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Henry Ford: Man of Myth-tery
October 15, 2001, by Bill Cawthon
Pardon the terrible pun in the title, but it is very appropriate to my subject for this time. Not too long ago, as I was browsing on the Internet, I found the following passage on a children’s reference site:
“Did Henry Ford invent the automobile?
“In fact, the modern automobile was invented in Germany by Otto Benz in 1885. The first American cars were made by the Duryea Brothers in 1895. In 1896, Ford produced an inexpensive assembly line car, the Model T.”
“In fact,” not one sentence of that answer is completely accurate. Benz worked with Otto-cycle engines, but his first name was Carl (yes, in German, it is “Karl,” but Benz used the “C” so I will, too). Many historians now think John Lambert of Ohio City, Ohio built the first American car in 1891. Charles and Frank Duryea of Springfield, Massachusetts, actually got their first car to work in 1893. In 1895, they opened the first American automobile company and a year later, became the first Americans to produce multiple cars from a single design.
The real kicker is the last sentence. Americans probably hold more misconceptions about Henry Ford and his Model T than almost any other person (outside of politics and the military) in U.S. history. The problem with this is that while they attempt to make him a legend for things that aren’t true, many people overlook the reason Henry Ford is a legitimate giant in the history of the automobile.
First, let’s correct a few of the more popular myths. As the web site almost correctly stated, Carl Benz invented the modern automobile. Benz was from Karlsruhe in what is now the southern German state of Baden-Württemberg. He was granted a patent for his three-wheeled, gasoline engine-powered car on January 29, 1886. The same year Gottlieb Daimler produced the first four-wheeled car powered by a gasoline engine.
So Ford didn’t invent the car. How about mass production or an assembly line? Nope, not even for cars. By 1894, Benz’s company was producing hundreds of cars a year and had even introduced an “economy” car called the Velo. By 1900, it was the largest automobile company in the world. The following year, Ransom Olds became the first American to use assembly line techniques to build his 1901 Oldsmobile.
It is true that Henry Ford did build a car in 1896, but it was not the Model T. At that time, he was chief engineer for Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit and the Model T was twelve years in the future.
On the evening of March 6, 1896, a Benz car appeared on the streets of Detroit. Ford followed it around on his bicycle. Three months later, he produced the Quadricycle, a four-wheel, tiller-steered car with two forward speeds and no reverse. He sold it to get the money to build his second car. For the next six years, Ford concentrated on racing cars. In October of 1902, Barney Oldfield drove a Ford-designed car to a new American automotive speed record of nearly sixty miles per hour.
Ford didn’t actually produce a car for commercial sale until 1903. By then, he had gone through two companies, a number of investors and several designs. It was his third company, the Ford Motor Company, that made the first Ford ever sold. This was a Model A sold to a Dr. Pfennig for $850 on July 11, 1903. Ford produced other models in alphabetical order until 1908. That’s when the Model T was introduced.
While we’re puncturing myths, let’s knock off a few of the ones surrounding the Model T. Henry Ford didn’t design it. Charles Sorenson and Joseph Galamb did that work in 1907. And, in spite of Mr. Ford’s famous quote, Model Ts weren’t all black. For the first four years of production, black wasn’t even available. The first Model Ts were red, green or gray, depending on the body style (see photo above). In 1910, Ford decided on a standard paint for all styles. The color selected was Brewster Green, a very dark shade. This was followed by a couple of years of dark blue. It wasn’t until 1913 the company settled on black. In 1926, almost at the end of the Model T’s long production run, colors were once again offered. This was due to declining sales and competition, most notably from General Motors.
When it was introduced in 1908, the Model T incorporated a number of significant advances and was state-of-the-art for its time. However it didn’t keep up with the technology or the competition. By the time it went out of production, it was so obsolete some states required a special permit to operate one on public roads.
So what did Henry Ford do that makes him so important in the history of the automobile? He did have a number of patents, including one for a transmission, but his real contribution went beyond any mechanism. First, he had the vision to develop a good car and price it low enough for most people to afford. Second, he constructed a manufacturing facility that could produce them quickly and in numbers that were previously unimaginable. Based on observations made during a trip to a Chicago meat packing plant, Ford created a moving assembly line where needed components were delivered to each workstation, as they were required.
By the time Model T production ended in 1927, fifteen million Tin Lizzies had been built and the majority of American families owned a motor vehicle. Ford led the way for the average man and woman to enjoy a level of personal mobility unmatched in human history. Perhaps Henry Ford put it best, "I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one-and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces.”
By doing this, Henry Ford changed American society forever. I would have to say that’s a greater accomplishment.
- Bill Cawthon
Bill Cawthon is an award-winning modeller and collector. His primary modeling interests are model railroading and vehicle models in 1:87 and 1:160 scales. He has written numerous articles for regional and division NMRA publications and is a contributor to the newsletter of the 1-87 Vehicle Club. He follows both the automobile industry and the European scale vehicle industry.
In real life, Bill is a full-time marketing and public relations consultant for the high-tech industry. He lives in Houston, Texas with his wife and four children.
Bill writes bi-weekly for Promotex Online. To learn more about him, click here.
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