THE AUTOMOBILE CONQUERS AMERICA
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” Henry Ford declared. “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.”
His path to this goal began in his own home, where he assembled a succession of vehicles that won the financial backing with which he founded Ford Motor Company, in 1903. He built several different types of car, and then in 1908, he offered the Model T. After that, he never looked back.
It was simple, rugged, and durable. In an era when every motorist had to be his own mechanic, it was easy to maintain. Ford tried various production methods and then in 1913 introduced the moving assembly line, an innovation that would define the nature of much industrial production for decades to come.
Workers on the line quickly grew bored from the monotony of their tasks, however. Ford restored their flagging spirits in 1914 by introducing an eight-hour workday and a minimum wage of five dollars a day, a milestone in labormanagement relations that heralded the coming of age of the consumer economy. Factory workers could now earn enough to purchase the products they were building.
As wage earners everywhere began to take home more pay, more of them bought cars, and sales of the Model T peaked at two million in 1923. The cost was under $400, yet amid rising prosperity, buyers increasingly wanted more than low prices. They wanted style. Ford responded in 1927 by halting production of the Model T and then introducing the Model A. It wasn’t enough. The real response came from General Motors, with its seductive hierarchy of car lines. GM swept past Ford in total sales—forever. Still, Henry Ford had the satisfaction not only of having built motorcars for the multitude but of having introduced pathbreaking innovations in industrial production, labor relations, and consumer spending.