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Prime Mover

May 2024
16min read

The Model T Ford made the world we live in. On the 100th anniversary of the company Henry Ford founded, his biographer Douglas Brinkley tells how.

"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.”

In 1912 Ruth Calkins, of Rochester, New York, ignored repeated attempts to dissuade her from making automobile trips without a man along to attend to mechanical matters and toured the northeastern United States and southern Ontario for a month with three female friends. Calkins proved a sterling driver; even when the car sank to its axles in mud, she managed to ease it out with careful cunning rather than the shoulder power of her companions. As she and other women found out, there was an exhilarating sense of independence to be had at the wheel of an automobile. “The motor-car has returned the romance of travel,” Edith Wharton wrote in her 1908 memoir A Motor-Flight Through France . “Freeing us from all the compulsions and contacts of the railway, the bondage to fixed hours and the beaten track, the approach to each town through the area of ugliness created by a railway itself, it has given us back the wonder, the adventure, and the novelty which enlivened the way of our posting grandparents.”

The secret of the model was its innovative “planetary” transmission and braking system, which was controlled entirely through pedals on the floor, leaving the driver’s hands free for steering. As Robert Lacey describes it in his book Ford: The Men and the Machine , the car’s planetary mechanism was “a primitive sort of automatic gear, worked by three foot pedals: a brake, a pedal for forward, and a pedal for reverse. Orchestrating them was an acquired art, rather like playing the organ. … But once [it was] mastered, all sorts of tricks became available—notably the capacity to shoot straight from forward into reverse, thus making it possible to ‘rock’ the car out of a pothole.” Almost anyone could drive a T for hours without exhaustion, and the little Ford could travel just about anywhere—over paved city streets, on rough country roads, uphill, through mud— and in all kinds of weather.

The arrival of the Model T in hinter land cities like Kansas City, Omaha, and Denver was an event as eagerly anticipated as a Billy Sunday evangelical revival or Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But actually selling the new Ford—or any car, for that matter—to the millions of committed horse-and-buggyers who populated the country took both patience and a certain amount of courage. In his wonderfully evocative memoir Me and the Model T , Roscoe Sheller, a Ford dealer in Sunnyside, Washington, wrote of the difficulties of selling Tin Lizzies in the American West in 1915, when horses were still the main form of transport and prospective customers had no clue how to drive a car. All too many of these tyro test drivers blithely ran past turns and over corners, shouting a loud “Whoa!” instead of applying the brake. When that didn’t work, they would jerk the steering wheel in the wrong direction and “freeze to it with the strength of Samson before he had a hair-cut,” Sheller recalled. “I could no more break I the driver’s] panic-seized grip than Cleopatra could have tossed an elephant across the Nile.”

Teaching this equestrian lot of would-be motorists to drive on the area’s rutted wagon roads took real fortitude. Sheller’s instructees smashed into everything from ancient sequoias to wooden posts and barbed wire fences, far too often coming “only inches from a messy death.” Because such accidents began to rack up “sickening” repair bills as well as lost sales for the dealership, Sheller adopted a new policy: “I became convinced that it might be wiser to collect full payment for the car before attempting driving instructions. Then, in case of accident, crumpled fenders, smashed radiators and jackknifed axles it would be the instructee’s responsibility, not mine.…” Sheller reported that he soon noticed a considerable increase in the attentiveness of his clients; apparently the driver’s “neck seemed of less importance than damage to his wallet.”

The Model T’s main selling point was, of course, its astonishingly low price—$360 just before World War I—which appeared even cheaper when the scant cost of operating the car was factored in. That the Model T could be maintained so inexpensively further fueled the public’s fascination with the little runabout. During World War I, when The New York Times was reporting that operating an automobile cost $1,500 a year, Model T owners enjoyed annual expenses of less than $100. A well-kept Ford was said to cost about a penny a mile to run—or, as one thrifty fellow noted in 1912, a quarter of a penny per occupant when his entire family rode along. H. R. Worrall, of New Hampton, Iowa, then took his calculations another step, comparing the cost of driving his Model T with that of his former mode of locomotion, walking. Covering a thousand miles on foot cost him $10 in shoes, Worrall figured, but only $7.71 in his new Model T Torpedo Runabout.

