‘The Tin Lizzie’, ‘The Flivver’, ‘The Model T’, these names and more were applied to the most successful car in the world, the Model T Ford. Before the advent of the Model T in 1908, all cars were bespoke. Sometimes a prospective owner (and you had to be rich) would wander into a car showroom – always in the centre of large cities – and find a second-hand vehicle taken in as a ‘trade’, but usually a ‘socially acceptable’ salesman would take the new client out in a ‘demonstrator’. The client would then choose a body style, colour, type of upholstery, and any accessories (such as acetylene lamps). Sometimes, just a bare, rolling chassis was delivered to the client’s ‘coachbuilder’ and a custom, one-off body fitted.
With the Model T, all this changed. Henry Ford aided by Joseph Galamb, Eugene Farkas and Childe Harold Wills had designed the very first car intended for mass production. Ford’s previous attempts to produce a popular car had not succeeded, but the Model T was an instant hit. It’s 2,900 cc engine produced a maximum of 20 hp, which was transferred to the rear wheels through a two-speed planetary gearbox. This was enough to carry a family of four (in certain body styles), and the low gearing ensured that the steepest of hills could be tackled. It is true that Ford DID say that ‘Any customer can have a car painted any color they want, so long as it is black’, but this only arose because black was the fastest-drying paint, and the assembly line system (instituted by Ford) and using standardized parts, demanded speed above all. Roadsters, sedans, touring cars - the variations seemed to be endless, and the company set up plants all over the world.
The English assembly plant was in Manchester, which had benefitted from the establishment in 1894 of the superb Manchester Ship Canal and its docks, linking Manchester to the Irish Sea. The Trafford Park area of the city, hard by the Canal, was ideal for the embryonic Ford Company operation, which was selling about 400 cars a year by 1911 from its London showroom. A factory was set up in a former carriage works (the first outside the USA) and parts sent from the Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan began to be assembled, along with locally made bodies. The car you see here, on display at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester, was built in Manchester in 1912 and would have sold for the (then) price of £175, about half the price of an Austin, its direct competitor. In case you are wondering why the car is green and not black, before the assembly line system was instituted other colours WERE used! An incredible worldwide total of over 15,000,000 Model T’s had been built when production finally ended in 1927.
The Trafford plant was closed in October, 1931, when the new, even larger Ford plant at Dagenham was opened. Amazingly, the old plant was to play a significant rôle in Britain’s aviation industry during World War Two. It had been lying ‘fallow’ for a number of years, when it was taken over as a Government-sponsored ‘shadow factory’; the Government encouraged Ford to produce the superb Rolls-Royce Merlin engine under licence. By 1944, they were flowing out of the factory gates at the astonishing rate of 400 a week.
Henry Ford can be said to have created the modern automotive industry, and released millions of drivers onto the roads of the world. The instrument of this revolution, and the symbol of his success, was undoubtedly the Model T.