A century on wheels

It could only do 70 kmph and had to be driven in reverse when climbing a steep hill, but the Ford T, celebrating its centenary this year, brought about an automotive revolution. In the year of the Nano, we take a look at the world’s first mass produced and ‘affordable’ car.

Dhiman Chattopadhyay        Print Edition: November 16, 2008

If Ratan Tata does manage to roll out the first Rs 1-lakh Nano from the Tata stable on December 28, 2008 as promised, it might start the next revolution in the history of automobiles. And, in doing so, Tata will be replicating the achievement of Henry Ford, who turned the world of automobiles upside down exactly a hundred years ago when he launched the Ford T—the first mass produced car in history.

Ratan Tata
Ford T and Tata Nano
The Ford Model T (colloquially known as the Tin Lizzie) was a car produced by the Ford Motor Company from 1908 through 1927. It was the first affordable automobile, the car that ‘put America on wheels’.

A hundred years later, a car that needed a crank to start it and boasted just two forward gears might seem like an ancient contraption. But having both ridden and driven the 1928 model (the final year of its production) of the Ford T in the 1980s and early ‘90s (in vintage car rallies, of course), I can vouch for the durability and technological superiority of this wonderful car. I remember starting the car itself was quite an achievement since quite often it needed a push before one ran and caught up with the car and jumped in. As a kid, standing on the extended ‘balcony’ of the car outside the vehicle was the best part of the experience, as the car rolled along Kolkata’s narrow streets at a ‘breezy’ 20 kmph.

The original (1908-1919) model of the T, though, could behave quite amazingly at times. For instance, the car came with a gigantic 38-litre fuel tank, which, for some unknown reason, was mounted to the frame under the front seat. Because fuel relied on gravity to flow forward from the fuel tank to the carburetor, a Model T could not climb a steep hill when the fuel level was low.

1908 Model T
1908 Model T
The immediate solution was often to drive up steep hills in reverse! Finally, in 1926, the fuel tank was moved forward. One can only imagine a scene before that, as amazed tourists watched dozens of Americans driving in reverse, all the way up to their hill-top ranches.

Another interesting feature of the Ford T was that there was no clutch pedal at all. So, how was it driven and gears changed (there were three gears in all in the car)? The car’s movement was apparently controlled with three foot pedals and a throttle. When the throttle was pressed and held forward, the car entered low gear. When held in an intermediate position, the car was in neutral. If the lever was pushed forward and the driver took his foot off the left pedal, the Model T entered high gear. The car could thus cruise without the driver having to press any of the pedals. No wonder, it didn’t need a clutch at all.

1917 Model T
1917 Model T
When introduced, the T used the building methods typical at the time, assembly by hand, and production was small. Ford’s Piquette plant could not keep up with demand for the Model T, and only 11 cars were built there during the first full month of production. In 1910, after assembling nearly 12,000 Model Ts, Henry Ford moved the company to the new Highland Park complex.

It, however, vanquished all competition by getting into an assembly line production system. The system was introduced to Ford by one William C. Klann upon his return from visiting a slaughterhouse at Chicago’s Union Stock Yards and viewing what was referred to as the “disassembly line” where animals were cut apart as they moved along a conveyor.

Once the system was in place, Ford’s cars came off the line in three-minute intervals, increasing production by eight to one. By 1914, the assembly process for the Model T had been so streamlined it took only 93 minutes to assemble a car. That year Ford produced more cars than all other automakers combined. In fact, it was so successful that Ford did not purchase any advertising between 1917 and 1923; in total, more than 15 million Model Ts were manufactured, more than any other model of automobile for almost a century.

1914 Model T
1914 Model T
And here’s the best part—something that Ratan Tata seems to have picked up as well—the standard 5-seat Ford T cost US$850 (about £180 at the time). In 1914, an assembly line worker could buy a Model T with four months’ pay. When he launched the car, Henry Ford figured it would be a vehicle for the masses. “It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one,” he is reported to have said.

Tata’s Nano has simply taken a leaf out of Ford’s book. But will the Rs 1-lakh, four-gear small car do for Indians what the Ford T did for Americans a hundred years ago? Let’s see.

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