How Ford Model T revolutionized the US auto market in early 1900s

The Model T from Ford (also called Tin Lizzie) was the world’s best-selling automobile until 1972, when this title went to the VW Beetle. Between 1908 and 1927, 15 million units were built in the United States. In the 2010s, around one percent of all vehicles made still existed.

The Beginning

Between the foundation of the Ford Motor Company by Henry Ford in 1903 and the start of production of the Model T, several types were developed and in some cases also produced. The first of these was called Model A, the following developments bore the next letters of the alphabet, but not all developments were brought to production maturity; for many, the prototype remained. The direct predecessor was the Ford Model S, a further development of the hitherto greatest success of the Ford Model N.


Henry Ford designed the “T-Ford”, as it is often called by its current owners, for simple operation and ease of repair, which is why the car did not have a conventional vehicle transmission with clutch and selector lever. The engine has no cooling water pump or oil filter, there is no fuel pump and no dipstick. A fuel gauge was unusual at the time anyway, vehicle heaters only came up in the 1930s.

The construction is simple, almost all repairs can be carried out without special tools. At that time, spare parts could be ordered in every hardware store in the USA, and a lot were in stock. Ford recognized that for industrial mass production, all components have to be manufactured with consistently high quality and small tolerances in order to be able to achieve trouble-free assembly on the assembly line. This made him a pioneer in quality assurance together with Frederick Taylor. The Model T was more reliable and more durable than the cars that were produced at that time due to the simple construction, the series production with constant quality and the high quality materials (e.g. vanadium alloy steel for the rear axle).


A ladder frame made of riveted U- steel profiles serves as the chassis, which houses the axles, engine, power transmission and the body. The body was available in many variants, for example as a coupé, four-seater convertible, two-seater convertible, limousine and trucks. It was constructed in the usual way at that time as a sheet metal wooden frame.

The car has a front axle forged in one piece from vanadium alloy steel, which is guided with two diagonal push struts and a transverse semi-elliptical leaf spring. The axle is forked and connected to the forged axles by bolts. The rear axle consists of two cast housing halves (axle funnels) that house the differential gear and the two drive shafts. The rear axle is also guided with two push struts and a transverse leaf spring. Thanks to the long spring travel and the large ground clearance, it could be driven on rough terrains. Ford also retained the basic construction (drawbar axles , pushed forward) in the following models.

Ford T Touring with retrofitted wire spoke wheels (1912)

The four-cylinder in-line engine with one-piece housing, removable cylinder head and cast iron piston has three crankshaft bearings and standing valves, with a bore of 3.75 inches (95.25 mm) and a stroke of 4.0 inches (101.6 mm), there are 2.9 liters of displacement. The rearmost gearbox bearing is often referred to as the fourth main bearing, since the epicyclic gearbox has only one main shaft.

The gasoline comes without a pump from the tank located slightly higher under the driver’s seat (falling gasoline system). The special “buzzer ignition” works with four ignition coils, which are connected to a rotating low-voltage ignition distributor flanged to the camshaft. Each coil has its own breaker, which breaks the circuit on the low-voltage side in quick succession and thus generates several ignition sparks on the spark plug. The electrical energy is supplied by a dynamo built into the flywheel. A battery can be connected to make starting easier. The engine lubrication is designed as a centrifugal lubrication without a separate oil pump, which can lead to the front connecting rod bearings running dry on longer gradients, which results in engine damage.

The motor drives the rear wheels via an epicyclic gear and a cardan shaft. The simple epicyclic gearbox has two gears, which are operated by a pedal, as well as the reverse gear and the foot brake, which acts on a brake band in the gearbox and thus brakes the cardan shaft. The handbrake acts on the drum brakes on the rear axle via tie rods . The car has no front brakes. The popular accessories were the so-called “Rocky Mountain Brakes”, additional outer band brakes on the rear axle.

The engine produced 15 kW (20 hp) at a speed of 1800 rpm and the vehicle could reach top speed of 42 mph or 67 km/h. The standing quarter mile (402 m) was reached after 32.9 seconds.


The Tin Lizzie was the first car to be built on automatically powered assembly lines. After the switch to this industrial mode of production on January 14, 1914, the sales price was reduced from $850 (about $22,390 or €20,790 in today’s purchasing power) to $370 (about $9,750 or € 9,050 in today’s purchasing power). To speed up production, only black body parts were produced between 1915 and 1925, since only one painting line was needed and the black paint dried fastest. For a long time it was claimed that Henry Ford’s famous phrase “You can have it in any color as long as it’s black” was just slipped under. This quote is incomplete. In his book My Life and Work in the chapter The Secret of Production there is the sentence “Every customer can have their car painted as desired if the car is only black.” This uniform paint scheme was introduced in model year 1914, although interestingly black was not used before, was listed as available color.

Ford T Runabout (1915)

In the Weimar Republic (German Reich), Ford Motor Company Aktiengesellschaft was founded in Berlin in 1925. On January 2, 1926, BEHALA rented a grain hall as an assembly hall at Berlin’s Westhafen. Since complete import vehicles were taxed more than individual parts, the components supplied by the USA were assembled there by initially 30 workers from April 1, 1926. In 1929, 450 people were already employed at the plant in the Western Harbor. The company’s headquarters were moved to the new Cologne-Niehl plant in 1930 and assembly in Berlin ended on March 15, 1931.

The price reductions achieved by the ever more rationalized production line ensured high sales of the T-model in the 1920s despite the technology, which had become obsolete compared to the competition, and the lack of comfort. The daily productions temporarily reached 9,000 units. Henry Ford held on to the Model T for a long time. Even a model that had been renewed for the last two years of production and had only a few technical parts renewed could not prevent the strong drop in sales. The much anticipated successor, Model A, went into production after extensive renovation of the plant in 1927.

