The Model T
A Centennial History
Robert Casey
(Johns Hopkins)
Henry Ford was a pill --- of that there is no doubt. He fought constantly with his partners, screwed them with legalisms, and had a political view of the world and of humanity that could best be described as baroque, if not Neanderthal. But all were awed by his famous assembly line. The revolutionary Mexican painter, Diego Rivera, referred to "the wonderful symphony which came from his factories where metals were shaped into tools for man's service." Otto Moog also missed the point:

    No symphony, no Eroica, compares in depth, content, and power to the music that threatened and hammered away at us as we wandered through Ford's workplaces, wanderers overwhelmed by a daring expression of the human spirit.

Casey's book is an uncritical look at one of the miracles of early mechanization of a product ... and a people. It is also packed with photographs, drawings, ads of the time, and illustrations ... the most pertinent one to be found on page 52. It is a photo from a Swift & Company meat-packing plant. Pigs were processed in an assembly line. You can see carcasses hanging down, ready for men with cleavers to "Split the Backbone."

It is said that the scene of this passing meat was the inspiration for Ford (although not Swift's "disassembly line," but a car-building "assembly line."

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Ford surrounded himself with engineers, designers, and artisans who could take his ideas and make them work. His engineering was a dream of constant feed-back. He designed a lightweight car that, without destroying itself, could float over the pits and holes and muck that constituted the average American road in the early 20th century.

The Model T was introduced in October, 1907, and more than 15,000,000 were produced in the next two decades.

It was a car constantly in evolution. It had "a chassis that twisted but didn't break and parts that were interchangeable." The famous Ford assembly line was born in 1914. The Ford employees hated it. "The workmen disliked this system and expressed their displeasure by taking jobs elsewhere."

    People quit so often that in order to expand the labor force by 100 men, the company had to hire 963.

Why was it so loathsome? Before, workers moved from car to car, installing a magneto, a steering wheel, a gas tank. They could work at their own pace. With the assembly line, the pace was set for them and, at first, it was a disaster. Who wanted to work on machines as if one were a machine?

Then Ford announced that he was going to pay $5 for a nine-hour day (it had been $2.34 previously). He required that there be an investigation into the workers' lives to make sure there were no drunks, radicals or trouble-makers, but "the lure of the money was so strong that most employees put up with such paternalistic practices."

    This bargain between Ford and the workers --- submission to the relentless discipline of the line in return for high wages --- would turn out to be as important as the Model T itself.

Casey provides a chart from the early years to prove that the assembly line was important, but that sales were going up dramatically even before its introduction. He also describes the technical improvements over the previous Model N, improvements that made the car so popular, items that those of us who barely passed 9th grade physics cannot easily understand: magnetos, crank cases, flywheels, connecting rods, cam shafts, valves and commutators.

It doesn't matter; even if Ford was a troglodyte, his car was made, they said, for "fun:" This "obedient, ever-ready car," one contemporary ad read, was available to "recharge the batteries of tired bodies, newly inspired for the day's work."

For those of us who arrived on the planet shortly after the birth of the Model T, the most beguiling chapter is titled, "Owning and Driving the Model T." Starting the car required seven steps, and if the crank kicked back, it could break your arm. Also, if the clutch were improperly set, the car "could creep forward, threatening to run over the unsuspecting driver."

    Many a Model T driver found himself caught between his over-eager car and the wall of garage or shed, yelling for someone to come and give the hand lever a yank.

In cold weather, one might have to use "a blowtorch to heat the intake manifold, hoping to vaporize the gasoline more easily."

    Others drained the water from the cooling system and replaced it with hot water heated on a stove, thus preheating the whole engine block. Still others built a fire under the oil pan to warm the engine oil.

Remember windshield wipers on the early VW bugs? --- they were powered by the air in the spare tire. In the Model T, you worked them back and forth by hand. If you were driving at night, and if you slowed down, the headlights turned dim (they were powered by the magneto).

If the engines overheated during the day, the owner was advised that "engine cooling can be improved by twisting the fan blades to a greater angle. The gas tank was under the driver's seat. "To check the fuel level, you got out, removed the seat cushion, unscrewed the gas cap and stuck a calibrated stick into the tank."

The gas feed to the engine was not perfect. If you were low on gas, and drove up a hill, the engine would just quit. Even from my youth in San Francisco, I remember owners of Model T's backing up Colon Street in order to make it home.

Compared to the other automobiles of the day, the Fords were reliable ... and cheap. An ad from 1924 shows the touring car at "$295 F. O. B. Detroit (Starter and Demountable Rims $85.00 Extra)." Readers were advised to "Pay While you Play."

Casey informs us that, contrary to what we had heard, very early models could be bought in black, dark blue, or dark green. After 1914, the only color available was black. Not because black is the color of "my true love's heart" but because it was cheaper than any available color. Which made it Ford's true love.

--- Floyd Damon
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