But in the Model T it gave the world the first car that many people could afford, and the rest is history. Join us for a journey into Ford’s past as we look at the key moments and inventions in the company’s life:
MOVING ASSEMBLY LINE (1913)
Ford did not invent the assembly line - that was done by Ransom Olds of Oldsmobile in 1902 - but it did introduce the innovation whereby the vehicle moved along to the workers, rather than the other way round. This opened for the first time in 1913 at Ford’s plant at Highland Park in Michigan, building the Model T.
The huge leap in productivity enabled Ford to double workers' wages the following year to $5 per day - which was necessary, since the monotonous nature of the assembly line work led to very high staff turnover, which led to delays and high training costs. But the reduction in cost and thus price progressively made the motor car affordable, changing it from a toy for the rich to a tool for everyone. More than 15 million Model Ts were produced, and at its height Ford was churning one out every 24 seconds.
CIGARETTE LIGHTER: Lincoln Model L, 1920
The history of the in-car cigarette lighter is a little bit murky. It was developed in the US during the 1920s; at the time, it took the form of a cord-based, switch-activated device that looked different than it does today.
In the early 1920s, many companies sold aftermarket cigar lighters compatible with a wide variety of cars. Historians often credit the Lincoln Model L, the firm’s very first car, as offering a standard cigar lighter for the first time. The device later appeared on Oldsmobile’s list of extra-cost options in 1927. Dodge started offering it in 1928, Chevrolet in 1929, Chrysler in 1930 while Nash and Ford waited until 1934.
You might think this is all a bit unimportant in our increasingly post-tobacco world. But it did ensure that a permanent interior power supply became present in practically all cars over time, something we should all be grateful for every time we charge up our phones as we drive along. PICTURE: 1922 Lincoln Model L 7-passenger Limousine 1922
COMMERCIAL AVIATION: Ford Tin Goose (1925)
Henry Ford (1863-1947) was thrilled by the possibilities of the aviation age after World War One, and purchased the Stout airplane company. Stout's single-engined airplane was given two extra engines, leading to the Ford Trimotor of 1926 (pictured). For the time, the 'plane was rugged and reliable, and the involvement of America’s most famous businessman in motoring spurred the industry and its infrastructure. He ushered in the first paved runways, airport terminals, hangars and even radio navigation to support the Trimotor.
199 Trimotors were built, of which around 18 survive today, but the death of Ford’s personal pilot in a crash, together with the pressures of the Great Depression, led him to lose interest in aviation after 1933. Ford’s Willow Run factory built B-24 bombers during World War Two, however, and re-established an aerospace arm in 1956, when it produced the Sidewinder air-to-air missile among other things. It sold that business in 1990.
LAMINATED GLASS: Ford Model A (1927)
Henry Ford was ruthless about controlling costs, so it seems incredible that he was also the first to use pricey laminated glass. However, Ford was also in the perfect position to fit this safety tech thanks to his economies of scale. From the start of production the Ford Model A – the follow-up to the Model T - featured a laminated glass windscreen, which Henry Ford had insisted should be fitted after seeing the carnage caused by somebody – yes a real person - being thrown through the windscreen of a car during crash testing.
Laminated glass is treated so that it doesn’t shatter into dangerously sharp little pieces during a crash. Another Model A fact? It was the first Ford to wear the blue oval badge that would become iconic.
FLATHEAD V8 (1932)
GM’s Cadillac gave the world its first mass-produced V8 in 1914, but the configuration and its power was confined to expensive models for the next 18 years. That all changed with Ford’s Flathead V8, first introduced in the Model 18 (pictured) in 1932. In keeping with the blue oval’s blue collar philosophy, this was a V8 for everyone.
In order to be affordable to make and thus sell, it had three main crankshaft bearings rather than the usual five of most V8s of the time. Originally 3.6-litre in size, it delivered 64bhp, though grew to as large as a 4.2-litre and 123bhp by the end; there was even a 5.5-litre for truck use, though that was also used in the 1949 Lincoln. Although Ford replaced it in 1954, the Flathead was licensed to France’s Simca, which used it in a military truck until 1990.
Very much a brainchild of Henry Ford himself (pictured inset with the engine), it was his last major engineering contribution to the company. In America at least, the V8 has been an accessible and affordable engine for most car buyers ever since.
1949 Ford (1948)
Ford was in a total mess at the end of World War Two. Its factories were all configured to make weapons that suddenly no one needed anymore, and the management was in paralysis, hidebound by an ailing, ageing patriarch in the shape of Henry Ford, and the vacuum left by the death of his only child Edsel in 1943. In stepped Edsel’s 28-year-old son Henry Ford II, who set about a rapid re-organisation with the help of newly hired GM executive Ernest Breech and a group of young executives recently demobbed from the US Army Air Force, a group nicknamed the Whiz Kids.
Working to a punishing schedule, by June 1948 Ford's was the first all-new design to be launched post-war from any of the Big Three players. Though some engines had been carried over, otherwise it was all-new and buyers had a huge choice in body shape, including two- and four-door sedan, coupe, convertible and a station wagon estate. With advanced new suspension and attractive styling, the Custom was a big seller and its influence was later seen in many European models of the 1950s, including Ford’s own Consul and Zodiac ranges.
MACPHERSON STRUT SUSPENSION: Ford Consul (1950)
Earle MacPherson (1891-1960) was recruited by Chevrolet as its chief engineer in 1945, to develop an affordable small car in the wake of World War 2. For that project MacPherson came up with a new type of cheap-yet-effective independent suspension, but when Chevrolet canned its project MacPherson jumped ship to Ford.
There, his suspension design was embraced and by 1950 it was being used on Ford's new family car in Britain, the Consul. Since then hundreds of millions of cars with MacPherson strut suspension have been built, and its use continues to this day.
