Car Ads Across Time Tout Reliability, Affordability

It hasn't been lost on automakers that Americans are looking for cars that are reliable and affordable. In fact, car companies have been marketing their vehicles that way for decades, starting as far back as when Henry Ford's Model T hit the scene. In the final report of our "People's Car" series, a look at how car companies have promoted low-cost vehicles.

Model T: 'Universal Car' Sparked Gasoline Demand

Henry Ford stands next to a Model T, one of 15 million made. i i

hide captionHenry Ford stands next to a Model T, one of 15 million made.

Getty Images
Henry Ford stands next to a Model T, one of 15 million made.

Henry Ford stands next to a Model T, one of 15 million made.

Getty Images

Celebrated In Song

The Model T became so popular, people wrote songs about it. Here's one recorded circa 1915 by Billy Murray and written by C.R. Foster and Byron Gay. From the Collections of The Henry Ford museum.

NPR's Renee Montagne takes John Herd's 1922 Model T for a spin in Culver City, Calif. i i

hide captionNPR's Renee Montagne takes John Herd's 1922 Model T for a spin in Culver City, Calif.

Ben Bergman/NPR
NPR's Renee Montagne takes John Herd's 1922 Model T for a spin in Culver City, Calif.

NPR's Renee Montagne takes John Herd's 1922 Model T for a spin in Culver City, Calif.

Ben Bergman/NPR
A collection of cars is on display at Detroit's Model T Automotive Heritage Complex. i i

hide captionA collection of cars is on display at Detroit's Model T Automotive Heritage Complex inside the former Piquette Avenue plant. Front and center: one of the earliest versions of Ford's Model T, painted in Carmine Red. Model T's later were painted in black because black paint dried faster

Dustin Dwyer for NPR
A collection of cars is on display at Detroit's Model T Automotive Heritage Complex.

A collection of cars is on display at Detroit's Model T Automotive Heritage Complex inside the former Piquette Avenue plant. Front and center: one of the earliest versions of Ford's Model T, painted in Carmine Red. Model T's later were painted in black because black paint dried faster

Dustin Dwyer for NPR

Model T Facts

  • The fist two Model T prototypes were built in 1907.
  • The first production Model T was assembled in 1908, the last in 1927.
  • By December 1908, production at the Piquette Avenue Ford plant in Detroit rose to 200 cars per month.
  • Production was transferred to a new plant in Highland Park, Mich., in 1910.
  • The car was introduced at $850, but later sold for as little as $260 after mass production reduced the cost.
  • It had a 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and weighed 1,200 pounds.
  • Top speed was about 45 miles per hour.
  • It got about 13 to 21 miles per gallon.
  • About 15 million Model Ts were built and sold.
  • The Model T had several nicknames, but was best known as the Tin Lizzie. One theory has it that Elizabeth, or Lizzie, was a common name for a sturdy reliable workhorse.

Sources: The Henry Ford, Model T Automotive Heritage Complex, Ford Motor Co.

This year is the 100th anniversary of perhaps the most famous car ever made. The first Ford Model T — also known as the Tin Lizzie — rolled out of Detroit in 1908. It put America on wheels and helped forge a manufacturing revolution.

At Ford's Piquette Avenue Plant, in a room about 12 feet by 15 feet in size, Henry Ford and a handful of engineers worked to build what Ford called a "universal car."

They decided it would run on gasoline. Both steam power and electricity were options at the time, but gas-powered cars were easier to refuel and quicker to start.

Dozens of companies in the U.S. were already churning out automobiles, but they were mostly toys for the rich. Ford wanted his Model T to be simple, rugged and affordable — a car for the masses.

"It was a great car," says historian Douglas Brinkley, who wrote a book about Ford Motor Co. called Wheels for the World.

Simple Enough For The Masses

"The problem pre-Model T was breakdown, breakdown, breakdown," he says. "You constantly needed to find a mechanic, but here you were in a rural area of America and there were no mechanics around. The Model T was so simple, you could crank it up yourself, fix it yourself, so it was the simplicity of the product that made it so popular in the end."

Within two years, Ford had sold more than 10,000 Model Ts — all built by hand, and available in color. The pressure to make more cars soon pushed Ford to build a massive new manufacturing complex.

In 1913, Ford plant manager William C. Klann put in place the world's first automotive assembly line. He got the idea from visiting a slaughterhouse in Chicago.

Any Color As Long As It's Black

Now Ford could crank out more cars, more quickly. He got rid of the colored paint, because black paint dried faster. With all of the new efficiencies, Ford could drop the price of the Model T.

Sales soared. The Model T was no longer just a car. It was a revolution.

"It was a wonderful invention, the Model T and the mass-mobility automobile," says Dan Neil, the automotive critic for the Los Angeles Times. "But now, we're starting to see that there were consequences."

He says the debate over global warming, and dependence on oil-rich nations, all come back to the Model T's internal combustion engine, powered by gasoline. And over time, these engines have only gotten bigger and thirstier.

A New Shift In Cars

"Americans have grown up in an environment where cars were big, big, big," Neil says. "I think that in the future, we'll be going back to kind of the paradigm that the Model T set out — small, cheap, friendlier, but it won't be running on gasoline."

Just about every major automaker is now working on a smaller, electric car. They're running into the same problems Henry Ford faced — limited range and high costs. As we wait for those cars to trickle into the market, a flood of new, low-cost vehicles is expected to hit developing countries. India's Tata Motors is building a car called the Nano that will sell for $2,500. The company is calling it the world's next "people's car."

It will run on gasoline.

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