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article number 107
article date 03-01-2012
copyright 2012 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Death of the Model T. Will Ford Motor Company Survive?
by Keith Sward

From the book, The Legend of Henry Ford.

EDITOR’S NOTE: The writer takes an unusually harsh view of Henry Ford. Even Ford sponsored histories admit his faults as he was far from perfect in all business [concentrations] as well as social dealings … but history does show that Henry Ford would look back, see his faults and improve himself as well as the millions of people he affected. Despite the sometimes critical tone, this article gives us enjoyable and useful insights into autos and the American people in the late 1920’s.

FORD WAS OVERTAKEN in 1926 by the sudden extinction of his automobile. No one lamented the Model T’s passing more than he, and no student of the trade was so ill-prepared to grant the inevitability of this event. Enamored of his product and out of joint with the times, the manufacturer refused to believe the worst until the last. The jolt that opened his eyes was a precipitous drop in sales.

What gave the coup de grace to the world’s best-known car, and what its producer was reluctant to face, was a permanent shift in consumer demand from price to style. By the middle of the 20’s, the American car buyer was asking for “class” as well as economy in his mode of transportation. Price alone had lost its charm. By the new standards, the bony T which was introduced in 1908 had finally become “too cheap.” Its severe and simple form was not up to the cult of color-styling, four-wheel brakes, shock absorbers, balloon tires, gear-shift transmission, roominess, or smooth engine performance and streamlining. Nor did its rigid makeup allow for survival once General Motors had made a national habit of the desire for an annual change of model.


Both the face of the earth and the tempo of the period as well were conspiring against the apple of Ford’s eye. The roadbeds of a horse-and-buggy age had now been crusted with macadam and harder surfaces. Over such highways the American liked speed. He yearned, at the same time, for social tone. In the decade that bred jazz, bootleg liquor, gaudy movie palaces, the bull market of 1929, the “New Religion of Success” and Main Street’s hunger for conspicuous display, the Model T was a crotchety relic.

Meanwhile William S. Knudsen had his ear to the ground. General Motors had begun to give the public what it wanted, designing its product in the popular image, just as the Model T had been conceived in an earlier day. In contrast to Ford’s resistance to change, GM was germinating new ideas at an ever faster pace, having pooled all its research facilities in 1923 for that purpose. Within the next few years, Knudsen’s success as a poacher in Ford’s preserve was the talk of the trade. Chevrolet was stealing up on the Model T in terms of price as well. The T, in the middle 20’s, was still much the best buy on the market—but only if a customer could put up with its nakedness. Ford was selling his car bare, stripped to the bone. He imposed an extra charge for accessories which Chevrolet had adopted as standard equipment. No competitor could yet match the price of the Model T roadster that sold for $290, f.o.b. Detroit, in 1926. But the rock-bottom Ford price covered neither demountable rims nor a self-starter, to mention but two of the newer refinements. For these items alone the Ford Motor Co. levied an additional charge of $55. By the time a buyer had embellished his T with each of the gadgets which it lacked in the raw state, he was within 25 per cent of the price of a Chevrolet. To many a prospective car-owner, the over-all superiority of the General Motors’ product was now worth the difference in total cost.


The competitor who did far more than easy credit, good roads or a demand for new automotive styles to rob the Model T of its mass-market was one whom neither Ford nor Knudsen could resist. This intruder was the dealer in second-hand cars. By 1926 there were 25,000,000 gasoline vehicles on the highways of the world. Each of these units, however new, was destined for eventual resale. At this point the used car preempted the province which Ford had dominated for a generation. Henceforth, no producer of a low-priced automobile could hope to match the bargains of the used car lot. The buyer of little means could now go as low as ten or fifteen dollars, if need be, in his quest for an “economy” car. Hence, in 1926, the T was all but dead because, quite literally, the bottom had dropped out of its market.

Another clue to the future was implicit in the folk-humor aimed at the Model T in the later years of its existence. At one time the ubiquitous Ford joke had been an asset to the Ford Motor Co. This sort of humor, up to a point, had been a builder of good will, and a means of advertising the Model T by word-of-mouth down on the farm and in the market-place. But when the Dodge and the Chevrolet started crowding the T, the Ford jokes began to change their temper; they became increasingly defensive and apologetic. Millions of commonplace Americans began laughing at themselves and poking fun at the Model T good-naturedly, but in dead earnest. Much of this humor put its finger on certain changes which Ford should have been incorporating in his product. In a characteristic Ford joke of the period, one person supposedly asked another, “What shock absorbers do you use on your Ford?” His friend replied, “The passengers.”