INTERMITTENT WINDSCREEN WIPERS: MERCURY (1968)
Although patents for intermittent windscreen wipers existed as far back as the 1920s, it wasn't until the advent of solid state electronics in the 1960s that they became a production reality. The engineer and academic Bob Kearns (1927-2005) developed a system and offered it to Ford. Ford rejected it, but installed a similar design on 1969 Mercurys.
Kearns then spent much of the rest of his life in litigation with Ford and other companies, eventually winning around $30 million in compensation, a tale recounted in the 2009 Universal Studios movie Flash of Genius, where Kearns is played by Greg Kinnear.
HEATED FRONT WINDSCREEN: Ford Granada/Scorpio, Ford Taurus, Mercury Sable (1985)
Rear-window heating has been with us since the late 1960s. Ford went to work to develop one for the windscreen. It fitted an early effort to the 1974 Ford Thunderbird and the 1974 Lincoln Continental Mark IV, powered by a separate 110V alternator. The system proved unreliable and was dropped. Ford went back to the drawing board and developed its Quickclear heated element system in the early 1980s. It was first fitted to the European Ford Granada in 1985 (pictured top), and the Taurus (pictured bottom) and Mercury Sable got it the same year in the US market.
Ford is justly proud of this technology, which can clear frost off a windscreen in less than 60 seconds. Other brands’ cars now feature the technology, but Ford is still flying its flag. It’s widely fitted to its vehicles today, even those with a modest overall specification.
STANDARD ABS: Ford Granada/Scorpio (1985)
The first mechanical anti lock braking system (ABS) arrived in the 1960s, and Mercedes launched the first electronic system in 1978 as a pricey option. However Ford took the innovation to a wider audience.
The Scorpio saw ABS fitted as standard across the range, the first time this happened on a mass-produced car. ABS greatly improved braking ability in both dry and wet, though is less effective and even potentially counter-productive in ice, snow, and gravel conditions. ABS became mandatory on all new cars sold in Europe in 2004 and in the US in 2013.
CD PLAYER: Lincoln Town Car (1987)
The Lincoln Town Car was long beloved of airport car services, and it was indeed supremely good at the task of carrying people and their luggage in great comfort. But cutting-edge it was not. But believe it or not this great American institution was the first production car to ever feature a factory-fitted CD player.
Today, they are already on the way out. It’s outlived the cassette at least – the last cars to have players for those fitted were the 2010 Lexus SC430 and the final generation Ford Crown Victoria. PICTURE: 1988 Lincoln Town Car
FUEL GAUGE ARROW: Ford Escort, Mercury Tracer (1989)
In 1989 Ford introduced an arrow on the fuel gauges of its Escort (pictured) and Tracer, to show which side of the car the filler flap was on. It came about after its designer Jim Moylan had to refuel a car in the pouring rain and he didn't know which side of the car the filler was on. Unlike many of the inventions listed here, this one cost virtually nothing to implement yet yielded benefits that are still paying to this day.
INDICATORS IN SIDE MIRRORS: Ford Bronco (1995)
The Ford Bronco got mirror-mounted turn signals for the 1996 model year, its last model year on the market. The feature was called Signal Mirrors, and it was only offered on the XLT and the Eddie Bauer models. The turn signal was integrated into the actual mirror, not into the cap. The Mercedes E-Class W210 facelift of 1998 received turn signal lights integrated into the side mirror unit fully.
Interestingly, turn-signal lights on the side of a vehicle are not federally mandated in the US to this day - but as they are in most other major car markets (and not prohibited in the US) they have been uniformally adopted. The Bronco nameplate is to be revived by Ford in 2020.
MY KEY (2010)
My Key is a clever innovation that allows certain restrictions to be placed on a car when driven by an assigned key. Brilliant for worried parents with youngsters having recently passed their driving test, it allows limitations including the ability to limit the top speed of the car, to limit the maximum volume of the stereo (to reduce distraction), to amplify the seat-belt reminder system, and to trigger a low fuel warning earlier than usual.
10-SPEED AUTOMATIC TRANSMISSION: Ford F-150 (2016)
GM and Ford formed an unlikely alliance to design the first 10-speed automatic transmission and began producing it in 2017. Ford first brought it to the market in the 2017 F-150; GM chose to first use it in the 2017 Chevrolet Camaro ZL1.
As of 2019 it’s also found in a number of other cars including Ford's Mustang, Expedition, Everest, and Ranger models, and the Lincoln Navigator as well. On the GM side you can now find it in the Cadillacs Escalade and CT6, and Chevrolets Suburban RST, Tahoe, Camaro SS, and Silverado, and the GMC Yukon Denali. Meanwhile, Honda introduced its own 10-speed automatic transmission on the 2018 Odyssey.
DRIFT MODE: Ford Focus RS (2016)
All hail electronic trickery – for it gave us the first-ever Drift mode, in the Focus RS Mk3, which allows the car’s attitude to gracefully and gradually build with power and the RS to dance through the latter part of the bend with a few degrees of opposite lock applied. Strictly for track use only…
CORKTOWN CAMPUS (2018)
Ford and its founding family has watched the decline of Detroit in recent decades with mounting concern. Perhaps with a nod to Henry Ford’s Irish roots, the company has focused on the Corktown District, originally inhabited by Irish immigrants from Cork in the 19th century.
Spearheded by company chairman Bill Ford (pictured bottom left), in 2017 it purchased abandoned factories, warehouses and Michigan Central Station for a new $740 million mixed-used development that will ultimately yield office space for 2500 of its workers, and another 2500 workers working in related technology and startups, and also provide a controlled environment for the development and testing of electric and autonomous vehicles.
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