Ford's Fabulous Flivver

Irwin Ross
November/December 1974
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Published through the courtesy of Our Sun Magazine, the magazine of the Sun Oil Company, from the September, 1973 issue.

In this era of gaudy, expensive, annually obsolescent automobiles, it is difficult to realize that an American once grew rich by manufacturing the same car in the same model for 19 years. And the same color for 11 of those years.

The man was Henry Ford and the car was his remarkable Model T. It was an odd-looking contraption, seven feet tall from top to pavement, as ungraceful as a village pump, as eccentric as the village hermit. It went its way making a noise like the end of the world. But it wrought prodigious changes in our nation's living; it was a revolution on wheels.

The Model T Ford - more familiarly referred to as the 'flivver,' 'Tin Lizzie,' or the 'Leaping Lena' - made its debut in 1908. By 1927, when he finally discontinued it, Henry Ford had produced more than 15,000,000 Model Ts. This was as many cars as had been turned out by all other automobile companies put together.

Where Mr. Ford's competitors issued new models every year, the Model T remained largely unchanged. There were occasional improvements, but it kept its same strange, three-pedal floor-board (clutch pedal on the left; reverse pedal in the center; brake on the right). And it was an unvarying black. Thus the famous quote by Mr. Ford:

'A customer can have a car painted any color he wants, so long as it is black.'

But black had a reason. In the beginning, the touring model was painted red or a silver gray called 'French Gray' and trimmed in highly polished brass. Then in 1914, Henry Ford began making cars on a fast production line basis that kept the cost low. The only color that would dry fast enough to keep the line moving was black Japan enamel. It wasn't until 1926 and 1927, the last two years of production, that colors were again made available.

The Model T had other quaint characteristics. On the touring car there was no left-front door- only the outline of one stamped into the metal. There was no water pump. When the engine over-heated, you lifted the sides of the hood and folded them under. This, as one person described it, gave the car the 'appearance of a hen with her wings akimbo.' There was no gas gauge. To find out how much fuel you had, you got out of the car, removed the front seat, unscrewed the gas cap beneath it and thrust in a stick or a ruler.

The lights of the Model T operated, not on a battery, but on a magneto (introduced after 1914), and glowed or faded according to the speed of the engine. If you became lost at night and stopped to get your bearings, you had to race your engine for enough light to read a sign or peer up the road ahead.

Starting a flivver was a massive test of patience, timing and strength. You turned the ignition switch, jerked the spark down, shoved the accelerator up (in early models both were levers under the steering wheel), set the emergency brake and walked resolutely to the front of the car. Pulling the choke wire which extended through the radiator, you grabbed the crank and gave it a hearty spin. If the engine caught, you raced back and jerked the accelerator down again before your snorting, quivering mount shook itself to pieces.

Yet with all its eccentricities, the Model T had three hugely endearing attributes. It was cheap (as low as $265 at one time). It was easy to drive. And it was durable. 'She may not be pretty,' flivver owners conceded, 'but she gets you there and she brings you back.'

A farmer wrote to the Ford factory that he had bought a secondhand Model T roadster two years old. He used it for 13 years as a farm truck, never had to overhaul it, put it in a repair shop only twice and spent just $40 on mechanical upkeep.

Henry Ford was in the automobile business five years before he started producing the Model T. He had begun, logically, with the Model A , a two-cylinder car generating eight horsepower. He went from that to the four-cylinder Model B. and on through the alphabet, although some of the models got no further than the drawing board.

Model K, when it came along, almost broke the infant Ford Motor Company. To placate stockholders who thought cars were only for the rich, Mr. Ford priced the Model K at $2,750 - and had to sell every one at a loss.

This experience stiffened his determination to produce a cheap car. In due course, there emerged from his factory in the Highland Park suburb of Detroit, a Ford known as the Model T. As one student of the era has since observed, 'That car had integrity. Perhaps nothing in it was beautiful - but nothing in it was false.'

