Prime Mover


A younger generation of Americans in search of a less hardscrabble existence had therefore begun to abandon their families’ farms for jobs in the big city, a choice Henry Ford could certainly understand and even sympathize with. “I have followed many a weary mile behind a plow,” he wrote, “and I know the drudgery of it.” After growing up and running as fast and as far from the farm as he could, Henry Ford did as much as any individual ever to alleviate that drudgery for others. His Model T modernized farming practices as well as rural life overall, for it could be used both for transportation and as a tireless iron workhorse. Simply by attaching a belt to the vehicle’s crankshaft or rear axle, a farmer gained a power source capable of a multitude of tasks: “grinding grain, sawing wood, filling silos, churning butter, shearing sheep, pumping water, elevating grain, shelling corn, turning grindstones and washing clothes,” among others, according to the historian Reynold M. Wik, whose family employed a Model T for all manner of purposes on their South Dakota farm. “In butchering hogs,” Wik explained, “the power from a car could be utilized to hoist the pig out of the hot water in the scalding barrel. In the fields, the Model T’s pulled hay rakes, mowers, grain binders, harrows, and hay loaders.”

They served in less obvious ways as well. The isolation of farm life made depression and mental illness much more common among rural folk whose distance from neighbors denied them regular social interaction. No humane master would work a team of horses in the fields all day and then hitch up the weary beasts again to take the family visiting in the evening. An automobile, however, had no such limitations. “Best of all,” the Ford Times boasted of the Model T, “it has remodeled the social life of the country.” One farm woman eagerly recounted how her whole world had opened up since she had acquired her Ford, which allowed her to work in the cornfield in the morning, do housework in the afternoon, and then drive the 30 miles into town and back for a band concert at night.

The genius in the Model T’s design was that the car could be adapted for almost any use, be it as a portable power source around the farm, a delivery van for RFD mail carriers, or a traveling salesman’s trustworthiest colleague. One man in Seattle turned his into a rolling restaurant. Trainmen fitted their Fords with metal wheels and rode them on the rails. With custom bodies, Model T’s became taxis, buses, trucks, fire engines, and police cars. They hauled prisoners and hay, livestock and tourists, and just about anything else people might want to tote.

By the time the Model T phenomenon crested, in the early 1920s, the car accounted for two-thirds of the automobiles in America.

Of course, the proletarian T wasn’t all serious. Perhaps the most colorful of the car’s new uses was for “auto polo,” a bizarre sport, briefly in vogue around 1913, in which stripped-down Model T’s took the place of polo ponies, their drivers circling one another while mallet-wielding strikers mounted on their running boards attempted to whack a large ball through a wide goalpost. Concocted by a Ford dealer in Wichita, Kansas, auto polo was before long being played at New York City’s Madison Square Garden. By all accounts, the action was certainly exciting, but it was deadly as well. As players grew more adept and aggressive, rollovers became commonplace. So many people were killed playing auto polo that several states, including New York, passed laws banning it. Ford dealers were urged to discourage it as well, and the sport pretty much disappeared after 1915.

Model T track racing, on the other hand, developed into a respected specialty, with independent manufacturers offering an array of parts designed to boost the vehicles’ performance. Many owners, however, needed nothing more than an open road and another car to get a race going. One driver of a Stafford recalled his come-from-behind duel with a Model T: “He had a halfmile start on me, and just when I got within about a hundred yards of him one of my lights jarred out and I had to stop. He’ll never get done blowing about beating my Stafford with his little old Ford.” The hard-luck loser would go on to win rather bigger races of a different variety. He was Harry S. Truman.

By the time the Model T phenomenon crested, in the early 1920s, it accounted for two-thirds of the automobiles in the United States, making the name Ford all but synonymous with car . The ubiquity of the “people’s car” turned the inescapable Model T into comic fodder. One of the jokes ran:

“Irate Owner (to Chauffeur): ‘John, pass that pesky Ford. This dust is awful.’

“Chauffeur: ‘Here we go, sir, but there’s not much use; there’ll be another one right ahead.’”

The Model T attained its renown— which by the mid-1920s had become global—thanks to Henry Ford’s ability to satisfy a far more difficult audience than those who could afford to buy any car, people who could afford to buy only it. “There is no keener critic than the motorist for whom these vehicles have been constructed,” wrote an Englishman named Alex Gray. “He cannot afford to waste his substance in riotous experimenting. … He wants the cheapest possible car, but he wants to be sure that the past three-penny-piece of his expenditure is coming back to him—with interest, if possible.”