Why the Model T is Henry Ford’s epic poem

Quoted from The Car: The Rise and Fall of the Machine That Made the Modern World, by Bryan Appleyard. Pegasus Book, 2022.

For a casual, contemporary look, the Ford Model T just looks like a cute old car: black with a tall, uncomfortable passenger box – men wore hats back then – small engine compartment, flashy headlights, mudguard and running board. , all bolted without thinking about aerodynamic efficiency. It’s a car that, especially in coupe form, seems to be running on tiptoes. This two-box design – the engine compartment and the passenger compartment – ​​immediately evoked the automobile from the early twentieth century to the thirties and forties. It was preceded by a tricycle or horse-drawn carriage style and replaced by a three-box sedan/sedan style with a large boot in the rear. That, in turn, will be replaced by a two-box sports utility vehicle.

The striking thing about the T is its transparency, the bare appearance of the construction itself. The way the car works is almost all visible and looks like it can be disassembled with one screwdriver and one wrench. Other cars of the time tried to look like a unified whole; T flaunts itself as a compilation of parts. And, indeed, parts determine the consumer’s experience with the car. In the 1920s, when sales were at their peak, the Sears Roebuck catalog offered 5,000 accessories that could be attached to the T family, including “splash-resistant luxury flower vases”.

The car inspires affection for its owner. The T quickly acquired nicknames: Tin Lizzie, flivver – a word whose origins are uncertain – or jalopy, which may have come from Jalapa, a Mexican city where many old cars are sent to be turned into second-hand goods.

T, as he gets older, becomes cute because of his frail illusionary appearance. In the film Laurel & Hardy Smooth pearl (alias Stolen Jool) Ollie drives the letter T and Stan sits in the passenger seat. In the back seat was a smart-looking man in a hat. A siren blared. Stan tries to press a button on the dashboard but Ollie brushes his hand away. The car stopped and, again, Stan reached for the button. This time he was unhindered and the button pressed. There are sharp cuts so that we can see the whole car as it crumbles into its constituent parts. The three of them were thrown back. Stan recovers looking confused and Ollie is tired of adjusting his bowler hat. The smart man in the back rose from the rubble, dusted off the dust and, as if nothing had happened, as if the car was expected to be crushed when parked, said, “Thanks, kids, where were you when I needed it. You?” “Here,” said Ollie, pointing down at the now immobile ruins.

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The film is set in 1931, four years after the end of Model T production. Stan and Ollie’s engine definitely looks like a Tin Lizzie – unkempt, fragile – even though its total disrepair far surpasses anything one might expect from a typical car.

But such a joke was only possible because at that time everyone knew about T. It was praised and sung. In a way that has not been achieved before or since then, the word “car” means this car; it has a greater cultural presence than any music or movie star. In 1922 EB White had just graduated from college and was looking for something to write about. That same year Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway left to find themselves in Paris – a very retro move, as if the old Europe was still reigning supreme. White chose, in a modern way, to drive across America with the letter T, an experience that became two essays – “Farewell to the Model T” and “From the Sea to the Brilliant Sea.” He didn’t see the letter T as an old car; he sees it as a masterpiece of technology and, most importantly, a new way of life: “Mechanically extraordinary, it is unlike anything that has ever come into the world before… My generation identifies with youth, with its striking and irreplaceable joy.”

That last sentence tells us to take a closer look at this car. It’s not always a cranky old man, an eccentric race car. Instead, it used to be about youth and flashy excitement. Compared to sixties cars like the Ford Mustang or the BMC Mini, the epitome of threat and charm of youth culture. But the message from the T is more astonishing than the symbolism of either of the two cars. Because what was said, back in 1908 that is still being drawn on a horse, was this: anyone can own a car. When production ended in 1927 and the 15 millionth T rolled off the production line, it became clear that everyone could indeed own a car.

Considered a business proposition, the T doesn’t make sense. Produced between 1908 and 1927, it was the only car made by the Ford Motor Company. Any contemporary executive would say that this one product strategy was insane, very high risk. But for Henry Ford in his most puritanical fashion, the T was perfect, the only car anyone could ever need, and, for a very long time, he was right. He even wanted it to last a lifetime, another commercial frenzy – the idea of ​​planned obsolescence and annual model upgrades had yet to infect the auto industry. The final madness is that he keeps lowering the price; The first base T costs $825, the last $360 after dipping as low as $260. Again, he was right: he was still making money. Other cars have sold more – the Toyota Corolla in various iterations sold 44 million, the Volkswagen Beetle 22 million and so on – but the T sold in the millions when there were few cars in the world. And, to be more precise, there is only one Henry Ford.