No large imagination was required to discern the fact that in its mere mechanics the all-purpose model of the Ford Motor Co. had outlived its day. Any car dealer could have told Ford that shock absorbers would help the farmer get his eggs to market. It was just as evident that a water pump would cool the Ford engine better than the device of “lifting the hood and folding it under,” a common practice which gave the T the “appearance of a hen with her wings akimbo.” None of Ford’s patrons really enjoyed testing his fuel supply by having to dip a ruler or a screwdriver into the gas tank that lay buried underneath the front seat. It was too much to expect the driver of a Model T to keep fussing with side curtains in an open car in the dead of winter, or to put up with flat tires that had to be wrenched from un-demountable rims No more palatable, in view of the competition from battery ignition, was the Ford magneto system which made the lights of a T glow or fade depending on the speed of the motor. On stormy nights or in strange places, Ford drivers were fed up with the maneuver of coming to a dead stop, racing their engines in order to see what lay ahead.


Of all the earmarks of Ford’s tardy engineering, none was more extraordinary than the planetary transmission. At its introduction it was an engineering marvel but 20 years later it was an organic peculiarity that one critic attributed the “clutch epilepsy” of the model T. For a definitive statement of the art of stopping and starting a T by manipulating three foot petals, in lieu of a standard gear-shift system, society is indebted to L. S. White, the author of that hilarious classic of Fordiana, Farewell to Model T. Ford’s planetary transmission, said White, was “half metaphysics, half sheer friction.” Under its mysterious control, the engine and the wheels of a stationary Model T always seemed locked and poised for precipitous action. Even if the car was in a state known as neutral, it trembled with a deep imperative and tended to inch forward,” said this author. “There was never a moment when the bands were not faintly egging the machine on. In this respect it was like a horse, rolling the bit on its tongue.”

Despite the catalogue of its acute and chronic ailments, the Model T, on its death-bed, left behind millions of friends and a record of sturdy, economical performance which no other car of its class had been able to challenge for nearly two decades. On a still grander scale, Ford’s universal car had a record just as proud. Before its expiration, the celebrated product had aggregated in gross sales the stupendous sum of $7,000,000,000. During the last ten years of its lifetime, Ford’s car had accounted for one-half of the automobile production of the United States. With 15,000,000 sales to its credit, it had peopled the globe for eighteen years at the remarkable birth rate of 1.6 new specimens per minute. To proliferate Ford’s pride and joy, there had sprung into being the most advanced technological apparatus yet conceived since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. During its youth and in its prime, the Model T was indeed the wonder child of the magic city of mass production, a gigantic social force. Yet, as a catalyst of the machine age, the T was finally destroyed by the very instruments of change which it had helped to unloose upon the earth.


As the hardy but outmoded Model T made its last stand in a changing market, it was Ford against the world. No one could tell him what he refused to see until the very end. The manufacturer neither read the signs nor cared what other people thought about his conviction that the T was as perfect and timeless as Pike’s Peak itself. Self-centered and bull-headed, he spurred the counsel of his dealers when they began to beg him to modernize his product. He sat in silence for two hours, at a national gathering of Ford salesmen in 1922, listening to pleas to the effect that the time had come for some radical changes in the Ford offering. Yawning to express his unconcern, Ford responded to these appeals by remarking, “Well, gentlemen, so far as I can see the only trouble with the Ford car is—that we can’t make them fast enough.”

During the model’s final hours, Ford grew increasingly petulant and sulky. He spoke out defiantly in July, 1926, “When some of the knickknacks drop off an automobile, people with good sense don’t stop to pick them up. If you lose a part, and the thing still goes,” he said, “why worry about it?” That was the trouble! Gadgets and knickknacks were corroding the better judgment of the sensible, thrifty, home-loving, garden variety of Americans who had bought some 15,000,000 Model T’s. Ford’s misguided clientele could go to the devil. Until actually confronted by impending disaster, the manufacturer was so sure of himself he tossed off the boast that he had never made a mistake in his life.


