As the 19th century rolled into the 20th, a young entrepreneur named Henry Ford boasted, I will build a car for the great multitude. He tried and tried, naming each of his models of what was then called the horseless carriage after a succeeding letter in the Roman alphabet.
It took 20 models – 20 of the 26 letters. But in 1908, 100 years ago this year, he achieved his goal.
The 20-horsepower Model T, the first automobile to be mass-produced with interchangeable parts on an assembly line, was eminently affordable. A stripped-down model with no top, windshield, or gas lamps cost $850 – less than half what comparable cars cost.
The assembly-line idea was borrowed from a dis-assembly line – the production line at meatpacking plants where animal carcasses were cut apart as they moved down a conveyor belt. The process of building Model T's was streamlined further, and soon Ford was turning out an unheard-of 100 Model T's a day.
He was able to cut the selling price in half, to about $500. Just about any working American could afford that.
The Model T proved so dependable that people called it the Tin Lizzie. Lizzie was a popular nickname back then for a reliable house servant. And this servant on wheels drove Americans places many of them had never ventured.
Henry Ford is often quoted as saying that any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants, so long as it is black. Most Model T's were covered in black paint, which for some reason was cheaper and dried faster. But other colors could be ordered.
By the time the last Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1927, Ford had sold more than 15 million of the reliable cars in the United States alone. And at antique automobile shows – especially this centennial year – thousands of old, carefully polished and preserved Tin Lizzies survive as the symbol of an entire era: the Automotive Age.