Ford's Model T Celebrates 100th Anniversary at Food Lion AutoFair
A century has passed since Henry Ford sold his first Model T and put the entire world on wheels. During the Sept. 4-7 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway, a special display will pay tribute to Ford's "universal car" whose name is synonymous with mass-production and American innovation.
At the dawn of the 20th century, engineer/inventor Henry Ford built, raced and sold several successful automobiles following an alphabetical naming formula-Model A, Model B, and so on. Like all cars from this period, Fords were crude by today's standards, and the labor-intensive building process meant they were costly to own. Ford's two-cylinder 1905 Model B, for example, cost $1,200 (or $27,300 after 100 years of inflation); the six-cylinder Model K went for $2,500 (about $57,000 today). Horseless carriages were toys for rich men, but Ford's goal was to engineer a car so efficient that nothing would be wasted in the building process, and the price would be within reach of every hard-working American.
In 1906 his obsession with efficiency paid off when the company produced more than 8,000 Model Ks, Ns and Fs, making Ford the number-one automaker in the world. The four-cylinder Model N was Ford's price leader at $500-$100 less than Oldsmobile's single-cylinder "Curved Dash" Model B, at the time the market's bestseller.
In October of 1908, Ford eliminated all previous car lines to focus production efforts on a plain but sturdy design he called the "Model T." The heart of the T was an inline four-cylinder engine displacing 177 cubic inches. It produced 20 horsepower, which was enough to propel the square car to 40 mph while traveling 20-plus miles on a gallon of gasoline or, in some parts of the country, ethanol.
Controls were unlike anything we drive today. Of the three pedals on the floor, the left one manipulated between low and high gears; the middle was responsible for going forward or backward; and the right one activated the car's single transmission brake. A lever on the right side of the steering column adjusted throttle speed; spark-advance was controlled by a lever on the left side. Starting a Model T meant standing in front of the vehicle and cranking the engine by hand until it sputtered to life-a practice that resulted in many broken wrists when the four-cylinder "kicked back."
Gravity fed the carburetor from a 10-gallon tank beneath the driver's seat, which is why Model T owners became accustomed to climbing hills in reverse when the gas level got low; otherwise, the engine would starve for fuel. The suspension was nothing more than a set of leafsprings mounted sideways atop each axle, with 21-inch wooden "artillery" wheels wrapped in three-inch-wide tires.
Five body styles were available from the factory. Contrary to popular belief, early Model Ts were quite colorful; touring cars were painted red, town cars and landaulets came in green and runabouts were gray.
The Model T was known for its Spartan furnishings, and the first Ts were real strippers. Windshields and tops cost extra on the open cars, and, with no electrical systems, the optional headlights relied on acetylene and did not project very much light.
With a curb weight between 1,100 and 1,200 pounds and tractor-like ground clearance, the Model T was perfectly suited for America's highway system at the time, which at its best was made up of gravel-covered cow paths and, at worst, mud bogs.
The Model T's success was so immediate that Ford's Piquette Ave.
factory in Detroit worked at full capacity to produce 11,000 cars in 1909 before a new complex could be constructed in Highland Park. Even with room for a larger workforce and better equipment, Model Ts could not be produced quickly enough to meet demand.
Desperate to increase the new facility's output, Ford and his team experimented with a moving assembly line-an idea borrowed from the Chicago stock yards' "dis-assembly" process, in which cows moved from one end of the factory to another and stationary workers performed the same specialized tasks thousands of times a day.
Ford instituted its moving assembly line in August of 1913, giving birth to industrial mass-production and eventually trimming single-car assembly time from 12.5 hours to 1.5 hours. This innovative approach boosted Model T output to the point that by 1922 more than a million cars were spewing from its factories each year, and 90 percent of vehicles on the road were Model Ts. The Model T became the first "world car," with plants all over the United States, Europe and South America.
Ford carried his cost-cutting efforts to levels never before imagined. From 1915 to 1925, Model Ts were only available in black because that paint cost the least and dried on the assembly line the quickest. He specified every detail about how parts were to be shipped to his factories so the crates themselves could then be disassembled and the wood used to build Model Ts. Scrap wood was turned into charcoal and sold commercially under the Kingsford brand.
As production efficiency increased, Model T prices dropped. The cheapest T in 1909, a two-passenger runabout, cost $825; by 1923 that same car could be had for $260 ($3,200 in 2008 dollars).
More than 15 million Model Ts were produced from model-year 1909 through the end of 1927, when Ford shut down his plants to convert to Model A assembly.
Evolution during its lifetime is nearly invisible to our modern eyes, but there were many improvements such as electric lights (1915), an electric starter (1919) and wire wheels (1926) added along the way. The most obvious visual distinction lies in the use of brass for the radiator housing and lights; Model Ts built from 1908 through 1915 are considered part of the "Brass Era", while every car produced after that had those areas painted.
With the Model T, Ford did for the transportation industry what McDonald's did for fast food, what Apple did for the personal computer and what the iPod did for portable entertainment-it took a good idea and revolutionized the way the world goes about its business.
A special Model T centennial exhibit at the Sept. 4-7 Food Lion AutoFair at Charlotte Motor Speedway will allow spectators to re-visit the birth of America's love affair with the automobile.
The fall Food Lion AutoFair annually attracts more than 120,000 visitors. It features more than 50 car club displays and more than 7,000 vendor spaces that offer a plethora of automotive parts and memorabilia.
More than 1,500 collectible vehicles of all makes and models will be available for sale in the car corral that rings the 1.5-mile superspeedway.
Food Lion AutoFair hours are 8 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday through Saturday, and 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., on Sunday. Tickets are $10 for adults while children 12 and under are admitted free when accompanied by an adult.
Parking for the event is $5.
For information, contact the Charlotte Motor Speedway events department at (704) 455-3205 or visit us online.