1914 Ford Model T
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Story and photo by Bill Vance

The basic method of building cars hasn’t changed much over the last 90 years: move the chassis slowly along an assembly line and have workers attach components as it passes. Toyota’s lean production refined the method, but the process is the same. At the end of the line, a finished vehicle emerges. It is still one of the miracles of our industrial age.

Henry Ford I is often credited with the invention of the auto assembly line, but according to his confidant and close associate Charles Sorensen, this was not the case. Manufacturing chief “Cast-Iron Charlie” Sorensen, a Ford Motor Company employee from 1905 to 1944, claimed it was his idea.

Henry was an interested onlooker who didn’t discourage Sorensen and his assistant, a young foreman named Charles Lewis, when they experimented with the idea. The auto assembly line coincided with the rising interest in “scientific management,” as espoused by time-and-motion guru Frederick Taylor in his 1911 book, The Principles of Scientific Management. Sorensen, however, denied that Taylor had any direct influence on the Ford conversion.

In his book, My Forty Years With Ford, Sorensen writes: “It was then (when he and Lewis were experimenting with a simple form of what we now call just-in-time inventory control) that the idea occurred to me that assembly would be easier, simpler and faster if we moved the chassis along, beginning at one end of the plant with a frame and adding the axles and the wheels; then moving it past the stockroom, instead of moving the stockroom to the chassis.”

This was in 1908. To test the idea, Sorensen and his assistant worked every Sunday for a month in a secret room distributing the car components in a line on the floor. They started with the frame, wheels and running gear.

When test day came, they mounted the frame on skids. Two assistants pulled it along with a towrope until they had the axles and wheels fitted, then rolled it along while Sorensen and Lewis moved with it and added parts; “… Lewis and I and a couple of helpers put together the first car, I’m sure, that was ever built on an assembly line,” wrote Sorensen.

When shown the crude assembly line, Henry was, according to Sorensen, sceptical but encouraging. Ford metallurgist, Harold Wills, who later formed the Wills-St. Clair Company to build cars, was downright hostile to the idea. He said assembling cars that way would ruin the company.

Although conceived in 1908, it took five years to implement the line. In 1908 Ford was producing the last of its Model N cars, and a new assembly method could have upset its production.

The Model T had been announced in the spring of 1908, and shown in October. Production began in December, according to Sorensen, with the first deliveries made in February, 1909. The Model T was the kind of car Henry had always wanted to produce, and orders were pouring in. Its production was the first priority, and the assembly line idea was set aside.

Henry had another serious preoccupation too: the Selden patent registered by George Selden, a Rochester, New York, patent lawyer, for a carriage powered by an engine. Although Selden built no vehicle, his patent was widely respected, and most of the fledgling auto industry paid Selden royalties.

Henry Ford, too stubborn to comply, went on building cars and fighting the patent in court. He said the patent was not a basic one that covered all cars, while Selden held that it was.

In September, 1909, the Federal Court for southern New York upheld the Selden patent. Henry appealed, increased Model T production, and vowed to take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

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