1931 Ford Model A Coupe
1931 Ford Model A Coupe
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Henry Ford I was a stubborn man. He considered his Model T the perfect car for the masses, and wasn’t about to stop making it. Even when sales flagged in the 1920s, and others offered more luxury and style, autocratic old Henry hung on to the Model T.

But by 1926 Model T sales were down by more than a quarter-million units, and many were sitting unsold in dealers’ lots. Even with changes like wire wheels and balloon tires, it finally became apparent to Henry that foot-shifted transmissions, weak brakes and his spartan approach were no longer adequate to attract buyers away from the competition.

In May of 1927, after 19 years and more than 15 million Model T’s, the announcement came. The car that pioneered the moving automobile assembly line and the Ford $5 day was finally going out of production. What could possibly replace it?

Henry was so dedicated to the Model T that there was little preparation for its replacement. It seemed as if he really didn’t want to face the demise of his beloved Tin Lizzie. The result was that when the Highland Park and giant River Rouge plants stopped building T’s, some 60,000 workers were idled. Ford dealers had no new cars for almost nine months, and had to survive on parts and service.

Ford family strife slowed the T’s replacement. Charles Sorensen, production chief, said in his book “My Forty Years With Ford,” that development of the new car was delayed by differences between Edsel Ford, Henry’s son and titular president of the company, and Henry, who actually controlled the company.

Edsel, an imaginative, forward-thinker, wanted a modern, well appointed car to compete with GM’s Chevrolet. Henry preferred, for example, the planetary transmission; he didn’t believe the sliding gear (“crunch gear,” he called it) gearbox would stand up.

When a compromise was finally reached, work proceeded quickly on the new model. In Forty Years, Sorensen said: “Actually, when Mr. Ford finally decided to replace Model T, clearing the design and getting Model A into production took only 90 days. But it was six months before Henry Ford would go to work.”

With the fabled reputation that Henry Ford had built up, the new car was eagerly awaited. Henry revelled in the publicity and surrounded the new car with a tight cloak of secrecy. Finally, in late November, 1927, Ford ran a series of five daily advertisements in thousands of newspapers. On the fifth day the Model A was shown.

At the car’s first public showing in January, 1928 in New York’s Madison Square Garden, police had to hold back the surging throng. Fifty thousand New Yorkers paid deposits on new Fords. The mob scenes were repeated in other major cities. It was apparent that Ford had produced another winner.

Edsel’s ideas had finally prevailed. Apart from transverse leaf springs, there was little mechanical carryover from the T. The A’s 3.3 litre (200.5 cu in.) side-valve four was larger than the T’s 2.9 litre (176.7 cu in.) unit, and at 40 horsepower, twice as powerful.

It had four-wheel mechanical brakes instead of the T’s two-wheel; a three-speed sliding-gear transmission rather than a foot-operated two-speed planetary; a foot-operated accelerator pedal instead of a lever under the steering wheel; a proper steering gearbox rather than a planetary gearset in the steering wheel hub; and conventional battery and coil ignition in place of the flywheel-mounted magneto. It even had lighted instruments.

The Model A was not only mechanically superior to the T, it was much more stylish. It bore some resemblance to the Lincoln and came in a wide variety of models.

Performance was also significantly better. While the Model T could barely achieve 72 km/h (45 mph), the Model A could sail well past 96 km/h (60 mph). In a simulated road test In February 1957, Road & Track magazine estimated a top speed average of 100 km/h (62 mph) for a 1930 model. The 1928s and ’29s were said to be even faster due to larger wheels and a higher axle ratio.

The Model A was also quite spirited. R & T placed its zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) time at 29.0 seconds, as quick as a 1957 Volkswagen. The A’s ability to reach 73 km/h (45 mph) in second gear gave it, as Automotive Industries magazine commented “stoplight getaway (that) would embarrass the owners (and manufacturers) of even our highest-priced vehicles.”

Production figures for the Model A were 633,594 in 1928, 1,507,132 in 1929, 1,155,162 in 1930 and 541,615 in 1931. The severe drop in 1931, the A’s last year, was no doubt largely a result of the Great Depression. There was also strong competition from the 6-cylinder Chevrolet, and the Plymouth with its hydraulic brakes, and in 1931, “Floating Power” rubber engine mounts. And Ford’s own fabulous V-8 engine was rumoured for 1932.

Although it was built for only four years, the Model A Ford was a popular car, a transitional step between Ford’s ancient Model T and its ground-breaking low priced V-8. It’s a well regarded collectible today.

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