In a 12-by-18-foot corner on the third floor of Ford Motor Co.'s Piquette Avenue factory in Detroit, the plans to put the world on wheels were set in motion early in the 20th century.
The neighborhood - today a tattered assemblage of neglected, graffiti-covered buildings - was fast becoming the cradle of the auto industry. Studebaker occupied one block, and suppliers lined the streets. Ford had constructed its plant there in 1904.
Two years later, Henry Ford created the corner space inside his plant by walling it off from the assembly operations. It became known as the "experimental room" and the "secret room." Inside, Ford gathered his best and brightest, nearly every day at 6 a.m. and sometimes until midnight for nine months.
The room's furnishings were scant: a blackboard, a drafting board and a rocking chair that had belonged to Henry Ford's grandmother. Henry Ford, from his rocking chair, and C. Harold Wills developed the concept of the Model T, and Joseph Galamb drew the plans on his drafting board. Their idea was twofold: build a simple, economical car that the average person could operate and afford; and assemble it in an efficient way that would result in huge quantities and low cost, enabling Ford to undercut competitors on price.
Meanwhile, outside the secret room, workers were building Fords at a record pace. In 1907, they set an industry milestone by assembling 110 cars in 10 hours, propelling Ford Motor Co. to industry leadership in auto production.
Search for efficiency
But Henry Ford wasn't satisfied. He was convinced that he could devise a more efficient way to build cars. At the Piquette Avenue plant, as in auto plants across the country, teams of mechanics gathered around a car sitting on sawhorses. Parts were delivered, most from outside suppliers, by an elevator near a work station. The finished product then was rolled down the center of the long plant, which was fashioned after a New England textile mill, and taken outside to be test driven. It was brought in for fine tuning and cleanup, then loaded onto a rail car behind the building.
Ford had hired mechanics versed in mass production in other industries. Mass production had its roots in the 18th century with French arms makers. Later Singer Manufacturing Co. made great strides in the production efficiency of sewing machines, practices borrowed by manufacturers of bicycles, clocks and farm machinery and by flour mills and even slaughterhouses. Among Ford's top engineers was Charles "Cast Iron Charlie" Sorensen, a key member of the secret team.
The team in the secret room concluded that reducing the complexity of assembly was the first step toward more efficient manufacturing, starting with assembly of a single model instead of multiple models as the Piquette Avenue plant was doing. Ford's focus on production efficiency led to his famous practice of offering only black cars for several years. The number of parts was reduced, and the flow of parts was arranged in a rational manner.
The team tried out its ideas at the Piquette Avenue plant. One Sunday, Sorensen loaded a chassis onto a cart at one end of the plant and had it pulled the length of the building by a rope. Workers added parts as the chassis passed by. The idea was hatched of positioning workers along a moving assembly line, each doing a single task as the car passed by.
While Ford's Highland Park plant was under construction and the kinks were worked out of its moving assembly line, the Piquette Avenue plant built the first 12,000 Model T's, making it the car's official birthplace.
Model T introduced
On Oct. 1, 1908, Ford introduced the Model T. It was the universal car - "the motorcar for the great multitude" - that Henry Ford had long talked about. While other carmakers focused on luxury cars for the wealthy, mostly for recreation, Henry Ford envisioned a utilitarian car for the masses. He said he wanted his cars to be "large enough for the family but small enough to run and care for."
The Model T combined low weight (about 1,200 pounds), simplicity and durability with a reasonable price of $850. It initially used vanadium steel, a metal that only French luxury cars employed at the time, for greater durability. It could traverse rough ground, since roads at the time were few and poor, and its simple engine and transmission could be repaired with a blacksmith's tools.
The versatile Model T could be reconfigured by buyers for a variety of purposes, from hauling freight to mowing lawns. It also had relatively good power from its 20-hp, four-cylinder engine paired with a two-speed foot-controlled planetary transmission.
Model T is a hit
The Model T was an immediate hit, posting sales of more than 10,000 in its first year, a record for an automobile. Sales were boosted by promotional activities ranging from a black-tie Ford event in New York, where mechanics showcased the car, to Model T rodeos in the West, at which cowboys riding in Fords tried to rope calves.
Mining magnate Robert Guggenheim sponsored a New York-to-Seattle auto race, and the only survivors were two Model T's. Common folks affectionately nicknamed the tall, square Model T the "Tin Lizzie" - "Lizzie" being slang for a good, dependable servant.
Lower price, higher sales
As production of the Model T became more efficient, Ford lowered the price, and sales soared. Ford's Highland Park factory could produce 1,000 cars in a day, a level never before seen. The improved efficiency and lower price created a competitive advantage. The first Model T introduced in 1908 cost $850; by 1925, the price had dropped to $260.
Sales skyrocketed from 89,455 Model T's in 1912 (at $600 each) to 585,388 four years later (at $360 each).
By the time the final Model T was produced on May 26, 1927, Ford had built 15 million, more than any other car made to that point.