Brian Viner's Icons of the 20th Century - No 8: The Ford Model T

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
In Aldous Huxley's 1932 novel Brave New World, the god worshipped by his society of the future was called "Our Ford", and the huge clock that sounded over the city was known as "Big Henry". Citizens even made the mystic sign of the T in veneration of an ancient, quasi-religious icon, the legendary Model T, the 15,007,003rd and last of which was produced in 1927.

Huxley was paying tongue-in-cheek homage to the life and works of Henry Ford, a man who changed the landscape of the 20th century. He was born in Dearborn, Michigan, in 1863, and produced his first petrol-driven motor car in 1893. Ten years later he raised $28,000 and created the Ford Motor Company. It was already a competitive market. In 1900, 12 companies produced 4,192 automobiles. Within 10 years there were more than 180,000 cars on America's roads, and more than 200 manufacturers.

It was Ford, though, who revolutionised the burgeoning industry. In 1908 he brought out the first of his Model Ts, which sold for $850. At about the same time he devised the moving assembly line, whereby a worker with the minimum of training had only to repeat a simple task over and over, a wonderfully effective but thoroughly dehumanising system, satirised by Chaplin in his film Modern Times. Still, Ford at least rewarded his employees. In 1914 - by which time the Model T cost less than $500, and accounted for two-fifths of all cars bought - he began paying them the then-lavish daily wage of $5. He could afford it. In 1916, he paid $105m to buy out the original investors, describing them as "parasites". An associate recalled that when the deal was done, Ford "danced a jig all around the room". He was now sole owner.

The Model T, meanwhile, had already become a legend. It even had a variety of nicknames - the tin lizzie, the flivver - and while not as graceful as other cars, was by far the cheapest and most practical. It was high and light, and could negotiate flooded roads, which was important in those days because even main highways became quagmires at the first hint of bad weather. Farmers in particular loved their Model Ts, not least because, with the rear wheels jacked up, they could be used to supply power for anything from sawing wood to pumping water.

In 1909 Ford had arrogantly declared that there would be "no new models, no new motors, no new bodies and no new colours". He was a bully and a racist but he was also a man of his word. By the Twenties the Model T had changed little. Despite endless letters begging for a petrol cap on the side of the car, Ford stubbornly kept the fuel tank under the front seat. Even more bizarrely, he did nothing to correct the car's strangest design quirk: on most models, there was no door on the driver's side.

By 1927 the public was beginning to fall out of love with the Model T, and Ford closed his huge factory for 18 months while he re-equipped it to produce a new car, the Model A. The company was so secretive about the Model A's design that speculation reached fever-pitch - a brilliant marketing strategy resulting in many thousands of sales before anyone had the remotest idea what it looked like. But in those 18 months, Ford's competitors - among them the Olds, Buick, Dodge and Chrysler families - seized a share of the market that Ford was never able to win back. He died in 1947. The Model T lives on, one of the most potent symbols of 20th-century America.