Conceived in the Back of a Model T Ford

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1910 Model T Ford,

Released to the public on October 1, 1908, and continuing in production until May 26, 1927, Henry Ford’s Ford Model T is credited with changing the foundational culture of American life and the world.

Though the first Ford Model T rolled off the factory lot 105 years after the internal combustion engine-powered car was first designed in 1803, and some 19 years after the four-cycle, gasoline-powered car was first produced, it was Henry Ford’s “Tin Lizzie” that is credited with transforming the automobile from some exotic toy of the uber-rich into a staple of American culture.

Thanks to Henry Ford’s assembly line, which he described as functioning as a meat packing slaughter house line in reverse, vehicle production was reduced from 12.5 hours per car to 93 minutes per vehicle in 1914 – with reduced manpower.  This innovation allowed a new Model T to drive off the Michigan assembly line floor every three minutes and made it possible for Ford to sell his cars to the general public at a fraction of the price his opponents were selling their vehicles.  In the years ahead, the widespread available of vehicles and the freedom they provided allowed for a fundamental change in American life.

For the first time in the history of humanity, the common man was provided the luxury of the freedom to be mobile.

Despite his many flaws, Henry Ford was the product of a conservative and rural upbringing and is reported to have never cursed nor indulged in alcohol or “galivanting”.  At the age of twenty, he is even reported to have walked four miles to the family’s Episcopal church every Sunday.

When laying out his vision for the Model T Ford stated, “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.”

Ironically enough, it was the creation of Ford’s Model T that would transform American culture from the virtuous Puritan nation he admired so much into one with an ever loosening set of virtues and would introduce many of the vices which came to define “The Roaring Twenties”.

It was the Model T which is credited with replacing traditional courting with the relatively new concept of dating, allowing for young couples to enjoy the opportunity to quickly place miles between themselves and the ever watchful eyes of their elders.

Grapes of Wrath author John Steinbeck would later offer this eulogy of Henry Ford’s famous Model T:

“Someone should write an erudite essay on the moral, physical, and esthetic effect of the Model T Ford on the American nation. Two generations of Americans knew more about the planetary system of gears than the solar system of stars. With the Model T, part of the concept of private property disappeared. Pliers ceased to be privately owned and a tire pump belonged to the last man who had picked it up. Most of the babies of the period were conceived in Model T Fords and not a few were born in them. The theory of the Anglo Saxon home became so warped that it never quite recovered.”

Steinbeck was not the first to allege that “half the babies in America were conceived in the back of a Ford Model T,” an allegation that the notoriously prudish Ford found to be the height of insulting.

In an effort to ensure the cars that bore his name were no longer associated with iniquity, Henry Ford demanded that his engineers reduce the backseat space in all future models of the Model T.

In the years that followed, Ford’s competitors, particularly Chevrolet sought to capitalize on the country’s newfound cultural revolution and would actively market their vehicles for having “spacious interiors”.

The last Model T drove off the lot in 1927, as annual production numbers for the classic model had fallen for the fifth consecutive year as Ford’s opponents began enjoying greater shares of the automobile market.

Though the vehicle’s production may have ceased close to a century ago, the legacy it had upon the world is unquestioned — the generation that won World War II and would become known as “The Greatest Generation” were conceived and born in the hayday of this car.

Do you like articles like this?  This article appears in the Summer 2020 print edition of Appalachian Magazine. Click here to learn more about receiving a year’s subscription of the print edition of Appalachian Magazine!

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