As the swelling number of proud new Model T owners learned to master their machines, the old Tin Pan Alley tune “In My Merry Oldsmobile” gave way to ones singing the praises of Henry Ford’s new car for the masses: for example, “The Little Ford Rambled Right Along” (1914) and Jack Frost’s “You Can’t Afford to Marry, If You Can’t Afford a Ford” (1915). The intoxicating feeling that came with driving one for the first time inspired what might be called “Model T mania,” to which even the worldliest did not prove immune. Grace Hegger Lewis, the widow of Sinclair Lewis, revealed in her memoirs that the greatest thrill of her famous husband’s life had not been receiving the Nobel Prize for literature but the moment he pulled up in front of their house in his first Model T touring car and inquired of his family, “How about a little ride?” He was so enthralled with his motorcar, in fact, that Lewis wrote a highway romance novel based on the couple’s cross-country jaunt in it as newlyweds in 1916. Published in 1919 as Free Air , this clever hybrid of dime-store Western and gothic romance offered a thinly fictionalized account of Lewis’s escape with Grace from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Seattle. In it, the young bride, navigating the little car over the punishing roads of rural Minnesota, describes the adventure as a “voyage into democracy.”

Increasing numbers of women were discovering that there was an exhilarating sense of independence to be had at the wheel.

Another renowned Model T enthusiast was far better known for his aerial travels. In his book Boyhood on the Upper Mississippi , Charles A. Lindbergh vividly recalled the day in 1912 when his father purchased a Model T Ford equipped with the “standard footpedal gearshift, four cylinder engine, smooth-faced clincher-rim tires, carbide headlights, hand crank, squeeze rubberbulb horn, folding waterproof cloth top, and quick fasten-on curtains for rainy days.” His mother christened the car Maria, and it made a lasting impression on the future aviator. “Before Maria arrived,” he wrote in 1969, automobiles “seemed almost as separate from our everyday lives as a show up on a stage. The fact that my father had bought an automobile was startling and amazing. It took my mother and me a long time to get accustomed to this new member of our family.”

Soon enough the 11-year-old Lindbergh was piloting Maria at a perilous 25 miles per hour along the unpaved, deeply rutted, and often icy roads of northern Minnesota, in pursuit of groceries in Brainerd or friends in St. Cloud. “I had become fascinated by automobiles in general and by Maria in particular,” he remembered. His account told of lengthy attempts to start the car in cold weather, of getting it stuck in sand, changing its flat tires, and having to lay tree limbs over mud holes so Maria could make it across. His most vivid (and prescient) memory was of his father behind the wheel while he stood atop the family Ford’s wide running board, hanging on by the struts supporting the car’s folding top. “I could pick leaves off branches as we passed, and sometimes when the going was slow, scoop up a stone from the road,” Lindbergh said, adding, “I liked the wind on my face and through my hair. It was much more fun than riding inside.”


Any new kind of transportation promises to open up virgin territories for exploration, but the versatility and economy of the Model T made the proposition especially tempting, inspiring a new fad, the automobile vacation. Some took to calling the Model T “Hotel Ford,” in tribute to the ease with which travelers could equip the conveyance for camping. The upper half of the car’s split windshield, for example, folded down horizontally to create a table, which could be made more elegant by being covered with a cloth to conceal any splattered insects still adhering to the glass. The Ford Times , a monthly magazine published throughout the Model T era by the automaker and distributed free of charge to its dealers and customers, chronicled this new development through self-submitted accounts of many early wanderers’ automotive adventures. The publication offered, for instance, the story of Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Harper, of Phoenix, Arizona, whose 1912 road trip qualified them as pioneers of the family vacation. Setting off from home with their five small children, the couple drove their Ford all the way to the city of Eureka, deep in northern California’s glorious redwood country, without once staying at a hotel.

The young Charles Lindbergh, riding outside on the running board of his family’s Model T, discovered he “liked the wind on my face.”

In 1913 the company’s house organ related the experiences of Ford Motor’s employee E. Roger Stearns, who drove from Los Angeles to San Diego, not a terribly difficult trip, and then made the far more harrowing passage through Devil’s Canyon to El Centro, California, near the Mexican border. Stearns reported that his Model T handled the tricky mountain roads, rocky canyons, and abundant sand without a single hitch. Of course, had he suffered any problems, he might not have found it so easy to sell 10 cars just like his on the spot to the El Centro residents who greeted him.

The Ford Times set out to dispel the perception, common in the early automobile age, that older motorists might find the vehicles difficult to operate. Surely that could not be the case, Ford Motor’s internal publication proclaimed, if “the world’s oldest [automobile] owner,” Robert Allison, who in 1898 had become the first person in the United States to buy a car (even if it was a Duryea), could still enjoy driving his Model T at the age of 86.

