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Henry Ford, mechanical man

Model T, modern times
(Henry Ford, part 3)

New translation, the Magna Carta

K 'Y

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Henry Ford built his production system as if assembling some gigantic piece of clockwork People were just incidental parts in that machine to be cared for, kept in order and discarded as advantageous.
Third document in a new major psychological study by abelard.
  marker at abelard.org Henry Ford, ignorant genius - introduction
marker at abelard.org Henry Ford, ruthless business manipulator
marker at abelard.org Henry Ford, mechanical man - Model T, modern times
marker at abelard.org Quotes by and about Henry Ford

marker at abelard.org psycho-logic

marker at abelard.org psycho-babble

other psychological profiles:
marker at abelard.org Adolf/Adolph Hitler Schicklgruber - his psychology and development
marker at abelard.org Did Hitler know about the holocaust? A psychological assessment
marker at abelard.org The psychology of Rex Stout, Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin


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preparing the ground
developing the product
an integrated organisation
end notes


Henry Ford had a vision and had accumulated all the required skills to put it into action. He had been experimenting with motor cars and petrol engines since 1893,[1] and had previous relevant experiences. He wanted to make money, he was aware of mass production techniques. What Ford produced was a factory machine honed to produce an efficient standard machine at the cheapest possible cost and in the greatest possible numbers.[2]

Ford built what was at the time, the largest industrial machine in the world and did much to provoke, develop and usher in the modern world. Lewis (pp. 108-109) says that ‘[…] The Ford Motor Company which had sold from one-third to one-half of America’s cars during the pre-war years, remained in the van, building a record-breaking 750,000 units (40% of the national production) in 1919.” Ford of course also had considerable facilities around the world.click to return to index

preparing the ground

I reproduce this next quote in detail, while not even understanding all the engineering, primarily to demonstrate Ford’s attention to detail and single mindedness. Remember that this book was dictated to a ghost writer and I can well believe Ford had all these details lined up in his mind ready for the pouring forth.

“I designed eight models in all before “Model T.” They were : “Model A,” “Model B,” Model C,” “Model F,” “Model N,” “Model R,” “Model S,” and “Model K.” Of these, Models “A,” “C,” and “F” had two-cylinder opposed horizontal motors. In “Model A” the motor was at the rear of the driver’s seat. In all of the other models it was under the hood at the front. Models “B,” “N,” “R,” and “S” had motors of the four-cylinder vertical type. “Model K” had six cylinders. “Model A” developed eight horsepower. “Model B” developed twenty-four horsepower with a 4 ½-inch cylinder and a 5-inch stroke. The highest horsepower was in “Model K,” the six-cylinder car, which developed forty horsepower. The largest cylinders were those of “Model “N,” “R,” and “S” which were 3 ¾ inches in diameter with a 3 3/8-inch stroke. “Model T” has a 3 ¾-inch cylinder with a 4-inch stroke. The ignition was by dry batteries in all excepting “Model B,” which had storage batteries, and in “Model K” which had both a battery and magneto. In the present model, the magneto is a part of the power plant and is built in. The clutch in the first four models was of the cone type; in the last four and in the present model, of the multiple disc type. The transmission in all the cars has been planetary. “Model A” had a chain drive. “Model B” had a shaft drive. The next two models had chain drives. Model A” had a 72-inch wheel base. Model “B,” which was an extremely good car, had 92 inches. “Model K” had 120 inches. “Model C” had 78 inches. The others had 84 inches, and the present car has 100 inches. In the first five models all of the equipment was extra. The next three were sold with partial equipment. The present is sold with full equipment. Model “A” weighed 1,250 pounds. The lightest cars were Models “N” and “R”. they weighed 1.050 pounds, but they were both runabouts. The heaviest car was the six-cylinder, which weighed 2,000 pounds. The present car weighs 1,200 pounds.

“The “model T” had practically no features which were not contained in some one or other of the previous models. Every detail had been fully tested in practice. There was no guessing as to whether or not it would be a successful model. It had to be. It contained all that I was then able to put into a motor car plus the material, which for the first time I was able to obtain. We put out the “model T” for the season 1908-1909.” [p.69-71, My Life and Work, 1922]

The next few paragraphs of My Life and Work include the following:

“This season [1909] demonstrated conclusively to me that it was time to put a new policy in force. The salesmen, before I had announced the policy, were spurred by the great sales to think that even greater sales might be had if we had more models. It is strange how, just as soon as an article becomes successful, somebody starts to think that it would be more successful if only it were different [...] They listened to the 5%, the special customers who could say what they wanted, and forgot all about the 95% who just bought without making any fuss [...]

