Model T Ford: The car that changed our world

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In 1908, Henry Ford bought motoring to the masses with a revolutionary machine that would define the 20th century – and may yet shape the future of mankind. Sean O'Grady crank-starts an original 'Tin Lizzie' to find out how it all began

The jolly old car you see on these pages isn't just a quaint antique. It is the machine that changed everything. And it is a centenarian. According to your point of view, the Model T Ford, launched in Detroit in 1908, either marks the moment when the fun started – the point where the convenience and comfort of the modern car for all replaced our historic reliance on domesticated animals for personal transportation – or the birth of the Model T represents the terrible moment when we started out on a road that has led us to the beginning of the end of our lovely planet. Or very possibly both, given that no one had heard of global warming back then.

So we can reasonably celebrate the significance of the Model T while fully recognising that, all things considered, and bearing in mind the survival of the polar ice caps, the Maldives and East Anglia, it might have better if we'd stuck with four legs rather opting for four wheels. Then again, there have been some frightening estimates of the volumes of "carbon" emissions that might have been left on our roads by a multitude of horses after a century of economic expansion.

The truth is that what Ford and his little troupe of engineers came up were two remarkable machines, dependent on one another, and both still with us, in a way.

The first machine, the Model T Ford, was a sturdy, comfortable, reliable method for humans to get around and, yes, have some fun. The second machine was the modern manufacturing corporation, of which more later. The Model T wasn't easy to drive, as I discovered. Taking a 1915 example from the Ford heritage collection in and around our own monument to Ford, Dagenham, made me wonder about that vision. First, you must start it with a crank handle. Hold this the wrong way and your opposable thumb will follow Tin Lizzie into the history books. In the 1920s firms such as the Non-Kick Device Company of Kansas City, Mo, advertised an improved starting handle under the heading "Broken Arms Prevented". The romance of motoring.

Second, the T creeps forward as soon as you start, so you have to scuttle round quickly to get in. In "Farewell, my Lovely!", an elegy to the Model T written for the New Yorker in 1936 which has never been bettered, E B White took this as the last vestige of horsiness in the horseless carriage: "I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket." Ahh!

Then you get in. Even allowing for the fact that an Edwardian driver might be just as flummoxed by the Sat Nav fitted to a 2008 Focus in "Titanium" trim, I found myself hopelessly in a tin tizzy. You have to use a lever and a pedal to change up and down all of two gears (plus another pedal for reverse) and the throttle is where the indicators ought to be. There is no clutch. It has a "epicyclical" or "planetary" gears system, like its thermosyphon cooling system and vanadium steel construction. These wonderfully named features were breathtakingly modern in 1908. But if you're unlucky enough to panic when unexpectedly approached by a speeding bus, and slam the same pedals you would in a Focus, you may find yourself travelling very fast indeed in reverse...

Majestically enthroned, you're really far too exposed for comfort. Look down and a brass bolt tops the cast iron steering column pointed directly at your heart, while your bottom nestles directly above the petrol tank. When you took your "flivver" on the road a hundred years ago, you did without the benefit of air bags and with no seat belts, no heater, no speedometer, no windscreen wiper, no rear view mirror, no temperature gauge, no side windows, no cup holders, no... well, no nonsense really. In the Model T you know you're doing less than 40mph, and that's data enough. Such was the brave new world of mass motoring.

With a 10-gallon tank and 20 miles per gallon fuel economy, the first Model T had a range in excess of the combined total of properly laid roads in the United States at the time (155 miles). They made more than 15 million of them in 20 years. Its main rival wasn't a Honda or Hyundai, but the horse, or "Dobbin" as Ford patronised him in their ads. In September 1913, the competition was attacked in these terms by the Ford Motor Company: "Old Dobbin, the family coach horse, weighs more than a Ford car. But – He has only one-twentieth the strength of a Ford car – cannot go as fast nor as far – costs more to maintain – almost as much to acquire."

Persuading punters to choose a car over a horse may seem a bit of a no-brainer nowadays, but then it obviously required a talented ad copywriter, another trade that, largely unacknowledged, the Model T and its peers did much to create.

The second machine Ford created was the modern manufacturing corporation, a machine for making money first and things second: Fordism. It served as a template for modern industry that, adapted and improved by many since, and troubled financially as it is now, has survived. It is not too fanciful to say that Ford re-engineered capitalism, intensifying its already brutalising tendency to crush the human spirit, but spreading its benefits too, quickly forming itself into what we now call a transnational corporation. Satirised by Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times and demonised in Aldous Huxley's Brave New World (where the Ford Motor Company takes over the world), the Model T and its factories were replicated on every continent, an early example of globalisation. Fittingly for the forceful personality who made all this possible, Henry's signature, now on a famous blue oval, still adorns every car made in his name.

