzler was exactly correct, of course, but that letter cost him his job.

Henry relented to the extent of introducing balloon tires as optional equipment in 1925. A few color choices were offered the following year, along with a larger brake band. There was even some nickel-plated trim on certain models.

But it was too little, and much too late. By the mid-Twenties, for an extra $150 the motorist could buy a Chevrolet instead. For that money, the Chevy came equipped with a three-speed sliding-gear transmission, and it was faster, quieter, more flexible, prettier, and a whole lot more comfortable than the Model T. And by that time it had come to be very nearly as tough.

Ford's market share had been falling for a number of years, and just as steadily as Ford sales were declining, those of Chevrolet were gaining. Chevrolet General Manager William S. "Big Bill" Knudsen, ironically a former Ford executive, had promised his troops in his Danish accent that Chevy would match Ford's production "vun for vun," It had become obvious, even to stubborn old Henry Ford, that Knudsen was about to make good on that pledge.

So finally, on May 26, 1927, production of the Model T was ceased, as preparations were being made for the first really new Ford in nearly two decades: the Model A.

On our final page, you will find the specifications for the 1908-1927 Ford Model T.

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The Ford Model T quickly became a household name thanks to Henry Ford's innovative manufacturing process. On this page, you can see the specifications for the 1908-1927 Ford Model T.

Engines: L-head I-4, 176.7 cid (3 3/4 ´ 4-in. bore × stroke), 4.5:1 compression ratio, 20/22 bhp @ 1,600 rpm, 83 lbs/ft torque @ 900 rpm

Transmission: 2-speed, planetary, foot pedal controls, 24-26 disc clutch, torque tube drive

Suspension: Rigid axles, transverse leaf springs

Brakes: Contracting band in transmission, parking brake on rear wheels

Wheelbase (in.): 100

Overall length (lbs): 134.5

Weight (lbs): 1,200 (touring car)

Top speed: 35-40 mph

Production: 15,007,033 between 1908 and 1927 (U.S. only)

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