FoMoCo's Early Years
July 19, 2009 4:23 PM   Subscribe

On October 1, 1908, the first Ford Model T rolled out of the factory on Piquette Avenue in Detroit. Many people today wonder why Henry Ford started his nomenclature with the letter "T." Short answer: He didn't.

Long answer: He developed and sold 8 models under the Ford name before the Model T.

(Note: Henry's first automobile, built independently in 1896, was dubbed the Quadricycle, which was one of the first cars on the streets of Detroit. He sold this for $200, bought it back for $65, and it is now on display at the Henry Ford Museum.)

The first car produced by the Ford Motor Company was the 1903 Model A. (No, not that Model A; that came in 1927.) Sold for $750 (with an optional rear seat for an extra $100,) the car had a 2 cylinder, 8 horsepower motor located under the front seat (the notch for the engine crank is noticeable in this picture) that could push the car to 30 miles per hour. Only 1750 of these were built, and obviously, very few survive to this day. (As a matter of fact, one was sold at auction for $630,000 in 2007.)

The Model A was a success, which was fortunate, as Mr. Ford had spent all but $228 of his original $28,000 investment. This led to the Model C, basically a modified Model A. First produced in late 1904, the C had a longer wheelbase, a 10 horsepower motor, as well as an ornamental hood, which held the fuel tank. Also notable is that the Model C is the first Ford to be built in Canada.

Ford's Model F, also introduced in late 1904, also shared many similarities with the A & C. The Model F had a longer wheelbase than both cars, a larger (12hp) engine, and it represented a mid-size addition to the Ford product line. Only 1000 were built, and not much information is available about this model, though it seems to be represented as at least a modest success.

Not all early Fords were as popular or profitable as the A, C, and F, however. Alexander Malcomson, who owned an equal share of the Ford Motor Company, urged Henry Ford to build large luxury cars, hopefully to reap their large profit margins. Thus, the Model B was born.

The B was the first Ford to have a front-mounted, 4-cylinder engine. Despite all its modern mechanics, Ford couldn't convince many people to ante up the $2000 price tag (roughly $50,000 today,) and only 600 were built. There remain only 2 Model Bs in running condition today.

Following in the B's footsteps came the Model K, whose 6-cylinder, 40 horsepower engine could power the car to a terrifying 60 miles per hour. The K was billed as a steady, powerful, and luxurious automobile, but in reality, the cars were unreliable and ungodly expensive ($2500-3000 in 1906.) Only 900 were built, and less than 10 are known to exist.

The lack of success of the B & K allowed Henry Ford to buy out Malcomson's share of the company (recounted by Malcomson's wife at the bottom of this page,) which left him free to produce the small, durable, cheap automobiles he dreamed of making.

Thus, Ford's first smash hit was born: the Model N. The N wasn't much more than a covered engine on wheels, which led to its low selling price of $500. The Model R and Model S were variants of the N, and together, they made Ford the world's largest automobile manufacturer in 1908.

So, while these early Ford variants are not well-known (only ~18,000 total pre-T Fords were produced,) they provided the foundation and direction that allowed Henry Ford to dominate the world's automobile market for the next 19 years.

(Previously, sort of.)
posted by Turkey Glue (19 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
well, there goes *my* sunday afternoon....
posted by squasha at 4:31 PM on July 19, 2009

This is the reason we can't have nice things - as we are too distracted with Mefi to do any proper work.
posted by Samuel Farrow at 5:15 PM on July 19, 2009

We need a top-level "epic" link for posts that are epic.

I'll start reading this and get back to everyone tomorrow.
posted by device55 at 5:22 PM on July 19, 2009

At a library conference back in the 90s, I stopped by Ford's booth in the exhibitor hall. (IIRC, they were there because they were selling CD-ROM manuals for their cars.) They gave away owner's manuals for the Model A and Model T; the Model T manual was basically a glorified pamphlet, that's how simple it was. (Of course, if anything broke on it, depending on what it was and where you were, you might have to go to a blacksmith's to get it fixed...) I sort of miss the days when motor vehicles were as simple as a modern bicycle, or even when a determined amateur could learn how to do most of their own repairs with the help of an excellent do-it-yourself book, although I'm just as spoiled as anyone else when it comes to modern features and conveniences, honestly.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:28 PM on July 19, 2009

Halloween Jack: The T is a remarkably simple car; I've heard that most maintenance involved checking the oil levels (because it was an uncontained drip oil system; the oil literally dripped onto the proper parts) and the most common repair was fixing a flat tire, which had to be done once every 4 miles or so (citation: my spotty memory.) The tires were inflated to something like 90 psi in the early days, and 60 psi later on (I think the Vulcanization of rubber had something to do with this.) So this high pressure, combined with the rough, rutted roads of the time led to all kinds of flat tires.