Maybe the ruthless, unsentimental Henry wouldn't appreciate this little retrospective. He was a determined modernist who probably wouldn't have much time for his pioneering car nowadays. He really did say: "History is more or less bunk. It is tradition. We want to live in the present, and the only history that is worth a tinker's dam is the history we make today." You can maybe see where he got his reputation for anti-intellectualism from.

Anyway, he did make history, and the fortune he made was worth more than a tinker's dam, about $190bn at today's prices, or three to four times whatever Bill Gates may be worth. According to one survey, Ford was the seventh richest man ever to live, and one of the first of the modern breed of billionaire businessmen (in the days when a billion really was worth boasting about). Before Ford, Carnegie, Mellon and the rest, mankind's super-rich were all feudal types – pharaohs, kings and tsars – who stole or inherited their cash, rather than the hard-working, madly driven visionary sons of immigrants. The obscene differences in economic power we ponder today are older than we suppose. To be fair, Ford amassed his fortune and founded a dynasty not by robbing or taxing us, but by making us better off, raising our standard of living by bringing the motor car – and by example much else – within reach. Just like Mr Gates did with his software. The Model T Ford thus demonstrated that capitalism is not a zero-sum game. Everyone can win, which annoys some people.

Ask yourself why we complacently expect the price of the new technological and electronic wonders of our time to continually fall until such point that they become virtually disposable? Why does a £10 DVD player – that would have cost 20 times that a decade ago – fail to amaze us? Because that's what the Model T led us to expect, as a right.

Before the T, it was pretty much the case that only the wealthy could own an automobile. Most were hand built, and the toys of the rich. The Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost that came out the year before Henry's Model T, and which remained a benchmark for refinement and performance for decades after, was a more typical product of the industry, although American makers were starting to become more conscious of the potential of the middle-class market. Europe invented the car, but the Americans democratised it. None more so than Ford. While most cars of the era commanded a price of $2,000 or more, the Model T came in at just $825. By 1925 the price was down to $260. It could be bought with a few months wages by a Ford worker.

How did they do it? What Henry Ford and the Model T did was to pull together a lot of things that already existed better than anyone else had before.

The Ford plants, some of which grew to be the biggest in the world, were cathedrals to the modern religion of productionism, but Ford was not the first man to build dark Satanic mills. Economies of scale had been observed for many decades. The slaughterhouses of Chicago were the inspiration for Ford's moving assembly line technique. Ford's engineers saw how workers specialised in just one task, monotonously performed over and over at a pace set by the conveyor belt (rather than any natural rhythm). The ones in Chicago were known as "disassembly" lines, and Ford simply put the idea in reverse. Such division and specialisation of labour was advocated way back in Adam Smith's The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. Making standard interchangeable parts was a big factor in the Model T's serviceability and success (and today's scrapyards are a direct consequence of the practice) but the French had developed the technique in their guns during the Napoleonic wars. Ransom Eli Olds' "curved dash" Oldsmobile of 1902 has a better claim than the T to be the world's first mass produced car.

Even the old "you can have any colour so long as it's black" saying is a bit of a myth. Ford may never have said this, and his cars were available in a variety of shades from 1908 to 1914 and 1926-27, its last year. However, the 1916 brochure clearly states that "no option is given on color, tires, or equipment" and the majority were black, possibly because that was the colour of paint that dried fastest – and thus kept the assembly line moving quickest.

Ford's idea of a "universal car" was taken up by Ferdinand Porsche and Adolf Hitler with their own take on the people's car, the Volkswagen – a Model T with the engine in the wrong place that would eventually overtake it in sales, though many decades later. Stalin too was an admirer of Ford's methods, applied with still more ferocity in his five-year plans.

Nowadays, from Malaysia to Slovakia to Brazil, the car industry with all its ancillary industries and its potential for export earnings, is regarded as the key industry to foster economic growth. We in the west may no longer work in factories much, and have entered the post-Fordism age, but there are plenty of our fellow human beings still doing things as Henry dictated.

A few weeks ago another famous industrialist announced that he was to create a car that would industrialise and motorise his fast-growing nation with its vast distances and appalling roads. This time, exactly a century on from Henry and the Model T, comes another "T" – a Tata. Ratan Tata and his Tata Nano – the "one lakh" (ca £1,200) car. It won't do much for climate change, but it's quite a flattering tribute to the abiding power of Ford's vision.

Motoring milestones 1959-present day

1886

Benz Patent Motorwagen

Motoring as we know it began on 29 January 1886, when a patent was filed for this "horseless carriage" – the first car with an internal combustion engine. Named after its German inventor, Karl Benz, the Motorwagen was both revolutionary and very, very slow: it could barely top 10mph.

