Where would we be today without the vehicles in our driveways? They help us get to destinations near and far, plus they have built-in TVs, elaborate stereo systems, and automatic windows.
However, we often forget the humble beginnings of the cars we know and love today.
The Model T released by Ford Motor Company on October 1, 1908, was the first effort to sell a car in America that people could buy at an affordable price. This effort to mass-produce cars was successful as Ford sold over 15 million Model Ts between 1913 and 1927.
Let’s take some time to talk about Henry Ford, creator of the Model T and Ford Motor Company, and how his invention would change the course of history forever.
Who Was Henry Ford?
Henry Ford was an American industrialist born on July 30, 1863, to farmers in Michigan. From a young age, Ford was known by his neighbors as the “watch repairman” since he would often disassemble his pocket watch and put it back together right before their eyes.
At the age of 12, he watched a Nichols and Shepard road engine being operated on, which would inspire Ford to build a steam wagon/tractor himself.
After his mother died in 1876, Ford was expected by his father to help with the duties on the farm. However, Ford disliked farm work and wished to work with machines. So he decided to leave home to become an apprentice machinist but ended up back at his father’s farm after being fired.
During this time, he became a pro at handling his neighbor’s new Westinghouse portable steam engine and would go on to work at Westinghouse to service their engines. He also studied bookkeeping at a college in Detroit, which would be his only formal education in business.
Over the years, Ford continued to repair and build engines in his spare time. By 1892, he completed his first motor car, which he would drive for over 1,000 miles. Four years later, he would start his second car and eventually build three more.
When Did the Model T Come Out?
Ford knew that modern cars were built in Germany in 1885 by Karl Benz, and in America by Charles and Frank Duryea in 1893. However, average folks couldn’t afford to buy a car, and he wanted to create and sell a car that the average family could buy.
On Christmas Eve of 1893, he and his wife Clara took a break from cooking to test a gasoline-powered engine Henry had been working on. He got the engine to work for 30 seconds, which encouraged him that he was headed in the right direction.
At this time, he was an engineer at Edison Illuminating Company of Detroit and knew he needed to create an engine powered by gasoline since they would be lighter in weight and more efficient. Henry’s boss surprised him by introducing him to owner Thomas Edison himself. This encounter would encourage Ford to continue to work on his dream of creating an affordable car for Americans.
After two failed business ventures, including a self-propelled vehicle called the quadcycle, Ford finally opened his own business, the Ford Motor Company.
On October 1, 1908, Ford released the Ford Model T (aka Tin Lizzie), a self-starting vehicle with a four-cylinder engine and a left-sided steering wheel. The automobile was lightweight and marketed as being robust and able to handle back rural roads. The Model T price was $850 ($23,480 today).
Ford’s long-term goal was to produce the car more efficiently and, in return, lower the price of the vehicle even more. After selling 10,607 vehicles, Ford decided not to release models R and S and continue selling the Model T.
The Model T in Later Years
In 1913, Ford opened a 60-acre factory (the biggest in the world at that time) to create an assembly line manufacturing process of Model T cars. By doing this, he cut the time it took to build Model T engines from nine hours to five hours and decreased the price of the car even more.
By the 1920s, Ford saw competition in the touring car industry and saw his sales drop, making the Model T “old fashioned.” He decided to stop selling the model T and release the Ford Model A – even though he would lose a considerable amount for having to discard 40,000 tools used only to build Model Ts.
Ford would go on to produce more models of cars as well as airplanes and boats used by the U.S. Army during WWI. He would also open a new company called Henry Ford & Son, which would produce tractors so popular that they made over 75% of all U.S. tractors.
Legacy of Henry Ford and Model T
Ford accomplished a great deal during his life – especially since he lived during a time of rapid changes, from candlelight and horses to world wars and the Industrial Revolution.
His vision to create a vehicle that the average person could drive changed the way we live today – modernizing transportation and its ever-changing features.
During his time, Ford was a philanthropist and a pioneer of welfare capitalism. He was also one of the first employers in America to improve the work-life of his employees intentionally. In 1914 he would surprise the world by compensating his workers $5 a day ($130 per day now) and introduce the five-day workweek.
For a wonderful comprehensive timeline of Henry Ford’s life and legacy, check out this interactive timeline.
Teaching Your Children About Henry Ford and Model T
We cover Henry Ford and his invention of the Model T in The Industrial Revolution Through the Great Depression Time Traveler, where your kids can learn about the impact Ford’s design had on society. You can also find many other life-changing inventions from this era in our 20th Century in America Lap-Pak.
We hope you enjoyed learning about the Model T car. Next time you step foot in your vehicle, don’t forget to think of Mr. Ford and how far this fantastic invention has come!