In this desperate, solitary battle against the trend, Ford was nonetheless forced to compromise. He first resorted to psychological treatment. Breaking a precedent of years’ standing, he allowed the home office to sponsor a vigorous campaign of national advertising. However, mere auto-suggestion worked no cure. The next expedient was superficial surgery. All for $60, the company offered to recondition any Model T, to rebuild the engine, to furnish new upholstery, to apply a fresh coat of paint, with a three-month guarantee that the operation would prove successful. Face-lifting came next. Still not getting to the root of the trouble, Ford’s engineers frantically cupped the fenders, slanted the windshield, lengthened the body several inches, lowered the T’s center of gravity, rounded the corners of the radiator, took the gas tank out from under the front seat and tucked it under the hood. Finally, even the black dress was discarded. Like a renovated, ancient dowager on her last fling, the Model T appeared in fawn gray, gun-metal blue, phoenix brown and highland green.

Then Ford was compelled to go the full distance. If he had not wrenched himself from the car of his choice and gone over to the cult of knickknacks and gadgets, his career as an automobile manufacturer would have ended; Chevrolet and other more progressive models would have stolen his business.


Caught napping in the midst of a trade war, the Ford Motor Company discontinued the Model T abruptly in May 1927. At this point two gigantic tasks descended on the company: the designing of a brand new car and the complete overhauling of the most gargantuan automobile factory in existence. Of the two requirements, the second was by far the more demanding. The Ford retooling of 1927-1928 was the most elaborate thing of its kind yet undertaken by anyone in so short a space of time. Nearly every piece of the company’s monolithic equipment, laid out on the assumption that the Model T would linger on forever, had to be torn down and rebuilt. The staggering changeover necessitated the replacement of some 15,000 machine tools, the total rebuilding of another 25,000, as well as the redesigning and rearrangement of $5,000,000 worth of dies and fixtures.

For so vast an undertaking, Ford was ill-equipped. To be sure, he had two beavers in Sorensen and P. E. Martin. It was this pair who shouldered the bulk of the managerial load throughout the ensuing crisis. For twelve frantic months or more these two labored heroically. Until their mighty chore was finished, Martin and Sorensen slept in the plant. But even so talented a pair, the executives were struggling against fierce odds. The change-over had been preceded by little or no advance planning. Moreover, Ford and his chief deputies were now, for the first time in years, wrestling with difficult new problems, severely penalized by the absence of the river of talent that had been sluiced off into the Ford Alumni Association. Top-heavy, the Ford organization could not help but meet the emergency ponderously.

Far from soliciting any new talent to speak of, in this hour of trial the Ford Motor Company did not even conserve the ability which it housed within its own ranks. Jealous of authority and fond of showmanship, Ford could not resist his compulsion to leave a personal “thumb mark” on every part of the new program. This intervention was so thoroughgoing on his part, that a state of inertia cramped the entire undertaking. The Ford organization began to suffer from an attack of what the trade called at the time, the most severe “dynastic constipation.” The company’s draftsmen and engineers felt they were sitting on pins and needles. Cunningham, then a Ford advertising man, asked a Ford technician why a certain simple defect could not be easily corrected by changing a few dies. The technician replied, “The way things have been going we are scared stiff and afraid to do a thing. Designs, once approved, were changed according to whim. Eight months along, the whole brake system of the new model had to be redesigned and rebuilt because someone had failed to check certain traffic regulations that had long been in force in New Jersey and Washington, D. C., and in Germany.


Ford meanwhile forced any number of new graduates into the Ford Alumni Association. Again, the high fell with the low. At the head of the departing group was Ernest C. Kanzler, Edsel’s brotherin-law. Kanzler had been one of the more persistent critics of the Model T. The recessional began to rival that of 1921. Its marchers included Herbert L. Leister, the company’s general auditor who had served Ford for sixteen years; V. D. Overman, service manager, whose association with the company went back about twenty-one years; William A. Ryan, general sales manager, let out despite nineteen years of seniority; and Fred H. Diehi, chief purchasing agent. As far back as 1916, Ford had paid Diehi $37,500 a year for his services. The parade was soon joined by A. E. Wilson, general employment manager. Wilson was superseded in his important office by one of Harry Bennett’s assistants. At this period Bennett was beginning to share some of the authority that had formerly been concentrated on Sorensen and Liebold.

