It was the day that travel was democratised, that our standard of living was turbocharged – when four wheels replaced four limbs or, alternatively, the first day of the beginning of the end of our species.

The first Model T Ford, spewing out noxious fumes, rolled off the production line at Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory in Detroit, Michigan, in this week in 1908, when no-one knew or dreamed of global warming. It wasn’t the first automobile.

Henry Benz had filed a patent for a “horseless carriage”, the first car with the internal combustion engine, in 1886. The resultant Motorwagen was so slow a horse, at a canter, could outpace it, never mind an Olympic sprinter. Its top speed was just 10mph.

Rolls-Royce had produced the Silver Ghost a year before Ford. It was deliberately impossibly expensive, aimed at queens, kings, dukes and viscounts, but it quickly became the top people’s carriage of choice, relegating the horse-drawn carriage to the garage and the propulsion of it to the stable, or the glue factory.

Ford could see that the future lay in wheels, not the saddle, but that in order to open up the world, for not just the wealthy few, his car had to be affordable. He put it like this: “I will build a motor 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 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.”
There were no coughs from the heavens in those days.

What Ford did was to re-engineer capitalism. Until then, cars were hand-built by individuals.

Ford introduced the moving production line. That innovation created the mass production process, copied throughout the world, heralding the machine age and, eventually, globalisation.

Bloody inspired
HIS inspiration came from the slaughterhouses of Chicago. He and his engineers saw how workers specialised in just one task, performed over and over at a pace set by the conveyor belt. In Chicago, they were known as “disassembly” lines. Ford simply reversed the process.

The first Model T cost $825 – competitors’ cars cost over £2,000 – which was then about half the average worker’s wage. But by 1925, through his assembly lines, Ford had brought the price down to $260, less than $5,000 in today’s money.

Now, we expect products like computers and DVD players to plummet in price, but it was Ford who began the expectation through the economies of scale which, in the 1920s, was gobsmacking.

Ford didn’t invent anything – what he did was to organise and put together existing pieces in a sequence that no-one had done before. In retrospect, it seems obvious.

The Model T, the “Tin Lizzie”, needed a starting handle and began to inch forward as soon as the engine kicked in, requiring the driver to scuttle very quickly to the wheel or mayhem might ensue. A New Yorker article by EB White in 1936, looking back on the machine that replaced the horse, captured this beautifully.

“I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.”

The first Model T had a 10-gallon tank clocking 20 miles to the gallon, and a range in excess of the total of all the paved roads – 155 miles – in the US at the time.

The horse was the initial competition and Ford’s advertising targeted it: “Old Dobbin, the family coach horse, weighs more than a Ford car. But – He has only one-twentieth the strength of a Ford car – cannot go as fast nor as far – costs more to maintain – almost as much to acquire.”

The $200 billion man
FORD certainly was a rapacious capitalist. He amassed a fortune of around $200 billion in today’s money, more than Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates, or Elon Musk, who has his own plan for the automobile’s future. But he also introduced, with the Model T, the eight-hour working day and the minimum wage ($5 a day in 1914).

He also gave jobs to women, immigrants and ethnic minorities, although this may just have been hard business sense, or perhaps forced upon him by the shortage of labour through the First World War and the subsequent flu pandemic.

The Model T became the industry’s universal car. Ford had already set up a factory, in 1911, at Trafford Park in Manchester.
Lizzie was also manufactured in several other countries and sold by dealers on six continents.

By 1927, it accounted for nearly 57 per cent of the world’s car production. In 19 years, 14 million cars were sold and it wasn’t until 1972 that the Volkswagen Beetle, 34 years after its launch, passed it.

It was so popular that Ford said of it: “There’s no use trying to pass a Ford, because there’s always another one just ahead.”
The car also created, or jump-started, the supply industry, from tyres to wing mirrors and nodding dogs, and surely helped spawn Halfords.

Honed down to a T
FORD tested the prototypes himself on hunting trips. The Model T featured in countless black-and-white movies – and also in Downton Abbey – and in stunts Ford’s publicity people pulled, including one of the T climbing the stairs of the Tennessee State Capitol building and reaching the top of the 14,115-feet Pikes Peak in Colorado.

Ford may, or may not, have said: “You can have any colour you want as long as it’s black.”

Ford’s method of production was satirised, or vilified, by Charlie Chaplin in his 1936 film Modern Times, a commentary on the soulless industrialisation which, in the then-Great Depression, chewed up workers – Chaplin is by the cogs of the giant machines in the factory.

Chaplin had met Henry Ford and had seen the assembly line.
It’s no coincidence that Chaplin hired an actor who resembled Ford to play the dictatorial head of the factory.

A Ford to criticise
ALDOUS Huxley was even more vituperative in Brave New World (how come he didn’t get sued?) seeing Ford as the power which has taken over the world, a deity.

Citizens of the world state invoke “My Ford” for lord and count time in “the year of Our Ford”. Eat your heart out Elon.

The internal combustion engine, the motor car, which Ford’s innovation and pricing brought into nearly every household, at least in the developed world, may be responsible for up to one-quarter of global CO2 emissions – choose your scientific claims – and an important factor in the wildfires, the flooding, melting icecaps and the shortening of life on the planet.

But if livestock adds another 15%, just think of the state of the ozone layer if it were still horses nose to tail on the M1.