The Model T was not Henry Ford’s first car, but it might’ve been his best. Also known as the “Tin Lizzie” or “Leaping Lena” or “Jitney” or “Flivver,” the Model T was the first truly affordable automobile. In 1999, it was honored as the “most influential car of the 20th century.”
Manufactured between 1908 and 1927, the Model T was the eighth most sold car of all time (with 15 million cars sold). It also framed a new “Transportation Generation” (born 1900 to 1920) who grew up with the sounds of motors, the smell of gas and the bounce of primitive roadways.
What made the Model T special was its middle-class affordability. Suddenly the average Joe and Jane could buy it. It took Ford nineteen models (Model A to S) to perfect his “T” but when he did, the parts all fell into place. That’s because parts and labor were expensive. Thanks to Ford’s assembly line system and interchangeable parts, the Model T was built inexpensively, reliably and quickly.
In his 1922 autobiography, Henry Ford quipped about his Model T:
I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.
It’s no wonder, by 1918, that half of all the automobiles chugging down the roads were Ford’s famously black tin lizzie. Ford made driving a car possible. As his assembly line production improved, Ford was able to reduce production time from nearly 13 hours down to a mere 93 minutes, even while using less manpower. In 1914, the Ford Motor Company produced more automobiles than every other carmaker combined.
His Model T engine even found dual purposes as a homemade plane and boat engines. Model T’s also had conversion ability to heavy snow and deep mud. It could handle rough, rural terrain (making it popular with the U.S. postal service).
Unlike most popular items, Ford actually reduced the price of his cars over time. In 1909 a car cost around $825 ($23,763 today), but by 1925 it was a paltry $265 ($4,002 today). As a result a new car culture emerged. Cars were raced. Owners formed car clubs. Comics Laurel and Hardy used the Model T in all their movies.
It’s no wonder an entire generation of kids–born between 1900 and 1920–grew up with a thirst for the open road. It’s no wonder a whole generation drove many new industries from National Park tourism to home delivery to the infamous Route 66. In a post-war America they’d settle in to collect cars, use drive-thru restaurants, view drive-in movies and make the car an icon of American ingenuity, status and freedom.