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The car that changed the world

August 12, 1908: First Model T comes together

By Greg Botelho

Ford Model T
Henry Ford poses with a 1921 Ford Model T Sedan in Buffalo, New York.
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(CNN) -- In the early 1900s, horses, buggies and pedestrians dominated the streets. Every so often a "horseless carriage" clattered by, but most dismissed these newfangled automobiles as expensive, complex and dubious.

But where others saw a curiosity, Michigan engineer and entrepreneur Henry Ford saw an opportunity to transform society -- and profit by doing so. "I will build a car for the great multitude," he vowed upon forming his namesake motor company.

His automobile would 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," he said. "It will be so 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."

On August 12, 1908, Ford's first "Model T" rolled off a Detroit, Michigan, factory floor. Within six years, the car, company and man were propelled to unprecedented success, thanks to the new Highland Park plant's first-of-its-kind assembly line, which created the intricate product quickly and in large numbers.

"He was not alone in his vision, but he pursued it more vigorously than anyone else," said Bob Casey, curator of transportation at The Henry Ford, a museum and historic village in Dearborn, Michigan. "He was never afraid of failure."

America soon filled with cars, highways and gas stations. Other mass-produced goods hit the market at low costs, while a burgeoning middle class, eager to enjoy longer weekends and larger wages, hit the road.

By the early 1920s, more than half of all U.S. cars were Model Ts -- for 19 years the only car produced by Ford and sold at a fraction of many other cars' price.

Yet Ford, so steadfast in championing his vision, resisted adapting his business model. In a short time, his rivals had built more manageable and inventive vehicles than the Model T on their own assembly lines, diminishing the Ford company's once untouchable standing.

Such contradictions -- as a pacesetter, yet intractable at times -- permeate Ford's life.

He boosted wages and cut the length of the workday and workweek, yet vigorously opposed organized labor. He gave African-Americans high-paying jobs in an era marked by racism, yet owned a newspaper that voiced anti-Semitic views. Nazi dictator Adolf Hitler made public statements in the 1930s that he admired Ford and the production processes he established.

But at home, as a businessman and innovator, Ford's legacy loomed large.

"The boss was a genius," former Chrysler chief and one-time Ford employee Lee Iacocca wrote in a Time magazine profile of Ford.

"He was eccentric. He was no prince in his social attitudes and his politics. But Henry Ford's mark in history is almost unbelievable."

Cost-effective process

Early in the 20th century, a small team of laborers would retrieve parts around the factory and, piece by piece, hand-assemble a car. At the time, a plant with 75 employees making 200 cars a year was a success, said Wayne State University professor Charles Hyde.

The first Model T came together in much the same way, costing under $1,000 -- compared with high-end Packards and Cadillacs that went for more than $3,000. Even Oldsmobiles and Buicks sold for around $1,350.

Then Ford and his engineers began to model their manufacturing system on primitive assembly lines used to make bicycles and sewing machines, as well as the "disassembly line" in Chicago's meatpacking plants, in which a cow carcass moved along a line of workers, who would take it apart piece by piece.

Ford White House
An influential American in the early 20th century, Ford departs the White House in 1927 after visiting President Calvin Coolidge.

By 1914, the Highland Park plant churned out Model Ts at a clip of one per 93 minutes --the time later fell to a dizzying one every 24 seconds -- allowing Ford to drop the car's cost below $300 by 1915, in the price range of the average American then grossing about $300 a year.

"He understood that he could reduce the price of the car if he could increase the volume of cars made," said Hyde, an automotive historian and author of several books on Detroit car pioneers. "He recognized that, in America, there was a mass market for automobiles."

Frozen in time

The cost-effective production initially solidified Ford's high standing, as he expanded the company's reach into 33 nations. He froze the model -- making only Model Ts, and only in black, in an effort to further streamline the process.

Swamping the auto market with low-cost automobiles doomed many competitors: Hyde notes only one -- Dodge -- of some 85 new car companies formed in 1914 survived. Yet others adjusted, setting up their own assembly lines to produce cars that were simpler, faster and easier to drive and maintain than the Model T.

"Technology started to pass Ford by," said Casey. "Earlier, he knew what people would buy -- a cheap, reliable automobile that would handle the rough roads of the United States. But by the early 1920s, people wanted more than the Model T."

After peak production in 1923, Ford began to lose market share. He stopped making Model Ts in 1927, having sold 15,500,000 vehicles in the U.S. By World War II, the Ford company had dipped to third nationally, but later stabilized its place among the world's top carmakers.

Widespread influence

But Ford's contributions reverberate far beyond his company's factories and boardrooms.

His policy towards employees -- most evident in his 1914 decision to essentially double the then-standard wage to $5 a day, while guaranteeing 8-hour shifts and a 5-day workweek -- rippled through the American economy. As other companies adopted this policy, more and more Americans had both the money and time to drive anywhere, anytime.

"Before 1920, people didn't take time off -- it was almost macho not to," said Hyde. "But when cars got popular and roads got better, it became more common for people to want to put their family in a car and go automobile traveling."

Such moves were born not only out of Ford's personal concern, but his business acumen: He wanted to have 3 shifts so that his plants could operate continuously, and felt compelled to compensate and retain the best workers for the monotonous work on the assembly line.

"If it hadn't been for Henry Ford's drive to create a mass market for cars, America wouldn't have a middle class today," wrote Iacocca.

Increased travel spurred appeals for better and more roads, the development of suburbs, the oil industry's rise and a boom in gas stations, strip malls and motels.

But the assembly line itself had the biggest impact on American society, Hyde contended, in making possible the swift, mass production of everything from computers to "fast food."

"Ford deserves credit for the mass consumption society in which products that people want can be produced so that they are affordable and abundant."

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