Anyways, you said you'd need a blacksmith to fix most of the parts, which is correct in sentiment, but probably not 100% accurate. For one, Ford manufactured all parts for his car starting in 1906, which made up a not insignificant portion of his profit margin. Also, the car itself was made of Vanadium steel, which is lighter and stronger than regular steel.

From the link labeled "Henry Ford:"

"During a car race in Florida, Ford examined the wreckage of a French car and noticed that many of its parts were of lighter-than-ordinary steel. The team on Piquette Avenue ascertained that the French steel was a vanadium alloy, but that no one in America knew how to make it. The finest steel alloys then used in American automaking provided 60,000 pounds of tensile strength. Ford learned that vanadium steel, which was much lighter, provided 170,000 pounds of tensile strength. As part of the pre-production for the new model, Ford imported a metallurgist and bankrolled a steel mill. As a result, the only cars in the world to utilize vanadium steel in the next five years would be French luxury cars and the Ford Model T. A Model T might break down every so often, but it would not break."

Due to the availability of replacement parts and the strength of the car, I doubt a blacksmith would be necessary.
posted by Turkey Glue at 5:48 PM on July 19, 2009 [2 favorites]

Also previously, sort of.
posted by twoleftfeet at 5:58 PM on July 19, 2009

So the Model B actually came later than the Model A, Model C, and Model F. Henry Ford was both an automotive and alphabetical innovator!
posted by twoleftfeet at 6:15 PM on July 19, 2009

Excellent post! I had no idea! I thought he started with the Model T, and that the model A came out years later... and then, you know, they started making the Focus and the F-150.
posted by Netzapper at 7:30 PM on July 19, 2009

Really great post. I had the usual Model T knowledge of Ford's early years, but this goes much deeper. I will try not to use my newfound knowledge for Cliff Clavin-like evil.
posted by dogmom at 8:28 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

an ornamental hood, which held the fuel tank ...

Wow ... and the company actually survived! Different era ...
posted by woodblock100 at 8:55 PM on July 19, 2009

I've been working with FoMoCo (Force Momentum Computation utility) codes for several years, so I was surprised to find an earlier meaning for the acronym.
posted by Araucaria at 9:12 PM on July 19, 2009

Speaking of acronyms, more like Found on road dead right?
posted by onya at 9:23 PM on July 19, 2009

Nice post. One of the very small team Ford had with him at the beginning (from before Ford Motor Co was founded) was C.H.Wills (Childe Harold Wills, after the Byron poem, but you can imagine why he chose to go by C.H.), who's a relative of mine. I've been doing some research into the early history of the company, and it's fascinating.
posted by LobsterMitten at 9:24 PM on July 19, 2009

Hey onya, don't forget Fix Or Replace Daily.
posted by Greg_Ace at 10:00 PM on July 19, 2009

When I was six I rode in one of the pre-T Fords that belonged to a client of my father's (sorry, no idea which one). Even at that age the whizzyness of the seat on a wagon esthetic made a wild experience at the heady pace of a fast walk.
posted by Mitheral at 11:07 PM on July 19, 2009

Ford learned that vanadium steel, which was much lighter, provided 170,000 pounds of tensile strength.

Just to nitpick, vanadium steel is about the same density (weight) as carbon steel. But you can use less of it (thinner parts) and still achieve the same strength.
posted by JackFlash at 11:21 PM on July 19, 2009 [1 favorite]

Very nice FPP. Thanks for posting this.
posted by mosk at 1:24 AM on July 20, 2009

Or "Found on Russian Dump" or "Fast on rainy days"...unless your a Ford guy (or gal) when it means "First on Race Day" (Chevy is much harder - "Can't handle even volkwagen yet" is a bit forced).
And as to the fixability of the Model T, according to family lore, during the depression, my grandfather's Model T developed a rod knock on the way home from work. He quickly pulled off the road and parked strattaing a ditch (so he could work under the car). He removed the oilpan and identified the bad connecting rod bearing. He then cut off a piece of his leather belt and used it for a replacement bearing (he removed the endcap on rod and wrapped the belt around the crankshaft journal). Evidently it ran quite a while like this until he could re-babbit the the bearing.
posted by 445supermag at 5:34 AM on July 20, 2009

Hey onya, don't forget Fix Or Replace Daily.

I prefer First On Race Day.
posted by Big_B at 8:57 AM on July 20, 2009

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