Conveyor belts, new machine tools, strict schedules and high accuracy allowed one car to be completed every minute. The cars came off the lines ready to be sold. This approach reduced the cost of each car by two-thirds. As a result, one in every two cars sold in the USA in the early 1920s was a Model T.
He had distinguished predecessors. A factory line for naval pulley blocks operated at Portsmouth, England, as early as 1805. Sewing machines, bicycles and even guns were mass produced well before the Model T. The ‘American system’ was developed in the nineteenth century to make goods using interchangeable components. Although it was faster than traditional methods, an ele
American cities became fringed with suburbs connected by roads
ment of hand finishing was still often required. Many products remained too expensive for working people.
Henry Ford was the first to remove this hand finishing and, in aiming for the lowest possible price, he truly intended his product as a ‘car for the masses’. His Model T was the first that poorer workers and farmers could buy. The prosperous 1920s meant more money for items previously considered luxuries, such as cars. 'Fordism' was the most efficient way for factories to meet the demand. Output rose while prices fell. American cities became fringed with suburbs connected by roads. Cars became symbols of prosperity.
Between 1917 and 1925 Ford built another factory in the Detroit area, on the River Rouge, usually called ‘The Rouge’. This huge plant was able to convert iron ore into automobiles. At its peak in the 1930s it employed 100,000 people. A similar, if smaller, plant was opened by Ford in 1931 at Dagenham, on the Thames, east of London.
Ford Model T four-seat tourer motor car, 1916. Credit: Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library
Today we live in a less predictable world in which people seek more distinctively personal products. Car assembly is now often cheaper in developing countries, with components being shipped between continents.
Ford has a major plant in north-east Brazil, which produces 250,000 vehicles per year. Dagenham no longer produces any. As for ‘The Rouge’, it employs just 3,000 people. Bill Ford, Henry Ford’s great-grandson, has announced that it is to be reinvented as the model ‘sustainable’ factory for the twenty-first century.