In his memoirs, My Life and Work published in 1922, Ford quotes a speech he made in 1907. This is a summary of T’s business plan:

“I will build a car for the crowd. It will be large enough for a family but small enough for an individual to run and care for. It will be constructed from the finest materials, by the best people to be employed, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But the price will be so low that no high-income person will not be able to own it—and enjoy with his family the blessings of hours of pleasure in God’s great open space.”

But this is not a Ford; it was Samuel Crowther. Crowther, a journalist, “haunted” the memoir as well as three other Ford books. Here Ford seems to be quoting himself, but this is a paragraph by an author, not an engineer – clipped, precise and uplifting. I’ll bet that the word “many” in the first sentence is Crowther’s slanted reference to Walt Whitman’s famous line from “Song of Myself” – “I’m big, I’m full of people.”

And Ford does contain a lot. His age is neatly enclosed by two of the most important events in American history. Born in 1863 four weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg, the most decisive and bloody battle of the Civil War, he died in 1947, having witnessed Japan’s defeat with the war’s first and so far deployment of nuclear weapons.

In opinion and attitude he can be everything to everyone. He was a ruthless anti-Semite and then, for a time, he wasn’t; he is puritanical yet extravagant; he is a man of peace and then war; he was a ruthless philanthropist and hoarder; he loved his son Edsel and he tortured him; he was an enlightened boss but he became the global epitome of cold and cruel capitalism. Anything, good or bad, about Henry Ford can be contradicted except for his ambitions and work. Two hundred years before he was born, the poet John Dryden captured Ford in a stanza:

A man who is so diverse, that he looks like that

Not one, but the symbol of all mankind…

He is a genius populist. A biographer, Steven Watts, wrote of “a love affair between a pioneering automaker from Detroit and an ordinary American that transcends all reason.”

In 1919 Ford filed a defamation case against Chicago Tribune, who called him a “stupid idealist” and “anarchist enemy of the nation” because of his opposition several years earlier to President Wilson’s decision to send the National Guard to the Mexican border to prevent attacks by Pancho Villa guerrillas. It pulpithis defense was that Ford was an idiot.

In the witness stand, Ford did show extraordinary ignorance – he thought the American Revolution had occurred in 1812 and that the chili con carne was a large army of cars. He was teased a lot, but he didn’t care. In fact, he enjoyed ridicule, because it brought him into contact with ordinary people. “I rarely read anything but headlines,” he said. “I don’t like reading books; they messed with my mind.”

He was admired for his lack of pretension and insistence that he was too busy working to educate himself. Those who mocked him could be considered pretentious. Preachers offered prayers to free him from these people, and peasants and workers sent him letters of support. As a result, what would have been a disgrace to lesser people became for Ford an affirmation of his status as an American folk hero. He won the case.

The populist simplicity of the values ​​evoked in Crowther’s paragraphs and evidenced in court cases is very simple: family, good and accessible products, simplicity in use, low prices and, most importantly, “God’s great open space.” That last attribute is the only one that offers an answer to the question, what are cars for? It also demonstrates Ford’s most striking paradox: in providing access to God’s open space, cars would threaten their very existence.

But the unfortunate side effects were not seen until a few years later. For Ford, the creation of the greatest of all “people’s cars” was entirely consistent with its own values. The values ​​which for him are embodied, firstly, in his mother and, secondly, in McGuffey’s Eclectic Reader, school textbooks published between 1836 and 1960. These books teach not only basic education but also the values ​​of honor, integrity, modesty, kindness, hard work, patience, and so on. The books remained with Ford throughout his life. In 1934 he moved the log cabin where William Holmes McGuffey was born to Greenfield Village, his outdoor history museum in Dearborn. He has also created the largest private McGuffeys collection in the US. “The McGuffey Readers,” he said, “teach industry and morality to young Americans.”

Ford may not be the most successful car magnate of all time – that title certainly goes to General Motors’ Alfred Sloan – but he is definitely the most attractive. Sloan’s memoirs, My years with General Motors, is, as the title suggests, very boring; everything Ford – or Crowther – writes, says, thinks or makes, good or bad, is very interesting. Ford built the world’s most influential car based on engineering and marketing ideas that were inseparable from his personality, his opinions, his prejudices, and his economic theories. The car, like the man, was full of people. Or, to put it another way, Model T is an autobiography that Ford wrote without Crowther’s help. Or, to put it another way, it was his epic poem.

“No poet,” said the great nature writer John Burroughs, one of his friends and mentors, “has ever expressed himself through his work more fully than Mr. Ford through his car.”

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