Prime Mover

"I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” Henry Ford proclaimed to the public when he announced the machine that would change America and indeed the world. “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 greatest open spaces.”

It was quite a sales pitch. At the time of the Model T’s introduction, on October 1, 1908, the Lord’s pastoral delights remained almost exclusively the domain those wealthy enough to get to them. Ford, however, a populist businessman whose rural roots informed all his life’s work, was selling not just a car but the dream of a better future to those least likely to benefit from the new century’s most significant technological innovation. “Brigham Young originated mass production,” said Will Rogers, “but Ford was the guy who improved upon it. He changed the habits of more people than Caesar, Mussolini, Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Xerxes, Amos ’n’ Andy, and Bernard Shaw.”

For all its promises of freedom and leisure, the infant horseless carriage had left more people behind than it carried along, offering most Americans no choice but to watch and yearn as automobiles grew bigger, faster, and more ostentatious—and their owners proportionately less accommodating to the safety and sensibilities of their pedestrian fellows. “Unfortunately, our millionaires, and especially their idle and degenerate children, have been flaunting their money in the faces of the poor as if actually wishing to provoke them,” warned The North American Review in a 1906 article titled “An Appeal to Our Millionaires.” “The rich prefer to buy immense cars which take almost all of a narrow street or road, and to drive them on all streets, narrow or wide, at such speeds as imperils |sic| the lives and limbs of everybody in their path.”

The anti-auto mood in the United States prior to the Model T’s introduction looks remarkably hostile in retrospect. Motorists were fired on, and in 1902 a Minnesotan driving a car was shot in the back. Automobiles faced particularly virulent receptions in rural areas. “A reckless, blood thirsty, villainous lot of purse-proud crazy trespassers” was how the farm magazine Breeder’s Gazette described motorists in 1904. (The depiction may have contained an element of truth. The North American Review estimated that more Americans had died in car accidents during the first six months of 1906 than had perished in the Spanish-American War.)

“Nothing has spread socialistic feeling in this country more than use of the automobile,” pronounced one prominent educator, author, and social critic in 1906—Woodrow Wilson, then the president of Princeton University. “They are a picture of arrogance and wealth, with all its independence and carelessness.”

Henry Ford had no quarrel with Wilson’s sense of outrage at the callousness of those who abused their sense of privilege, but only with the outcome of the college man’s logic. While he conceded the point that if automobiles were designed for the wealthy, then only the wealthy would own automobiles, the answer, Ford believed, was not, as Wilson argued, to do away with the machines but to do away with the social dichotomy in their ownership. His Model T would prove to the world, as company billboards declared in a curiously deprecatory sales pitch, EVEN YOU CAN AFFORD A FORD .

A Georgia farm wife wrote Ford in 1918 saying, “Your car lifted us out of the mud. It brought joy into our lives.”

In 1908 J. Pierpont Morgan revealed his father’s investment advice: “Any man who is a bear on the future of this country will go broke.” That year there were 87,189,392 Americans, more than half of them living on farms or in small towns. The number of cars registered in the United States had grown from some 8,000 in 1900 to 200,000 by the end of 1908—and to nearly half a million just two years later. Motorists were enjoying a brand-new freedom, and the Model T led the way. The appeal of Ford’s “car for the great multitude” lay not merely in its amazingly low cost, a marketing strategy Ford Motor managed to appropriate before any of its competitors, but in its durability, ease of driving, and simplicity to maintain. Model T’s were practical cars. A farm wife in Rome, Georgia, could have been referring both actually and figuratively to her family’s Model T when she wrote to Henry Ford in 1918: “Your car lifted us out of the mud. It brought joy into our lives.”

Women embraced the Model T with as much enthusiasm as men. The car was easier to operate than most, a fact Ford Motor took full advantage of in promoting it. As a company publication explained, “There is no complex shifting of gears to bother the driver. In fact there is very little machinery about the car—none that a woman cannot understand in a few minutes and learn to control with a little practice.” A publicity pamphlet titled The Woman and the Ford linked the feminist movement to the Model T. “It has broadened her horizon—increased her pleasures—given new vigor to her body—made neighbors of faraway friends—and multiplied tremendously her range of activity. It is a real weapon in the changing order. More than any other—the Ford is a woman’s car.”