Any Color as Long as It’s Black
October 1, 1908: First Model T Completed
On this day the first production Model T Ford is completed at the company’s Piquette Avenue plant in Detroit. Between 1908 and 1927, Ford would build some 15 million Model T cars. It was the longest production run of any automobile model in history until the Volkswagen Beetle surpassed it in 1972.
Before the Model T, cars were a luxury item: At the beginning of 1908, there were fewer than 200,000 on the road. Though the Model T was fairly expensive at first (the cheapest one initially cost $825, or about $18,000 in today’s dollars), it was built for ordinary people to drive every day.
It had a 22-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and was made of a new kind of heat-treated steel, pioneered by French race car makers, that made it lighter (it weighed just 1,200 pounds) and stronger than its predecessors had been. It could go as fast as 40 miles per hour and could run on gasoline or hemp-based fuel. (When oil prices dropped in the early 20th century, making gasoline more affordable, Ford phased out the hemp option.) “No car under $2,000 offers more,” ads crowed, “and no car over $2,000 offers more except the trimmings.”
Ford kept prices low by sticking to a single product. By building just one model, for example, the company’s engineers could develop a system of interchangeable parts that reduced waste, saved time and made it easy for unskilled workers to assemble the cars. By 1914, the moving assembly line made it possible to produce thousands of cars every week and by 1924, workers at the River Rouge Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan could cast more than 10,000 Model T cylinder blocks in a day.
But by the 1920s, many Americans wanted more than just a sturdy, affordable car. They wanted style (for many years, the Model T famously came in just one color: black), speed and luxury too. As tastes changed, the era of the Model T came to an end and the last one rolled off the assembly line on May 26, 1927.
When the Model T was designed and introduced, the infrastructure of the world was quite different from today’s. Pavement was a rarity. Agriculture was the occupation of many people. Power tools were scarce outside factories, as were power sources for them; electrification.
Henry Ford oversaw the requirements and design of the Model T based on the realities of that world. Consequently, the Model T was (intentionally) almost as much a tractor and portable engine as it was an automobile. It has always been well regarded for its all-terrain abilities and ruggedness.
It could travel a rocky, muddy farm lane, ford a shallow stream, climb a steep hill, and be parked on the other side to have one of its wheels removed and a pulley fastened to the hub for a flat belt to drive a bucksaw, thresher, silo blower, conveyor for filling corn cribs or haylofts, baler, water pump (for wells, mines, or swampy farm fields), electrical generator, and countless other applications.
During this era Model T’s were hacked apart by their industrious owners and reconfigured into custom machinery permanently dedicated to a purpose, such as homemade tractors, ice saws, or many others. In a world mostly without mechanized cultivators, Model Ts filled a vacuum.