Ford assembly line, 1913 (Wikipedia)
May 27 is an odd date in the history of the modern world. It’s the day they stopped making the Model T. It was hugely successful so… it had to go. As Marx and Engels complained in the Communist Manifesto, under capitalism, as they mislabeled modernity, “all that is solid melts into air.” Here today, gone tomorrow.
The Model T was certainly here today. First produced on Oct. 1, 1908, it was the first affordable car, the one that put the middle class on wheels in the United States which is, despite what some commentary would lead you to believe, the most modern nation in the world, as well as the most conservative in a constructive sense.
Incredibly, the Model T was still 8th in all time car sales as of 2012, with 16.5 million units sold. And of course if you rank it by percentage of all cars sold during its production run, it’s headlights, bumper and hood ahead of everything else; 57% of all cars made worldwide in 1927 were Model Ts. And incidentally in 1925 Americans owned over 17 million cars; Britain, France, Italy and Germany combined had just 1.6 car owners, and Japan a mere 25,000.
Henry Ford did a lot of things right, including the moving assembly line. The Model T cost $825 in 1908, $290 in 1927. But of course it was imitated, design advanced, and the Model T had to go.
It’s tempting to call the end of that amazing run a harbinger of the end of the boom times of the 1920s and a warning about the Great Depression to come. And it’s disconcerting to learn that the industrial production index did dip that year, primarily because… Ford shut down production for six months to start making the Model A. But then the party resumed.
By 1929 half of American families owned a car, a thing essentially unheard of 30 years earlier. Britain didn’t reach that figure until, believe it or not, the Thatcher years. 1980. And don’t overlook the fact that especially as roads improved, automobiles reduced the isolation of rural life and the backbreaking nature of farm work; surprisingly often farmers would put the thing up on blocks, put a belt on the axle and use it to pump water, drive a grinding wheel, run a saw and otherwise get jobs done in a hurry.
The Model A went on sale on December 2 1927, and by February 1929 a million had been sold. By late July, two million. By March 1930, three million. And when it was discontinued in March 1932, very nearly five million. In four colours, with nine body styles. BTW the famous story that you could have a Model T in any colour you liked, as long as it was black, is only partly true; it was originally available in several hues not including black, but in 1913 as part of his cost-cutting Ford went to monochrome. But modernity requires change, and so the Model A had varieties. Then came the Model B and the Model 18 with new and better engines.
The Model T continued to inspire affection. It may not have been elegant or powerful or even especially reliable by later standards. But it was a breakthrough machine. And you could tinker with it, unlike modern cars.
In fact, it may have disappeared from showrooms and by and large from highways as time went by. But you could still find it in Riverdale.
Yes, that’s right. Archie Andrews’ jalopy was a Model T, despite at one point being called a Model A in Archie double digest #192. Don’t worry. I did have to look that up. I didn’t know it.
Of course kids today probably have no more idea about his jalopy than an actual Model T. Wikipedia says in issue #238 of Life With Archie, published in 1983, the jalopy was destroyed and he switched to a mid-1960s Ford Mustang.
All that is solid indeed.
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