Model T: 'Universal Car' Sparked Gasoline Demand This year is the 100th anniversary of perhaps the most famous car ever made. The Model T put America on wheels and helped forge a manufacturing revolution. But the current energy mess can be traced back to that car's gasoline engine.

Model T: 'Universal Car' Sparked Gasoline Demand

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You can take much of America's wealth and many of its problems and trace them all back to a single product. Without it we might not have so many green suburbs. We also might not have such expensive gas, and this week we'll report on the way that one product started a revolution.


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 drove a manufacturing revolution. A century later there are still Model Ts on the road. John Herd owns one. He's vice president of the Orange County Model T Club. He offered to take me for a spin around NPR West here in Culver City.

Mr. JOHN HERD (Orange County Model T Club): Now, this is the interior of the Model T Ford. Down below you've got three pedals. The pedal on my left, I push it all the way down, I'm in low gear. When I let out on it, I'm in high gear. The pedal in the middle is reverse, and the pedal on the right side is stop. That's your brake.

MONTAGNE: Well, everything's very simple, but it works.

Mr. HERD: It does.

(Soundbite of engine)


Mr. HERD: Would you like to try?


Mr. HERD: Why don't I swap places with you.

MONTAGNE: Swap places with me. All right. Now...

Mr. HERD: Push all the way down on the left.

MONTAGNE: On the left one.

Mr. HERD: Yeah, all the way down on the left and turn it to the left. And just hold it down. That's it.

MONTAGNE: All right. I'm not going too fast.

Mr. HERD: You're doing great. You're driving.

MONTAGNE: You don't have power steering here.

Mr. HERD: No, but it's not too hard to turn, is it?

MONTAGNE: No, not really. No worse than my old Volvo.

Mr. HERD: (Unintelligible). Not off completely. Not off - now put your brake on. All the way down. Push down on the left. All the way down. That's it. Hold it down there. Now, what you do is let up on the left one and down on the right. Push down on the right. That's it.

MONTAGNE: May I just say one thing?

Mr. HERD: Yes.

MONTAGNE: This car looks to my eyes like a carriage.

Mr. HERD: You're exactly right. This was what you called a horseless carriage. Now, the women liked this car. When they rode in this car, they didn't get their hair blown. And not only that, they could wear a tall hat with a feather in it or whatever and they didn't mess it up. They could get in and out of this car, especially in New York during cold weather and stuff like that. The ladies loved this car.

MONTAGNE: For you, what was the appeal? What got you started with Model Ts?

Mr. HERD: I like old things. I like antiques. And once I drove one I was hooked. So today if I'm feeling bad, kind of down and out, I get out and take a ride in my Model T. It puts me back in a good mood.

MONTAGNE: Well, this has been a lot of fun.

Mr. HERD: We'll see you on the road in a Tin Lizzie.

MONTAGNE: John Herd is an enthusiast of the Model T, vice president of the Orange County Model T Club. And the story of the Model T begins, of course, in Detroit, so let's go there now. Dustin Dwyer of Michigan Radio takes us to the very room where the Model T was born.

(Soundbite of footsteps)

DUSTIN DWYER: Gerald Mitchell likes to tell people when you walk up this old maple staircase you're walking on history.

Mr. GERALD MITCHELL (Tour Guide): Okay. We're now in the northeast corner of the third flood at the Ford Piquette Avenue Plant. And this is actually the little room in which the Model T was created.

DWYER: Mitchell is giving me a tour of the three-story assembly plant, which is now a museum. This room on the top floor was called Ford's experimental room. It's only about 12 by 15 feet in size. Here 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.

Mr. DOUGLAS BRINKLEY (Historian): It was a great car.

DWYER: That's historian Douglas Brinkley. He wrote a book about Ford Motor Company called "Wheels for the World."

Mr. BRINKLEY: The problem pre-Model T was breakdown, breakdown, breakdown. 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.

DWYER: So popular people started writing songs about it:

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) The big limousine had to back down hills but the plain little Ford is going uphill. When it runs out of dope, just fill it up with soap and the little Ford will ramble right along.

DWYER: 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. And 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.

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.

Mr. DAN NEIL (Automotive Critic, Los Angeles Times): It was a wonderful invention, the Model T and the mass-mobility automobile. But now we're starting to see that there were consequences.

DWYER: Dan Neil is the automotive critic for the L.A. Times. 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.

Mr. NEIL: Americans have grown up in an environment where cars were big, big, big. 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.

DWYER: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Dustin Dwyer in Michigan.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) Have you seen her? Ain't she great? She'll something you'll appreciate. I'm sure you understand just what I mean. Everybody, why, everywhere is falling for her now. I'm talking 'bout the new Ford, and boy, it's sure a wow.

MONTAGNE: If you happen to be wondering why the Model T became known as the Tin Lizzie, there are various theories. And one if this is that Elizabeth, or Lizzie, was a common name for a sturdy, reliable work horse.

For a glimpse of John Herd's Model T and the Piquette Avenue Plant in Detroit, visit Tomorrow in our series about cars for the masses, we'll hear about the uphill journey the Indian company Tata faces as it gets ready to launch its people's car, the Nano.

Unidentified Man #3: What people will think if I have only a Nano? Nano is considered to be the cheapest car in India, and the person will also be supposed that he is the most cheapest person who buys this.


Copyright © 2008 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.