In Nigel Stennet-Cox’s last column, The Universal Car – Ford’s Model T he looked at the origins of arguably the most significant vehicle in the whole c.130 year history of the production car. By 1910, the 2.9-litre Model T Ford was the only product of the huge and still rapidly-expanding Ford Motor Company.
At launch, the price of the standard “Touring Car” had been $850. Exports to Britain of Ford products had been underway since before the T came out in 1908 and a British assembly plant, in Manchester, was to open in 1911, under Sir Percival Perry who was to be a key figure in Ford of Britain for the next thirty-five years.
In 1913, Ford overtook Wolseley in British sales to become the best-selling car on the market until changes in the British Road Tax system, aimed specifically at undermining the popularity of large-bore American engines, took effect in 1921. Coachbuilders in Britain had begun producing bodywork in various individual styles for the Model T, including Ford of Manchester’s own offerings, and these began to be of commercial type with payloads of up to a ton or more with aftermarket chassis and axle modifications. Accessory manufacturers weighed in by the thousand to offer things to “improve” your Model T, like updates for the car’s idiosyncratic trembler-coil ignition system.
The larger-payload commercial conversions involved a lengthened chassis, uprated rear springs, stronger rear wheels with solid tyres, and a beefier rear axle with a lower ratio final drive. In 1918, Ford introduced their own “Ton Truck” chassis, designated “Model TT”, on similar lines with their own worm-drive rear axle, thus opening up the Model T market to include everything from two-seater cars to 15-seater ‘buses, fire engines, ambulances and lorries. Other accessory companies even offered kits to convert your old Model T car into a tractor capable of ploughing.
Fortunately for Ford of Britain, these conversions ensured the continuing viability of the Model T through the twenties, with both the Austin Seven, also the Morris Cowley and Oxford “bullnose” models overtaking the Ford in new car sales figures. Other factors ensuring the continued success of Ford was price (about the same over here as the 747cc Austin 7), really up to date fixed price service at any one of hundreds of dealers all over Britain, spare parts, and widespread public familiarity with the Ford’s epicyclic transmission and other mechanical quirks. Furthermore, although the car’s four cylinder side-valve 2896cc engine only developed just 20bhp at 1600-1800rpm throughout the whole of 1908 to 1927 production, the inevitable good torque and flexibility due to the generous capacity ensured it was “boss of its job” in most circumstances.
Chronology of Model T car production
The Model T production period of 1908 to 1927 saw tremendous change in terms of social and economic factors, the motor industry and car buyers themselves, plus the U.S. road network and quality. The developed countries also became increasingly wealthy, the U.S. many times over, more and more could afford and drive cars, and in the latter part of that period cars less suited than the Model T to the terrible roads outside the cities became viable.
However, from c.1909 when Model T sales really took off, Ford’s car and production policies fitted the market’s needs better than anyone else. From then until c.1924, the Ford factories could sell all the Model Ts which the factories worldwide could make, with this being in spite of production figures increasing year on year up to the peak of well over 2 million Ts’ in 1923. The more they made, the cheaper they could make them; Henry Ford would put any amount of research and investment in new tooling and processes to further increase speed of manufacture and reduce costs. Since from c.1912 the firm was becoming phenomenally wealthy, so they became invulnerable to competition, not only could no-one else afford those levels of investment, but Ford also kept dropping the price of the car, selling yet more, and still making a fortune. Between 1908 and 1923 the price of the basic Touring Car came down from $850 to $280, in the latter year the two-seater could be bought new for $260, or about £55 at the then exchange rate!
In one sense, Ford eventually became a victim of his own success, when the Model T had put the world and his wife on the road, and his Fordson tractors had from 1917 revolutionised farming and food production, the population had more time and money to look to cars with more performance, styling, and fittings such as self-starters and multi-speed gearboxes free of the cold-start drag of the Ford unit. There was no separate clutch and the bands on the epicyclic drums always rubbed a bit even in “neutral”. To be fair, Ford had offered a starter and electric lighting as an option from 1919.
From 1924-5, Ford had to start positively “selling” the Model T like never before as secondhand rivals to a new Ford such as the Chevrolet, Willys-Overland, Chrysler and Dodge were offering more power and style, all without the increasing stigma of the “Bargain-Basement” Ford. Henry was very proud of his Model T and resisted change whilst offering new colours and lower bodywork. Sales still fell, and in 1926 plans were put in hand for the new Model A to come out in late 1927. That was after the whole Ford operation had closed down for 7 months and made no vehicles from May to November/December 1927.
Fancy a Model T?
Your scribe fancied a Model T like his Mum and Dad’s c.1920 one right up until being able to start looking in 1979. Then there were far fewer cars and parts around and he ended up with an Argentinian import. Now, not only are there thousands more on the British scene, but prices are about the lowest of any “proper” car of the period. Dealers abound too, like Neil Tuckett of Buckinghamshire.