You've heard the phrase umpteen times: "You can have any color as long as it's black."
It's one of the most famous quotes attributed to Henry Ford - his retort to customers asking about color choices for the Model T. No one seems to know whether Ford actually spoke those words.
But that quote is the reason why generations believe all Model T's were black.
Too bad it's not true.
Indeed, Model T's came only in black for 12 out of 19 model years. But in those seven other model years other colors - such as green, bright red, dark blue, brown, maroon and gray - were available.
Black dried quickly
The Model T was introduced Oct. 1, 1908, and through the 1913 model year buyers had a choice of several colors, including black. Then, in 1926 and 1927, colors included green, light blue, brown, maroon - and, of course, black.
Black was the only color the Model T came in from 1914 through 1925, and the reason was economics, not style. Black was the only color paint that could be dried quickly, and speed was important at the Ford plant because of its enormous volume.
According to Model T expert Guy Zaninovich in Ann Arbor, Mich., cars were painted using a process called japanning, which today would be called baked enamel. "It was first used in the mid-1800s for decorative items imported into America," Zaninovich says. "A piano has a shiny black surface that almost looks like plastic rather than painting because it was done with the japanning process. It leaves a very hard and durable surface. The only pigment that it worked in is black. If japanning worked in hot pink, all Model T's would have been hot pink."
Akron Paint & Varnish Inc., the 125-year-old Ohio company that made the original black paint for Henry Ford, is still around, and it has the formula. CEO David Venarge says the formula came with the two founders from Germany. "The formula used tung oil, a cheaper replacement for linseed oil, car black pigment plus gilsonite, a mined mineral," he says. "The paint was also used on mattress buttons, hooks and eyes, bobby pins and other hardware."
Bodies needed fast
By 1914, Henry Ford had implemented his moving assembly line. Having bodies ready for this faster method of assembly was key to hastening the rate of production.
Going to all-black cars was a wise decision because the young Ford Motor Co. had more orders for the Model T than it could fill. According to Ford, in 1914 alone, 300,000 Model T's were made, while competing automakers had a combined production of about 280,000 cars.
As competition mounted in the late 1920s, Ford had to rethink the black-only philosophy. Competitors were biting into Ford sales, and they were offering various colors. Black had become the only color associated with Ford cars. Other colors again were made available for 1926 and 1927, the last two model years for the Model T.