“Therefore in 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in future we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be “Model T” and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked:

“Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” [p. 71-72]

MTFCA is an excellent site for getting a good idea of the various Ford vehicles built through the years on the Model T chassis. A large library of photos (and much else for the real enthusiast) can be found there. Four GoldenYak (tm) award

“[...] I made the following announcement:

“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 the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”

“This announcement was received not without pleasure. The general comment was:

“If Ford does that he will be out of business in six months.” [p. 72-73]

developing the product

(On retooling to change production from model T to model A)

“On October 1, 1908 we brought out the first Model T car, and on May 26, 1927, we closed that experience with the fifteenth millionth. Not a single part in the final car was of exactly the same design as the same part in the first car, or made of the same material or by the same methods, but over reasonable periods all parts were interchangeable. This complete change had taken 19 years. Then in five months we made changes far more sweeping than had taken place over the nineteen years and went into an entirely different kind and grade of production that involved new methods and materials and forced us to get rid of or materially alter 70% of our machinery […..]” [p. 173, Moving Forward, 1931]

“In the years since the first model T went out, the country has built roads and the public has learned to handle machinery. The use of automobiles has taught the half-grown boy as much about machinery as the most skilled mechanics knew twenty years ago. In the making of automobiles we have learned a great deal. We have learned how to use power and to shift the requirement for mechanical skill from operating the machinery of production to the making of that machinery. We now have materials of a strength and lightness that were scarcely dreamed of twenty years ago. Above all we have learned to design productive machinery which will work to high degree of accuracy. The last Model T sold for less than a third as many dollars as the first Model T, but it was three times as good a car. In fact it was a car which in 1908 we could not have built at any price. Yet that final had in it only part of what we had learned. Therefore we had to make a large decision.” [p.176]

In footnotes to p. 177, Ford estimates that in the 19 years of the model T, the company generated over $7,000,000,000 of wages for employees, dealers, salesmen, repair shops and so on, and he did that in times when dollars were worth at least 20 times their present day value. His actual claim was by the way, $7,090,423,176.39! I am severely unconvinced by the 39 cents; a typical example of his engineering mind with a limited sophisticated economic grasp.

Ford’s policy was to lower the price whenever he could in order to obtain higher volume. According to Lewis [p. 43], Ford reckoned he gained an extra 1000 customers for every dollar he reduced the price of the car.

It is important to realise just how central motor manufacturing has been to the advances in the 20th century. Vast parts of the economy have been dependent upon it. At the end of ‘Moving Forward’ he put

“Mankind passes from the old to the new on a human bridge formed by those who labour in the three principle arts-agriculture-manufacture-transportation”

As with so much of Ford’s clichéd engineering view of life, some may regard this as somewhat philistine, even though it is not a comment without truth. As you will see elsewhere on this site, this ‘great production machine’ is resulting in severe environmental and population pressures. Thus the solution to hard graft and poverty sought by Ford has now left us with other severe problems to solve.

Whilst almost all Ford’s practices were based upon previous practices and ideas it is fact that he approached just about every aspect of manufacture and business with the eye of a dedicated (or fanatical) engineer. Fortunately he never got into a position to apply his ‘logic’ to society in the manner of other dictators he admired, supported or ‘inspired’.

By 1926, in Today and Tomorrow, Ford was claiming:

“The power which we use in manufacturing processes produces another power-the power of the motor that goes into the automobile. About 50 dollars worth of raw material is transformed into twenty horsepower mounted on wheels. Up to December 1, 1925, we had through cars and tractors added to the world nearly three hundred million mobile horsepower, or about ninety-seven times the potential horsepower of Niagara Falls. The whole world uses only twenty-three million stationary horsepower, of which the United States uses more than nine million.” [p. 6]click to return to index

an integrated organisation

If Ford wanted rubber, he tended to buy rubber plantations, or even to set up new ones. If he wanted transport, why he’d buy the railway, and so it went on. Quite beyond this, with his great wealth, he dabbled with hospitals, schools, newspapers, filming, country dancing, a museum [3] which is still among the more important in America (although sometimes described as disorganised), growing soya for which he had ambitions to feed the world and use to develop plastics and other products for his cars. Ford details, particularly in Today and Tomorrow, his incredible drive for improving the production processes in terms of speed, quality and efficiency, including matters of waste and conservation. These some imagine to be a recent concern, in fact they are is no such thing. Even the ancient world had pollution and resources worries.[4]

As many of his projects proved inefficient to varying degrees, some might think ‘more money than sense’, or boredom, or else insatiable curiosity. How you decide to assess this man, I must, in some degree, leave to your own varying views of the world. As usual, my concern is to help you understand the mind of the man and thence, through his actions, the world.

I admit to finding Ford boring and somewhat narrow as a person, but his place at the eye of an industrial revolution and his influence on the development of a great evil makes him a useful study. My interest as usual is in the mind of the man, not in his industry or his industrial empire. Should you wish to probe those elements of the Ford story and history you will have to dig elsewhere, probably among the prime sources I have provided.