Again, as in 1921, the extirpation cut deep down into the tissue of the company. Bosses were let out at every turn; others were told to apply at the employment office for a run-of-mine job on the production line. Some of the discharged “star” men—foremen and superintendents—never got back on their feet. Many shifted to other automotive plants. The loss of such men did little to expedite the delivery of the Model A. For in the course of discharging countless lieutenants who had proved their loyalty and competence in the past, Ford infected those who remained with anxiety feelings.

But the Model A arrived, for all of that, after twelve or eighteen months of strain and turmoil. In the meantime, “dynastic constipation” took a heavy toll. In terms of money alone, the change-over cost Ford something like $100,000,000. More, than that, the attendant delays opened the door to General Motors. Before Ford could get back in the running, Chevrolet had captured a vast segment of his business. Finally, his procrastination had had serious repercussions throughout the trade. The times were relatively good, but other manufacturers and hundreds of thousands of automobile buyers had been somewhat immobilized by Ford’s action, anxiously waiting for the long delayed arrival of the A. The effect on Ford’s dealers and factory workers was something else again. The losses sustained by this body of employees, during a shut-down that lasted much more than a year, were incalculable.

When production on the Model T came to a complete standstill, Ford laid off about 60,000 men in Detroit alone for approximately a year. This social dislocation spread fanwise through the trade, even reaching into remote corners of the land. Merchants, professional people, taxpayers and suppliers of parts and materials were drawn into the vortex of Ford unemployment. In September 1927, the New York World estimated that the number of wage earners who were dependent on the Ford business for all or part of their livelihood ran to 500,000. The enforced idleness of 1927-1928, imposed on some 100,000 Ford employees throughout the country, must have jeopardized the employment of several hundred thousand other workers.


By mid-1927 factory employment was on the increase. The first Model A would be delivered later in 1927. Besides the ramping up of production, public interest was growing.

Ford’s clientele was bitten with curiosity, waiting for the first public showing of the Model A. The forthcoming car became a subject of nation-wide gossip. To add to the suspense, the company carried on its developmental work in utter secrecy. It put the new engine through trial runs under the hood of a Model T. Newspaper photographers tried to take snapshots of the Ford proving ground by working at long range with high-powered lenses. The first A’s to leave Detroit were shipped out to the dealers carefully concealed in canvas bags. When the incubation of the new model was six months along, speculation on its progress and expected appearance became so general that the subject occasioned an editorial in the New York Times. “The new Ford is completed,” said the Times. “It is on the verge of being completed. It is still in the trial stage. Mr. Ford is through with the new model and has gone back to Colonial furniture. … Mr. Ford is driving about in the new model. Nobody has seen the new model . . . It is a two-door sedan. It will be for some time only a touring car. It will hang low and sell very cheap. It will hang not so low and sell not quite so cheap.”

The currency of such rumors gave proof of the fact that Ford’s good will, as one of the great merchants of the era, was still immense. Public confidence in the new product was so universal that six months before the Ford Motor Co. could resume volume production, 500,000 customers had made down payments on a Model A, without knowing its price and without ever having seen the car.

When Ford’s dealers were at last in a position to exhibit the long-awaited vehicle, their showrooms were overrun. The mass of prospective buyers who flooded Madison Square Garden as Ford’s guests in January 1928, broke all existing records for an indoor exhibition of any kind. Mounted police had to be called out to prevent sightseers from caving in the Ford show windows in Cleveland. More than 25,000 persons flocked to the Ford exhibit in St. Paul, despite sub-zero weather. Colorado newspapermen could recall only one previous event that equaled the excitement which a similar showing evoked in Denver, and that was the public’s reaction after a sensational robbery of the Denver mint. To set the stage for these demonstrations in both Canada and the United States, Ford spent something like $2,000,000 for five days of intensive advertising.

The Ford dealer was eager to embrace the Model A and all its trimmings—with four color choices, and some seventeen variations of body style. As standard equipment the new model carried most of the refinements that Ford’s salesmen had been itching for: hydraulic shock absorbers, four-wheel brakes, standard gear-shift, battery ignition, theft-proof ignition lock, automatic windshield wiper, stop light, water pump, gas and oil gauge, foot throttle and speedometer. In one particular, Ford had actually stolen a march on the trade. His car was the first in any price class to include safety glass in the windshield as original equipment. On the whole a worthy successor to the Model T, the A finally arrived.

1931 Model A Deluxe.
Model A Cabriolet Ad.
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