1923 Ford Model T
1923 Ford Model T
Photo: Bill Vance

by Bill Vance

Car of the Century

The Model T Ford was more than just steel, rubber, wood and glass. It was a legend, a social phenomenon that, more than any other single development, liberated North America. It was a true “people’s car” long before the term had been applied to the German Volkswagen.

In bringing automobiles into a price range most people could afford, it expanded the average person’s private travel horizon from animal scale, how far a horse could travel in a day, to machine scale, which was magnitudes greater.

In addition to being a social phenomenon, the T and Henry Ford also contributed significantly to industrial development. During the Model T era Ford defeated the monopolistic Selden patent (1911), introduced the moving automobile assembly line (1913), and instituted the $5 per day wage (1914).

Henry Ford was always interested in light, uncomplicated cars. His first 1896 Quadricycle was small and simple, and ran on little more than bicycle wheels. When he was finally able to get his successful Ford Motor Co. going in 1903, (his third attempt) that was the type of car he favoured. Its first offering, the Model A, followed this pattern. It was a light, two-passenger runabout of which 670 were sold.

But financial backer, coal magnate Alexander Malcomson, preferred heavier vehicles. As the models marched through the alphabet, many of the cars had bigger engines and longer wheelbases; by 1906 the Model K was an expensive ($2,500) six-cylinder automobile.

Henry’s heart wasn’t in it, however, and when he was finally able to shake free of Malcomson’s grip in 1906, Ford turned back to his beloved simple sturdy design.

Models N, R, and S of 1906-07 were much closer to Henry’s philosophy. Drawing on the pattern-making genius of Danish-born Charles “Cast Iron Charlie” Sorensen, who could carve wooden casting patterns from simple descriptions (Henry wasn’t much for blueprints), Ford was able to move ahead quickly with his dream.

Henry had recently discovered light, strong, heat treated vanadium alloy steel. It was being used in European cars, and when Henry found a small steel company in Canton, Ohio, that could manufacture it, vanadium steel was gradually worked into the Model N Ford. It would be a key ingredient in the Model T.

The stage was set to pursue Henry’s vision. In the winter of 1906-07 he had a room partitioned off on the top floor of the Piquette Ave. plant. There, Ford, Sorensen, and a few trusted associates designed the Model T.

Henry wasn’t a trained professional engineer but he had uncanny practical instincts. The Model N engine had its four cylinders cast separately. For the Model T Henry wanted them incorporated into a single cylinder block.

Sorensen struggled unsuccessfully with the design, working with the then conventional closed-top cylinders. Henry cleverly suggested that they slice off the top of the block. It transformed the way engines were built. The detachable cylinder head alleviated Sorensen’s task, and because the block was open at both ends, machining and servicing were greatly eased. It quickly became the industry standard.

Ignition was another challenge that was met ingeniously by fitting horseshoe-shaped magnets to the flywheel to create a powerful magneto. Once started – using a small battery for ignition (by cranking, of course, there was no electric starter yet) – the Model T magneto generated its own ignition spark.

Henry didn’t trust the sliding gear transmissions and vicious clutches of the day. He specified a planetary gear transmission – the same principle employed in today’s automatics – which used bands and clutches operated by two foot pedals. That made the task of learning to drive simpler because the driver just had to master three pedals, two to shift and one to brake.

Steering was another novel idea on the Model T. Instead of mounting a conventional gearbox at the bottom of the steering column, Henry fitted a small planetary gearset under the steering wheel. This made steering very heavy, but it also meant that the steering wheel could be easily removed, allowing some of the most hilarious Laurel and Hardy movie scenes ever filmed (“If you don’t like the way I drive, you drive…” and the wheel was handed over).

The Model T arrived late in 1908. It was a fantastic success, all that Henry had hoped it would be. With a top speed in the order of 72 km/h (45 mph), fuel economy of 20 to 25 mpg, and a simple but sturdy design with plenty of road clearance, it was exactly what was needed. The more Model T’s he sold, the lower Henry dropped the price, until it reached $295.

When Model T production ceased in 1927 more than 15 million had been produced, a mark that wasn’t exceeded by a single design until the Volkswagen Beetle did it in 1972.

Henry’s beloved Model T Ford had, more than any other car, put North America and much of the rest of the world on wheels, and irreversibly changed its whole way of life. It recently received the honour it deserved when an international panel of automotive journalists/historians (including the writer) voted it the car of the century.

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