Model T Lessons on Value Tell Us Why EVs Aren’t Selling
Bob Tomaine NaturalGasNOW
[Editor’s Note: Bob Tomaine compares the values of Henry Ford’s Model T with todays electric vehicles, which are neither new nor valuable and offer only political correctness.]
Few would dispute that while Henry Ford was a mercurial eccentric, he was also a visionary. Granted that he could be sometimes biased, occasionally naïve, always obstinate, a bit of a crackpot and oftentimes not just a little cranky, he was a genius and his contributions cannot be dismissed.
Ford was a tinkerer, one of many scratching their heads in the era when the idea of horseless carriages was beginning to seem a little less ridiculous and a little more possible. His first success was the Quadricycle that he test-drove on June 4, 1896 and that led to another prototype in 1898. Various corporations followed over the next several years before the Ford Motor Company was established on June 6, 1903.
Real production began that year with the 78-inch wheelbase Model A, a two-cylinder, eight-horsepower runabout at $800 or a tonneau at $900. In today’s dollars, the runabout would cost $27,570 and the tonneau $31,014. Larger and costlier cars followed, but 1906 brought the Model N and looking back, its $500 price clearly hinted at future Fords.
The Model T was introduced in October of 1908, starting at $825 for a two-seat runabout. Its four-cylinder engine developed 22 horsepower, it rode a 100-inch wheelbase and was driven from the left side, but most importantly, the Model T embodied the philosophy that Henry Ford had been refining for years.
He later portrayed that philosophy as something of a quest when he recalled promising that “I will build a 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.”
Possibly the best evidence of his success in meeting that goal is the fact that by the time the Model T faded away in May, 1927, more than 15 million examples had been built and the price at the end had dropped to as low as $380, the equivalent of $6,778 today. The clichés about its having put America on wheels and removed the isolation of rural communities are essentially true.
Admittedly, during the Model T’s production and later, Henry Ford had come up with such aberrations as the Peace Ship and worse, The Dearborn Independent, in addition to his unsuccessful opposition to unionization in the 1930s. But he also introduced the five-dollar workday that was a substantial plus for his employees on the assembly line even if it did mean that they’d have more money to buy Fords. And then there were his legal battles over the Selden patent, which he won at least partly because of his sheer orneriness.
Set aside for a moment the wrongheaded moves mentioned above and it’s easy to see that Henry Ford had a fascination with practicality and affordability as well as their combined impact on everyday life. It worked, as shown by the number of Model Ts built, the accessory industry that grew up around them to offer everything from four-wheel-drive conversions to running board-mounted luggage-carriers and the countless books.
A perfect example of the latter is the 1919 edition of “The Model T Ford Car And Farm Tractor. A Complete Reference on The Universal Car.” Its preface opens with the statement that “there is only one make of motor vehicle in the world that is sold in large enough quantities to warrant the publication of a special treatise on its repair and maintenance and that is the Ford Model T.” Wordy, but accurate, and it was a message not lost on competitors.
General Motors’ Chevrolet Division gradually shifted its focus to the low-price market and in 1928 as the Model T’s replacement, the Model A, was being phased in, Chevy pushed Ford aside to become the top seller. Plymouth debuted in that price range the same year and other manufacturers – Independents remembered today mostly by knowledgeable car guys – followed the Big Three’s lead, but most were unable to compete.
It all began with the Model T, so what would Henry Ford and his equals, Alfred Sloan at GM and Walter Chrysler whose Chrysler Corporation introduced the Plymouth, think about the major automakers of today? If they somehow came back to visit for a time, would they be surprised to see how their companies had fallen into lockstep with the federal and state governments’ efforts to force electric cars on the driving public?
More importantly, would they support vehicles that are overpriced for many drivers, the anathema that pushed Ford, GM and Chrysler to support the low-price market a century or so ago? Would they be pleased at those who followed them in the executive offices and decided to build electric vehicles that offer greater environmental impact and lesser utility than their proven internal-combustion-engine counterparts?
Or would they remember the failed electric cars of their own time and wonder why their successors understood so little of their industry’s history?
Text and Photo Copyright 2023 by Bob Tomaine
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