The Secret History of the Model T

By Audrey W. | Arcadia Staff
The invention and mass production of Henry Ford’s Model T marked a dramatic shift in the ways Americans commuted in their communities. Cars were no longer a toy reserved for the elite, but a vehicle that middle-class Americans could purchase for affordable prices and use in their everyday lives. However, Ford’s Model T was not the first automobile to impact the lives of consumers. Ford revolutionized the automobile market by being the first manufacturer to mass-produce affordable cars, but he wasn’t the creator of motorized vehicles. Here, we’re taking a look into the history of vehicles and how this led to the invention of the Model T.
 
The Earliest Motorized Vehicles
 
The first mechanical vehicle dates back to 1796 when Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot built a full-scale working vehicle. His inventions were set back due to their reliance on having a steady water supply to create the steam pressure needed to make the vehicle move. In 1801, Richard Trevithick’s designed the Puffing Devil – a working steam-powered road vehicle. However, like Cugnot’s design, it served no practical use as it was unable to maintain the long-term steam pressure required to function. The first combustion engine was built in 1807 by brothers Nicephore and Claude Niepce. It was first installed in a boat in France before being used by a Swiss inventor in a land vehicle. In France, it ran on a mixture of crushed coal, Lycopodium powder, and oil while in Switzerland it functioned based on a mixture of hydrogen and oxygen. Both functioned properly but still failed to prove a practical use for everyday consumers. 
 
Karl Benz of Germany was given a patent for his engine in 1879. This was the first car that resembled the modern ones used today. His three-wheeled Motorwagen was built in 1885 and roughly 25 were sold between 1888 and 1893. This new invention gained more traction in France than in Benz’s home country. To prove the worth of the vehicle, Benz’s wife Bertha took her husband’s invention on the first long-distance road trip. After the success of this trip, Benz went on to create the world’s largest car company in the final years of the 19th century. 
 
Cars in the 20th Century
 
In the early 20th century, cars were still reserved for the extremely wealthy. Wilhelm Maybach of Daimler Motoren Gesellschaft made strides at the beginning of the century to make the car more accessible to more people. The car contained a 35-horsepower engine that weighed only 14 pounds per horsepower and was capable of reaching speeds up to 53 miles per hour. By the end of the decade, Daimler was producing just under a thousand cars per year. 
 
Ransom E. Olds invention and building of the Oldsmobile marked the first example of mass-production in Europe. This one-cylinder, three-horsepower, and a tiller-steered vehicle more resembled a motorized horse buggy than the cars of the day. However, this model allowed cars to become increasingly available to average consumers, selling at only $650 per car. In 1904, Olds sold more than 5,508 units. Now, consumers had two options for motorized vehicles: an elevated horse buggy available to middle-class consumers or a luxurious vehicle reserved solely for the middle class. These two would be melded by the invention of Ford’s Model T, which allowed for the luxurious motorized vehicle to be sold at the cost of an Oldsmobile. 
 
Ford Steps In
 
Ford was a chief engineer at Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit, Michigan when he began work on inventing the Model T. On Christmas Eve in 1893, he successfully tested the first gasoline engine. The engine worked for only 30 seconds, but it proved that Ford was on the right track. He tried three times to build a business based on his invention. The third, Ford Motor Company, was the only successful one established in 1903. It was a self-starting car with the steering wheel on the left side. It had a four-cylinder engine fashioned from alloy steel, which allowed for incredible strength at a lightweight. Ford was the first manufacturer to build all the parts of the vehicle itself. At the start, Ford’s cars sold for $850, but their creator still considered this slightly out of the price range for average Americans and wanted to lower it even further. 
 
In 1911, a Scottish car dealer challenged his son to drive a Model T to the top of 4,411-foot tell Ben Nevis mountain in the Scottish Highlands. The vehicle performed spectacularly, driving over uneven grounds and through the snow on this five-day ride to the top of the mountain. When the car dealer’s son returned with both he and the Model T intact, sales of Ford’s vehicle in the United Kingdom soared with over 14,000 units selling in Scotland and England. 
 
Highland Park introduced a new sprawling 60-acre factory in 1913 built solely for the production of Model Ts. It doubled the number of employees at Ford Motor Company and was the largest factory in the world at that time. Here, Ford improved the assembly line manufacturing process, eventually reducing the amount of time to produce one car from nine hours and 54 minutes to 5 hours and 56 minutes. Highland Park’s factory was divided into sections that each assembled one part of the car - a strategy that drastically improved the efficiency of the Model T’s production process. 
 
In the mid-1920s competition rose and offered consumers 10 times more options when it came to buying a car. Ford’s invention was no longer the only choice they had and the Model T soon began losing sales. Ford finally announced in 1927 that Model Ts would cease manufacturing and debuted the Model A, which proved a better competitor for the booming motorized vehicle marketplace. 
 
The automobile industry continued to grow through both World Wars. The technology used to manufacture these vehicles proved crucial to building materials needed for the wars overseas. When tires and fuel were rationed during World War II, the auto industry suffered. Purchases of vehicles fell dramatically, but the 1980s brought a resurgence to the automotive industry through an $80 billion program that re-equipped manufacturers with the latest technologies. 
 
Ford’s Model T forever changed the face of the auto industry. While he was not the first to successfully create an early version of today’s car, he made it possible for the average American to acquire and practically use one. Nearly every American household today owns some form of a motor vehicle and technology continues to build on these early models.