On June 4, 1924, the ten millionth Model T Ford left the Highland Park factory, which would remain the main facility for T production. While the flivver outsold its nearest competitor by a six-to-one margin that year, its unbridled run was nearing an unforeseen conclusion. After years of conceding the low end of the market to Ford, another automaker was setting its sights on that very sector.
At the beginning of the decade, General Motors was an awkward conglomerate of car companies and parts suppliers, managed more for the sake of its whipsaw stock-price than for efficiencies in auto making. In the middle of the decade, though, a revitalized GM, under the brilliant leadership of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., began to offer inexpensive Chevrolets with amenities that the Model T lacked. Instead of the sturdy but antiquated planetary transmission, it had a smooth three-speed. The market began to shift; price and value ceased to be paramount factors. Styling and excitement suddenly counted to the customer. Even though the Model T cost a mere $290 in the mid-twenties, dealers clamored for a new Ford that would strike the fancy of the more demanding and sophisticated consumers.
But Henry Ford refused even to consider replacing his beloved Model T. Once, while he was away on vacation, employees built an updated Model T and surprised him with it on his return. Ford responded by kicking in the windshield and stomping on the roof. “We got the message,” one of the employees said later, “As far as he was concerned, the Model T was god and we were to put away false images.” Only one person persisted in warning him of the impending crisis: his son, Edsel, who had been installed as president of the Ford Motor Company during the dividend trial and its aftermath in 1919. It was the first of many arguments that Edsel would lose, as the once adoring relationship between the two deteriorated into distrust and disrespect on Henry’s part and woeful disillusionment on Edsel’s.
The Chevrolet continued to take sales from the dour Model T. By 1926, T sales had plummeted, and the realities of the marketplace finally convinced Henry Ford that the end was at hand.
On May 25, 1927, Ford abruptly announced the end of production for the Model T, and soon after closed the Highland Park factory for six months. The shutdown was not for retooling: there was no new model in the works. In history’s worst case of product planning, Henry sent the workers home so that he could start to design his next model.
Fortunately, Edsel had been quietly marshalling sketches from the company’s designers, and he was ready and able to work with his father on producing plans for the new car, called the Model A. It was a success from its launch in December 1927, and placed the company on sound footing again. By the time it went into production, the River Rouge had become the main Ford manufacturing facility.
When the last Model T rolled off the assembly line, it was not the end of an era, it was still the very dawn of the one that the little car had inaugurated. Cars — more than half of them Model Ts — pervaded American culture. They jammed the streets of the great eastern cities and roamed newly laid roads in southern California. Adapted to haul everything from mail to machine guns to coffins to schoolchildren, automobiles represented an opportunity for change in practically everything. They also became a crucial factor in recasting a growing economy. Henry Ford had created a car for the multitudes and that car had created the basis of the car culture embraced by every subsequent generation.
The Ford Motor Company, having survived its own crisis in the twenties, was one of only forty-four U.S. automakers left in 1929, out of the hundreds that had entered the fray since the beginning of the century. That year, Ford, General Motors, and the newly formed Chrysler Corporation — known then and now as the Big Three — accounted for 80 percent of the market.
Henry Ford died on April 7, 1947, at the age of eighty-three, having outlived the Model T by nearly twenty years. A century has passed since he took the first car he built for a ride. The world remains in large part the one set into motion by Henry Ford: a world in which cars are for everyone. As Will Rogers said, “It will take a hundred years to tell whether he helped us or hurt us, but he certainly didn’t leave us where he found us.”