Standardized parts, mass-produced, were a prime reason for the cheapness of the Model T. You could buy a muffler for $2, a front fender for $6, a carburetor for $6. Model T parts were available almost everywhere - including five-and-ten-cent-stores.

But the marvel of the Model T was its planetary transmission. There was no gearshift to be jiggled until, with grinding and snarling, you slipped into gear. All you did was push the clutch pedal nearly to the floor, which put you in low gear, and gave her the gas. When you were hurtling along at 20 miles an hour, you released the clutch to go into high. For reverse, you depressed the center pedal. A youngster could do it.

Attracted by their simplicity as well as their economy, people bought flivvers in droves. For a long time Mr. Ford couldn't make enough of them to supply the demand. From 1918 to 1923, although local Ford dealers advertised, Mr. Ford disdained to do so. He didn't have to.

And so the flivver proliferated. One wisecrack of the period was: 'Two flies can manufacture 48,876,552,154 new flies in six months, but they haven't anything on two Ford factories.' Model Ts rattled through the towns and cities and along the country roads. Farmers installed tractor wheels and did their plowing with Model Ts. They jacked up the rear end, removed a tire, attached a belt and ran buzz saws, pumped water, churned butter, ground feed and generated electricity. Railroads put flanged wheels on Model Ts and used them as inspection cars. Movie companies made Model Ts collapsible and used them in Keystone Cop comedies.

In the wake of its popularity there sprang up a whole school of Model T humor:

'Why is a Ford like a bathtub?'

'You hate to be seen in one.'

'Didja know that Ford's going to paint his cars yellow so they can be hung outside of grocery stores and sold in bunches like bananas?'

'Heard the one about the farmer? He stripped the tin roof off his barn, sent it to Ford and got back a letter saying, 'While your car was an exceptionally bad wreck, we will be able to complete repairs and return it by the end of the week!' '

These Model T jokes grew so plentiful that ultimately they were anthologized into books.

Henry Ford told the stories himself and plainly recognized that Model T jokes - complimentary or otherwise - were fine free publicity. One of his own favorite stories concerned the time he was traveling in a Ford car, inspecting some Michigan lumber properties with several aides. They came onto a farmer who was having trouble with his automobile - a beaten-up Ford. Mr. Ford and his men stopped, went to work on the car and, after replacing some spark plugs, got it running again.

'How much do I owe you fellers?' asked the farmer.

'Nothing,' said Mr. Ford rolling down his sleeves.

The farmer looked at him dubiously. 'Can't make you out,' he puzzled. 'You talk as if money didn't mean anything to you, but if you've got so much money, why are you running around in a Ford?' Henry Ford did indeed make a lot of money out of the Model T. He became, in fact, one of the two or three wealthiest men in the world. Moreover, the Model T brought fantastic returns to his original stockholders before he bought them all out. In all, $28,000 was invested in the Ford Motor Company by 12 people, and in ten years they made back a quarter-billion.

Henry Ford castigated competitors who brought out new models every year. 'It does not please us to have a buyer's car wear out or become obsolete,' he said. 'We want the man who buys one of our products never to have to buy another.'

But in the mid-1920s, the flivver began to encounter sales resistance. Other makes, with their gearshifts, accessories, lively colors and annual model changes, were catching the fancy of the public. Mr. Ford blamed the Model T's loss of popularity on almost everything except the Model T. He said that the dealers' 'mental attitude' was bad. He said that the American people had 'fallen under the spell of salesmanship.' But at last, reluctantly, he agreed that the Model T had to give way to mechanical progress.

The whole nation waited in tingling suspense for news of the new Ford. When the new Model A appeared with stylish lines and in different colors, it made the front page of practically every newspaper in the United States. And with it came one final Ford joke: 'Henry's made a lady out of Lizzie.'

Not everybody greeted the changeover with great joy. When an elderly woman in New Jersey heard that the Model Ts were being discontinued, she bought seven of them and stored them away so she would have Model Ts for the rest of her life and never have to change. On May 26, 1927, the 15,000,000th Model T rolled off the assembly line. Shortly afterward production of the phenomenal flivvers stopped entirely. An era had ended.


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