1907

Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost

The last word in refinement, the Silver Ghost was a must-have for Edwardian Lords and Viscounts. Its luxury heralded the end of the horse and carriage as the aristocracy's preferred mode of transport. Adverts billed it: "Silent as a Ghost, Powerful as a Lion, and Trustworthy as Time".

1936

Volkswagen Beetle

The "people's car" company was founded by the Nazis when Adolf Hitler instructed his fellow Austrian, Dr Ferdinand Porsche, to dream up some wheels able to transport two adults and three children for less than £50. Manufacturing on the Bug did not actually begin in Germany until after the war.

1941

Willys-Overland Jeep

In the words of American President and D-Day General Dwight Eisenhower, the Willys-Overland Jeep was one of the "weapons that won the Allies the war". Over 330,000 of these iconic 4x4s were produced by American factories, serving in every theatre of the Second World War.

1947

Land Rover

Where would farmers be without the Land Rover? First unveiled at the Amsterdam motor show, early models were made from both steel and aluminium, due to the rationing of steel and post-war abundance of aluminium, which had been used to make aircraft. The first in a legendary line, many Series 1 Land Rovers can still be seen on our roads.

1949

Citroen 2CV

More French than a string of onions this design classic has been adored and derided in equal measure. Created after the Second World War, it was first marketed as an "umbrella on wheels" that could transport eggs without cracking them. Between 1948 and 1990 about four million cars were sold.

1957

Fiat 500

The car that got Italy on the move. Fiat's practical and affordable 500 was just three metres long, but its quirkily stylish profile ensured that it became a huge hit across the whole of Europe. Production didn't end till 1975 – and a modern version was re-launched last year.

1958

Saab 93

Saab pioneered aerodynamic design, perhaps because it also made fighter aircraft. The 93 first achieved fame on the rally circuit, but its lasting legacy was in the field of safety: it was the first mass production car to have seatbelts as standard, leading Mercedes-Benz (and later every other manufacturer) to follow suit soon afterwards.

1959

Austin Mini

This revolutionary design was created by British Motoring Corporation boss Leonard Lord – who stipulated that 60 per cent of its length should be interior space – and designer Alec Issigonis. Minis later became a cult car, thanks to Michael Caine and The Italian Job .

1959

Mercedes-Benz "heckflosse"

The sleek but datable Mercedes-Benz "heckflosse" – or "fintail" – was the first production car with crumple zones. Captains of industry could buy the chrome-laden 300SEL model, with air suspension and fuel-injected engine; those on a more stringent budget could fire up the 190 diesel, which retailed at a third of the price.

1961

Jaguar E-type

The sexiest car ever made. Originally developed as a racer, the E-type was subsequently adapted for use on British roads, and became a symbol of the swinging Sixties. Some models of this (relatively) cheap motor were able to top the 150mph milestone.

1966

Toyota Corolla

The Corolla was the first mass-market car to have a radio fitted as standard. It was also the first Japanese car to threaten the American and European dominance of the industry, thanks to its efficiency. Toyota's "just in time" production method was later copied across the world.

1971

Fiat 127

Small, fun, and perfectly formed, the 127 was the first modern supermini. Even the car's 903cc engine punched above its weight, giving performance more akin to a modern 1500cc. It could do 0-60mph in a then-impressive 15 seconds, and over 12 years more than four million rolled off the production line.

1976

Volkswagen Golf GTI

The car that made hatches "hot" hit the road three years after the Golf was launched. With a souped-up engine and go-faster stripes, it became the car of choice for spotty youths, who were soon "pimping" their rides with under-lighting and racing seats. It spawned a generation of imitators, from the Fiat Uno Turbo to the Suzuki Swift Sport.

1997

Toyota Prius

The first commercial hybrid car was produced in Japan and launched in the UK four years later. Since becoming fashionable among ecologically aware Hollywood celebrities – converts include Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz – it has inspired a legion of impressionable "civilian" consumers to follow suit.

2002

Honda FC-X

We've had hybrid, electric and biofuel cars, but the future of green motoring is probably hydrogen. The FC-X looks like being the first commercially viable hydrogen fuel-cell car. It looks like a bog standard saloon from the outside, but things get clever under the bonnet: it runs on hydrogen and emits nothing more harmless than water.

2008

Tata Nano

Can the world afford this car? With a price tag of just £1,277, the Nano was launched this year on a promise of bringing cheap motoring to India's rapidly growing middle class. Yet, for all the social freedom and mobility, getting India on the road could herald a global warming disaster.

By Jamie Merrill, Rob Sharp and Simon Usborne

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