Birth of the Ford Model T

In many respects, the Model T Ford was the result of Henry Ford's desire to improve on the Model N Ford and to take full advantage of vanadium steel (read more about the Model N and vanadium steel here), which offered the potential of a lighter and stronger car. In January 1907, Henry Ford had a separate "experimental room," measuring 12' by 15', enclosed at the northern end of the third floor of the Piquette Avenue factory. There, draftsman Joseph Galanib set up blackboards and a drafting table to convert the design ideas of Henry Ford and his chief engineer Childe Harold Wills into blueprints. According to the recollections of old-time Ford employees, Henry Ford supervised the drafting operations from a rocking chair. Also known as "Joe Galamb's secret room," it was kept locked and was off-limits to all but a few Ford employees. The first design completed for the Model T was a new transmission, developed over several months. Once blackboard drawings or blueprints were completed, Ford moved a drill press, lathe, and milling machine into the "experimental room," where machinist C. J. Smith turned drawings into parts. Components such as the transmission, flywheel magneto, and springs were tested on a Model N chassis.

Ford Motor Company distributed the first circulars describing the future Model T Ford to its dealers on 19 March 1908. Even though the Model T Touring Car would retail for $850 and would not be available until October, the circular touched off a frenzy of orders from dealers. When introduced, the Model T was superior to cars selling for twice the price. The new model featured the extensive use of vanadium steel in gears, crankshafts, springs, and other parts subject to stress, an innovative flywheel magneto, a durable planetary transmission, and other features not found in competitive cars. The lightweight four cylinder engine, which developed 20 horsepower, featured a removable head, allowing easier access to the valves and cylinders. The Model T Ford was one of the first American automobiles to have the steering wheel and controls located on the left. This became the standard design within a few years. Ford Motor Company produced more than 15 million Model T Fords between 1908 and 1927, often accounting for more than half of American automobile production. Because of its critical role in popularizing automobile ownership in the 1910s and 1920s, the Model T Ford is the most significant automobile of the twentieth century.

In mid-September 1908, Wills announced plans to produce 25,000 Model T Fords the first year, but these plans were entirely unrealistic. On 1 May 1909, the Ford Motor Company stopped accepting orders for the Model T for two months because the firm was overwhelmed, despite working two shifts in all departments. The Ford Motor Company did not come close to building the 25,000 cars promised in September 1908, but managed to assemble 10,607 for the year ending 30 September 1909. The firm reported an average workforce of 2,190 for that time period, but this included employees at sales branches, which distributed cars and parts to the dealers. Ford claimed to employ an average of 1,655 for calendar year 1909 at its "home plant," presumably the Piquette Avenue Plant. Production for the entire calendar year of 1909, the last year the Ford Motor Company was based at the Piquette Avenue Plant, was a remarkable 17,771 cars.

Henry Ford replaced the Piquette Avenue Plant with a spacious manufacturing complex in Highland Park, Michigan, which he began to occupy in the fall of 1909. Final assembly of the Model T moved from the Piquette Avenue Plant to the Highland Park Plant in January 1910. At the Ford Highland Park Plant, Henry Ford introduced and perfected the moving assembly line for the manufacture and assembly of the Model T Ford. Model T production jumped dramatically from 20,277 units in 1910 to 585,388 in 1916, while the retail price of the Model T touring car fell from $780 to $360 over the same time span. The Highland Park plant was the principal assembly plant for the Model T Ford from 1910 until the passing of the Model T in 1927. The Highland Park Plant is also a notable early example of reinforced concrete building design resulting in the "daylight factory," executed on a large scale by architect Albert Kahn. Unfortunately, more than one-third of the Highland Park Plant is no longer extant, demolished in the early 1960s. The original administration building, signature power house with its distinctive five smokestacks, a four-story reinforced concrete factory building featuring an enormous "Ford Motor Company" sign, two machine shops, two crane ways, and two loading docks are no longer standing.

Ford's fourth manufacturing plant was the Ford River Rouge complex, begun in 1917, but primarily built in the 1920s and 1930s. At the Ford River Rouge plant, Henry Ford achieved vertical integration in production. There, Ford manufactured almost all of the components for a complete automobile, including engines, transmissions, frames, bodies, tires, and glass. Henry Ford and Albert Kahn together introduced innovative factory architecture at the River Rouge Plant sprawling single-story steel-framed buildings encased in glass. The all-new 1928 Model A Ford was manufactured and assembled at the River Rouge plant starting in November 1927 and the plant served as Ford's principal manufacturing facility into the 1950s. It remains an important part of Ford Motor Company's operations to this day.