As successful as the Model T was, it overstayed its welcome.
Model T sales peaked at 1.8 million in 1923. Despite a face-lift and the availability of colors beyond black in 1926, Model T sales continued to slide.
The Model T had accumulated fierce competitors, and consumer tastes had changed. Buyers had fatter budgets and were willing to spend for extras, such as flashy paint and special trim, not available on the Model T but offered by competitors. The others had fancier interiors; the Model T's remained Spartan.
The competitors were outfitted with such technology as electric starters, hydraulic brakes and sliding gear transmissions; the Model T's still came with manual cranking ignitions until 1919, mechanical brakes and an antiquated transmission. Chevrolets and Dodges cranked out a whopping 30 hp, compared with the Model T's 22.5 hp, which was little changed from when it was introduced in 1908
Meanwhile, the competition promised to intensify even more as Chevrolet was on the verge of announcing a new six-cylinder model and Chrysler was about to introduce its low-priced Plymouth.
Despite the Model T's sales decline and Edsel Ford's pleas to his father for approval of a Model T successor, Henry Ford remained reluctant to make changes.
Edsel, known for his penchant for automotive styling, pushed his father to update the styling as well as the performance of the Model T. He suggested introducing something innovative, to one-up the competition. Henry Ford countered that he already had created the perfect car and that with care and maintenance it would last an owner a lifetime.
Ford's stubbornness proved detrimental to the company. In 1924, Ford owned two-thirds of the U.S. car market. By late 1926 it was selling only one-third of all cars sold.
"Henry Ford continues to be the greatest single influence in the motor world, but his domination has sharply declined in the face of heavy competition," wrote The New York Times.
Henry Ford finally relented. The end of the line came for the Model T on May 26, 1927. Ford Motor Co. produced the last of more than 15 million Model T's, ending an incredible era in automotive history. The event was commemorated with a ceremony during which Henry Ford and Edsel Ford drove the last Model T off the assembly line. Ford Motor Co. closed plants worldwide awaiting the go-ahead to retool for the car.
As early as 1921, Henry Ford had been working on a radical engine that would power a car better than anything on the road. It was an air-cooled eight-cylinder engine known within Ford as the X-8. But he abandoned the plan when he finally agreed to produce the Model A.
Henry Ford told of plans internally for the Model A in August 1926, with work beginning in earnest immediately and continuing through the spring of the next year. At the time, Henry Ford insisted that the successor to the Model T would be the finest car ever built.
Edsel was put in charge of the styling. He tapped into the expertise that had been acquired when Ford Motor Co. purchased Lincoln. Meanwhile, Henry Ford and his engineers worked on a chassis. They also developed a new four-cylinder engine, a new transmission and an innovative electrical system.
Public was curious
Workers assemble Model A's in 1931. PHOTO: From the Collections of The Henry Ford and Ford Motor Co.
The secret Model A became one of the year's hottest news stories. Writers speculated about what it would be like. Cartoonists, illustrators and photographers made graphic their speculations.
But the wait was painful for those associated with Ford Motor Co. Ford workers were laid off as factories were shut down, suppliers struggled to survive, dealers squeaked by selling used cars, and competitors gained an edge as Ford's sales declined further.
The changeover from the Model T to the Model A was the largest and most costly undertaking in industrial history to that point. Historians estimate the cost between $100 million and $250 million.
Much of the cost was associated with transferring production from Highland Park, where Ford had built the Model T, to the new Rouge plant, a move that took six months.
The first pilot Model A was built Oct. 21, 1927, weeks before the Rouge was completed. In addition, the switch from Model T's to Model A's involved converting all of Ford's plants - 36 in North America and 12 overseas - and required retooling by Ford's suppliers.
Unveiled in December 1927
At long last, on Dec. 11, 1927, the car was unveiled. It was christened the Model A, a name resurrected from the past. The first Model A was the car that had launched Ford Motor Co. It had been constructed in a Detroit wagon factory by 10 employees working 12-hour days, seven days a week.
The new Model A was so named to mark a beginning.
When the Model A reached dealer showrooms, the public was intrigued. Published reports say that 10 million people stood in line for a glimpse of the new Ford. David Lewis, a Ford historian and University of Michigan professor, estimates that more than 25 million people saw the Model A during the first week it was shown. In New York alone, more than 1 million people saw the car during its first five days on display.
The debut of the Model A was considered the most significant vehicle introduction in automotive history to that point and among the most momentous events of 1927, a year that had many significant events, including Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic.
Ford advertised the "beautiful body lines" and the "remarkable acceleration" of the Model A - it boasted speeds of 55 mph to 65 mph. Ford also played up its technical features: four-wheel brakes, a modern transmission and hydraulic shock absorbers. It was outfitted with a safety glass windshield, a first for a low-priced car. Ford promoted its smoothness, ease of handling, durability and "typical Ford economy and reliability."
'A Lady Out of Lizzie'
A song written about the Model A summed it up best: "Henry's Made a Lady Out of Lizzie."
The Model A came in a variety of styles, colors and prices. Six body styles were offered: the roadster, $385; the phaeton, $395; coupe, $495, Tudor sedan, $495; sport coupe, $550; and four-door sedan, $570. It came in four colors.
The Model A was an immediate success. Production reached 820,000 in 1928. By Feb. 4, 1929, it hit 1 million. And 4 million were built by the end of 1930, when nine body styles were offered. The Model A allowed Ford to recapture sales leadership from Chevrolet.
The Model A's success, as mighty as it was, was short-lived. It was unable to sustain Ford through the Depression. In 1931, the last Model A was produced. More than 5 million had been built. Meanwhile, Henry Ford already was at work on his first V-8 model to replace the Model A.