Few vehicles revolutionized the production and ownership of the automobile as did the Ford Model T. Unlike the hand-built cars that came before it, the “Tin Lizzie”, as it affectionately became known, was the first vehicle to be produced on a conveyor belt assembly line, which Henry Ford installed in the Highland Park plant in 1913. This significantly reduced the costs of production, placing the car’s sale price within the reach of working Americans, and opening the possibility of car ownership to millions.
However, the very first Model T was not built at Highland Park. It was completed – still by hand – at the Piquette Avenue plant in Detroit and would leave that plant on this day, October 1, in 1908. Although the economies of mass assembly would not be realized for another five years, Ford’s revolutionary design and production values still ensured that this would be a car that ordinary people could drive every day.
In addition to Ford’s now famous edict that “any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants so long as it is black”, the Model T’s body was designed to bolt directly onto the chassis as a separate unit, from which it could just as easily be removed. This allowed an astonishing variety of vehicle types, from trucks to tractors, sedans to speedsters, to use the same engine, chassis and drive-train, reducing the number of different parts required to build and repair them. Many Model Ts did not move at all: instead, their rear wheels were jacked off the ground and connected to belt-driven farming and forestry equipment, perfect for the diverse rural Michigan economy.
Time would eventually overtake the design and by the end of the Roaring Twenties, in keeping with the increased demand for luxury and sophistication of the times, car buyers wanted more than a workaday vehicle. Sales of the venerable Tin Lizzie declined, and the last one was driven off the Highland Park assembly line by Ford and his son, Edsel, on May 26, 1927.
The spirit of the Model T lives on in the four main owners clubs with chapters all around America and throughout the world, which preserve and restore Tin Lizzies using steel parts that are still manufactured by enthusiasts today. The Model T Ford Club of America has a Michigan chapter, the Piquette Ts, which rescued the original Piquette Avenue birthplace of the Ford Model T and now maintains it as a museum.
The ultimate Tin Lizzie experience, however, is at Greenfield Village, a part of the Henry Ford Museum complex in Dearborn. From April through November, you can ride in one of a stable of beautifully restored Model Ts, skillfully maneuvered by a knowledgeable and enthusiastic driver, past the very farmhouse where Henry Ford was born in 1863. Admission to the Village is $24 for adults, $17 for children, and an unlimited daily ride pass is just $14. Next door to the Village, in the Henry Ford Museum itself, are more Model Ts on display, including one that has been ‘exploded’ with its pieces suspended on wires, so you can see exactly how it was put together.
So today take a look out into your driveway and raise a glass to the car that started it all, the Ford Model T.
Happy Birthday, Tin Lizzie!
Anthony Rodgers, Associate Editor