1908 was a momentous year for the United States and the world. By the end of the year, the first long-distance radio transmission was sent from the Eiffel Tower, ushering in a new age in communication. Robert Baden-Powell founded his Boy Scouts while the Tunguska event occurred deep in the Russian wilderness, the Young Turks started their revolution, the Chicago Cubs won their last World Series and Henry Ford first produced his iconic and eternal Model T.
The Ford Model T, with its 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine that reached a top speed of about 45 miles per hour, was the final word for Henry Ford in a long term goal to “build a car for the great multitude‚?Ě and was the industrial success story of its age.
To build what Henry Ford called the “universal car‚?Ě he would first have to completely revolutionize the way automobiles were made. Up to that point, automobiles were handcrafted by craftsmen at high production costs and automobiles remained exclusively the playthings of the wealthy. In 1902, Ransom E. Olds of Oldsmobile began experimenting with assembly line manufacturing pioneered in Great Britain during the Second Industrial Revolution. Henry Ford however, took the concept even further.
By bringing in leaders of the so-called “Efficiency Movement,‚?Ě such as the famed Frederick Winslow Taylor, as consultants, Henry Ford increased his production eightfold. By 1914 a Ford came off the line every fifteen minutes, reducing man-hours per car by almost eleven full hours. According to the Ford Motor Company, “[i]n 1914, Ford, with 13,000 employees, produced about 300,000 cars while 299 other companies with 66,350 employees produced about 280,000 vehicles.‚?Ě It is said that a Ford was made so quickly that only a lacquer known as “Japan black‚?Ě would dry fast enough, which provides the basis for the joke: “[a]ny customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black.”
Model T’s were in almost limitless supply and consequently, affordable. The standard Model T cost $850 in 1909, a price comparable to $20,363.82 today. However, by 1920 , further improvements to the assembly line process the price dropped it to $250, or $2,696.71 today.
The result was immediate due to Ford’s economic philosophy of Fordism ,which espoused high wages and high efficiency; employees could purchase a Model T for themselves with only four months’ pay and the Model T soon began to dominate the landscape. With mass ownership of the automobile, countless Americans experienced a new level of recreation never before imagined. Vacation destinations thought only accessible to the wealthy could now be reached by the common middle-class, and trips that previously required careful planning could be made on the fly.
The success of the Model T sent shockwaves through the automobile industry that raced to catch up as Ford and his Model T began to enter into the markets of Europe. Many craftsman based automobile manufactures were slow to transition to the new system as they felt the quality of their work would trump any mass-produced Ford. By the 1920s however, almost all 250 companies that held on to the traditional manufacturing method had gone under, and all would disappear by the end of the decade, along with craftsmen as a social class.
By the end of the 1920s however, more amenity filled competition began to phase out the steadfast Ford Model T. On May 26, 1927 the 15 millionth Model T rolled off the assembly line, at a corresponding and surprisingly modest ceremony, it was announced that the Model T would cease production in favor of the new Ford Model A.
On May 31, 1927 the 15,007,033rd and last Model T rolled off the assembly line.