An astonishing number of those who roved the countryside in Model T’s chose to share the exhilaration of the experience in the Ford Times . One of the most compelling of these accounts, down to the last splatter of mud, appeared under the byline of none other than Henry and Clara Ford’s only child, Edsel, who drove a Model T Runabout from Detroit to Chicago in 1913, when he was only 20 years old. Like any other motorist of the era, the scion of the Ford Motor Company had to contend with a vexing dearth of paved roads, decipherable maps, and decent roadside restaurants.

Somewhere past Ypsilanti, Michigan, heading west, Edsel Ford and his unnamed companion came to a stop before a good-size creek over which several men were building a bridge. “They said that some wagons and carriages were able to drive through the creek, but all automobiles were compelled to go around several miles through a back way,” the young Ford wrote. “We thought that rather than lose so much time, we would try driving through the stream, so we backed up far enough to get a good start, and thought by speeding we could force our way through. But for our wise thoughts we received two wettings. First, when the radiator hit the water it sent a shower all over us, and then by stalling the motor right in the center of the creek, we had to climb out into cold water up to our waists and push for shore. At first the car would not move an inch, but by much tugging and pulling we managed to get near enough to shore so that the crank was up out of water. Then all we had to do was crank for half an hour to get the water out of the carburetor, and finally she started.” No one but Edsel Ford would have been allowed to admit in the Ford Times that a Model T ever would not start, even if it was underwater at the time.

Whether the townspeople he and his buddy encountered along the way were aware that one of the car’s occupants was Henry Ford’s son is not known. Edsel probably did not disclose his identity; he was anything but spoiled, and probably would not have wanted to attract any special attention because of his family ties. Nevertheless, unwanted attention is what he and his pal attracted in one rural town when their arrival coincided with that of the afternoon train. “The streets of Paw Paw [Michigan], like all other towns we passed through the day, were lined with farmers and [horse-drawn] carriages,” Edsel Ford wrote, when a loud noise suddenly disturbed the pastoral scene. He continued: “We don’t know whether it was the noise of our exhaust or the train, but one or the other scared a horse, who turned around so quickly in the road that he upset the buggy and threw out the two occupants. … Well, we did not wait very long in that town, for, as a rule, farmers do not love automobiles.”

Although America’s farmers may have been until then slow to accept the inevitability of the automobile, they quickly embraced the Model T. In 1912 the Farmer magazine conducted a study of car ownership in Minnesota’s agricultural areas for the years 1909 and 1911 that indicated the rural appeal of the little Ford. The article reported that in 1909, a year after the Model T was introduced, there were 191 Fords in towns with populations of 1,000 or fewer; two years later the number had grown to 1,187, outdistancing the second most popular make, Buick, by almost 400. The magazine’s survey also showed that in towns of between 10,000 and 20,000 people, Ford ownership had soared to anywhere from 3 to 20 times what it had been two years earlier.

The Model T’s popularity in farm districts owed largely to the car’s capacity to make rural life more bearable at a time when many families were finding it increasingly hard to support themselves through agriculture. Farm living had of course never actually jibed with its popular bucolic image as demanding but honest work leavened by an assortment of simple pastoral pleasures. In reality, most farm work was hard, tedious, and not at all lucrative, making the few modern comforts that were available in rural areas unaffordable for most farm families. Central heating, indoor plumbing, and hot-water heaters had become standard in all but the poorest urban housing during the Model T’s first decade, but not on the farm.

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.”


It didn’t hurt that the Model T’s additional virtues held sway with wealthier clients too. “I own four automobiles,” wrote the president of a Brooklyn, New York, iron company in 1909, “costing from fifteen hundred dollars to seven thousand dollars each, and have had more service out of this little Ford Car, which only cost me a thousand dollars, and had less trouble with it, than with any of the other makes.” Even some of Ford’s harshest critics eventually succumbed to the allure of the company’s sensible, hardworking massmarket car and its visionary inventor. In 1918 the erstwhile auto opponent turned U.S. President Woodrow Wilson not only bought himself a Model T but also became one of the first politicians to encourage Henry Ford to run for elective office.

Yet the sweep of Ford’s influence on the nation in the decade after his Model T’s introduction hardly required validation from any electorate. His car had opened the American landscape, altered the outlook of consumers everywhere, and forever changed the way automobiles would be manufactured and sold. Even more important, Ford had silenced the fearmongers who cried that the interests of the many would be ground beneath the advancing wheels of fullbore capitalism at the hands of a few. He had made capitalism the servant of the masses.

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