If we do not understand how things go right and how they go wrong, we cannot improve our world. But we do need to be less narrow ‘engineers’ than Henry Ford if we are to manage to obtain a more civilised society. It is not sufficient to line up and polish people as if they were a bunch of screwdrivers and spanners,[5] and then hope to march them to a better, more productive society. Once you start to approach society in this manner, the logical and inevitable outcome is Auschwitz and the gulag.

click to return to index


Several books by, and on, Henry Ford are detailed in the bibliography for Henry Ford, ignorant genius - introduction.

Chaplin, Charlie
  Modern Times by Charles Chaplin - dvd The Great Dictator by Charles Chaplin - dvd
  Modern Times
DVD, $26.06 [amazon.com]
DVD, £21.84 [amazon.co.uk]
The Great Dictator
DVD, $26.96 [amazon.com]
DVD, £21.84 [amazon.co.uk]

end notes

  1. See for example Nevins, Vol. 1, p.142.

  2. In France, this is remembered. The French word for production-line manufacture is Fordism.

  3. Explore your way around the entertainments on offer
    You can start here with a page on the restoration of the Buckminster Fuller project which I rather like!

  4. For instance, John Evelyn [1620 – 1706] and others write on pollution in the 17th century, and there were worries about a population explosion in Roman times.

    Tertullian (155 –222 AD) writing in De Anima, chapter XXX
    “What most frequently meets our view (and occasions complaint), is our teeming population: our numbers are burdensome to the world, which can hardly supply us from its natural elements; our wants grow more and more keen, and our complaints more bitter in all mouths, whilst Nature fails in affording us her usual sustenance. In very deed, pestilence, and famine, and wars, and earthquakes have to be regarded as a remedy for nations, as the means of pruning the luxuriance of the human race [...] ”

    Doubtless there is much much more!

  5. You may see Charlie Chaplin’s parodying of this in Modern Times. Chaplin also parodied Hitler in The Great Dictator. Chaplin was a man of great perception, foresight and humanity.

  6. “In 1908 a typical factory worker had to toil more than 2 years to buy Ford’s Model T, one of the nation’s first affordable cars. A 1997 Ford Taurus costs today’s worker just 8 months. Of course, few of us would pay even $850 for a Model T today, at least not for everyday transportation. Today’s cars are just so much better. Going back only one generation, we can see an enormous improvement in the quality of cars and trucks. Today’s vehicles last longer. They require less maintenance, with some 1997 models traveling 100,000 miles before their first tune-up. They’re more comfortable because of air-conditioning, power seats and adjustable steering columns. They often include such extras as power windows, sunroofs, tinted glass, cruise control and compact disc players. They’re safer with the addition of air bags and antilock brakes, which have contributed to the decline in traffic fatalities from 7.6 per 100 million miles traveled in 1950 to 1.9 today. As with housing, part of the increase in auto prices stems from better quality. So although buyers are shelling out more money than they once did, cars have never been such good values. (See Exhibit 6: Kings of the Road.)

    “Drivers may grumble when they pull into a service station, but a gallon of gasoline required just 5.4 minutes of work in 1997, compared with 6.6 minutes in 1970, three years before the Arab oil embargo caused prices to surge. If we consider the 60 percent increase in average miles per gallon since 1970, the work time to drive a typical car 100 miles has been nearly halved over the past quarter century-from 49 minutes in 1970 to 28 minutes today. The price of an automobile tire has risen from $13 in the mid- 1930s to about $75 today. However, today’s steel-belted radials last more than 42,000 miles, a big increase from the 16,000 miles for the nylon tires of the 1950s or the 2,000 miles for the 3 1/2- inch, cotton-lined tires of the early 1920s. Based on work time per 1,000 miles, tires are now cheaper than ever. [Quoted from Report p.10, .pdf page 12]

    Marker at abelard.org

    “Paint stores supplied early-model automobiles their first pints of gasoline in the late 1800s. A quarter century later, only about one in four American households owned a car, and gasoline went for 30¢ a gallon-over half an hour’s work. Today a gallon of gas costs less than 6 minutes of work time. With household vehicle ownership exceeding 92 percent, the average U.S. family consumes roughly 900 gallons annually.” [Quoted from Report p.11, .pdf page 13]

    Marker at abelard.org

    Henry Ford sold his first Model T for $850 in 1908. At the equivalent of more than 2 years’ wages for ordinary factory workers, only 2,500 cars were sold. By 1920 Ford had incorporated numerous improvements into his sedan-including an electric starter, demountable rims and an enclosed body-yet cut its work-hour price by nearly two-thirds.” [Quoted from Report, p.21, .pdf page 23]
    Dallas Federal Reserve Bank Report 1997

Related further reading

marker at abelard.org Henry Ford, ignorant genius - introduction
marker at abelard.org Henry Ford, ruthless business manipulator
marker at abelard.org Henry Ford, mechanical man - Model T, modern times
marker at abelard.org Quotes by and about Henry Ford

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