At that time, Ford outsourced parts of the production to suppliers in order to further reduce costs and increase production efficiency. The suppliers also had to deliver their parts in wooden boxes, the dimensions of which were precisely specified by Ford. The boxes were disassembled in the factory and the boards used in the vehicle.


While the technical changes and improvements were rather minor in the 19 years of production, the external appearance changed. The Model T had no front doors in the first years of production; the body was still very much like a carriage. In the following years, the body was provided with increasingly round parts, which resulted in a more elegant shape. In 1917 the radiator grille and bonnet were also adapted to this shape. In the early years, when headlights, a windshield and a spare wheel were optional extras, the touring roof had no connection to the windshield frame; it was self-supporting and difficult to fold. The “One Man Top” came in 1923 and, like the previous versions, was supported on the window frame and could be folded up by just one person.

Ford T Racer (1917)

The technical changes were mostly only detailed modifications, except for the changeover of the gear shift from the earlier “Two Lever” versions with two pedals and one lever (for the first 1,000 vehicles produced) to the version with three pedals (clutch, reverse gear and foot brake) and a hand brake lever, which acted on the rear wheel parking brake. Throttle was applied with a lever on the steering wheel.

Further technical modifications were due to the increased need for comfort. Electric starters were installed because the starting procedure was difficult to master on its own: First, the ignition must be set to “late” to avoid strains and broken bones. Then, when the choke cable is pulled, the engine must be cranked with the hand crank until the intake vacuum has sucked in enough fuel that the carburetor overflows, then the ignition is switched to the battery setting. Now the engine is cranked with the hand crank until it starts. Then the ignition has to be reset to “early” and changed to “magnet”, a detailed fine adjustment of gas and ignition helps to warm up the engine.

1927 Ford Model T

The switch from acetylene headlights to electrically operated ones made life easier, but in terms of light output it was a step backwards, because the 6-volt headlights , which shone brightly or not quite as brightly depending on the engine speed, were able to shine in their luminosity hardly keep up with the very white light of the acetylene headlights.

1927 Ford Model T

Most of the innovations were realized in the already mentioned “facelift” in 1926. The body was extensively renovated and adapted to the taste of the time. The ignition boxes moved into the engine compartment, where they no longer bothered by their humming sound, and the intake system including the carburetor was largely changed. There were now wire-spoke wheels and bumpers.

Other versions

Model TT

A truck was also offered in parallel with the Model T car. It was called the Ford Model TT.

Rail car

The Model T was also used as a rail vehicle. It could be turned in the track by means of a lifting and turning device attached under the car floor. A 2010 replica of such a car is at the museum railway Wiscasset, Waterville and Farmington Railway Museum (WW & F) in the US state of Maine.

Fordson tractor

The Fordson tractor was launched in 1917 on the basis of the Model T engine. It was developed to motorize agriculture with small tractors. In Germany, the Fordson was a cheap alternative to the steam tractors that were still in use at the time, because the small, light tractor with its four-stroke petrol engine was easy to maintain and universally applicable.

Fordson tractor

The Fordson was constructed in a monoblock design, the engine and transmission formed the supporting structure instead of a frame, which accommodated the axles and other components, which was an innovation at the time. Despite its weight of 1,250 kg, the Fordson put less pressure on the ground than a horse. The engine was started with petrol and then switched to petroleum. With a consumption of four to seven liters per operating hour, it developed 16 to 21 kW (22-28 hp).

Unlike the Model T, the Fordson had a steel multi-plate clutch that runs in oil and a manual transmission with three forward gears and one reverse gear. The fuel tank held 80 liters and was located directly above the engine. Like the Model T, the tractor had thermosiphon cooling. The intake air was cleaned in a water-filled gas scrubber.

Ford TF c armored cars

Armored cars also existed on the chassis of the Ford-T: the Ford M 1918, which was developed during the First World War, but was no longer introduced due to the end of the war, and the Ford Tf-c , also known as the Ford FT-B, was the one first armored car designed and built in Poland. The main designer was the engineer Tadeusz Tanski. The armored car was created during the Polish-Soviet war 1918. The armor consisted of earlier German trench shields on the chassis of the Model T. The project was created within two weeks on Tanski’s initiative. After positive tests, a series of 17 armored Fords was built in the “Gerlach i Pulst” factory in Warsaw. They participated in the Battle of Wkra and the Battle of Warsaw, the Battle of Kovel and other battles during the Polish-Soviet War .

The advantages of the armored car included the speed, its maneuverability and, thanks to the chassis of the Model T, easy maintenance and repair. The armored car coped well in the field despite the increased mass and, because of its low mass compared to other armored cars, was also able to cross bridges with a low load capacity. The Ford Tf-c was small compared to other armored cars of the time, for example the Austin-Putilow wheeled armor, and therefore offered only a small target area. However, the inside was very narrow and the driver had to steer tightly together. Other shortcomings were the engines overheating during long off-road trips or when the radiator armor was lowered and the suspension, which was overloaded despite the reinforcement.

In 1921, Tanski proposed to build another series of 30 vehicles, but this was refused because the war was over and no more armored vehicles were needed.

Twelve Ford Tf-c armored cars survived the war and were in use until 1931. Some bore proper names such as “Osa” (wasp), “Mucha” (fly) or “Komar” (mosquito).

Ford M 1918

The Ford M 1918 was a light battle tank, which was developed and tested in 1918 as part of the First World War based on the Ford Model T.

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