The early 20th century was a time of change, society, war, culture and more.
One of the biggest differences from this time and the century prior was the advent of personal transportation. As this technology grew cheaper, it reached both the mass consumer market and the battlefield. This was the car. Few inventions can claim to have such resounding impact on life and it’s very common for one name to pop up when talking about the early days of the car, Henry Ford.
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He wasn’t the inventor of the car, but it was the business statement behind his most successful company, that really cements him in history. Henry Ford was born in a small town near Detroit in 1863. He wasn’t the richest of kids nor the poorest, but in his youth he found some interest in taking apart stuff and putting it back together. As he grew older, he worked on westinghouse steam engines and engineering elsewhere, but he did have other interests. Using the skills he had learned over the years, he developed a simple autonomous vehicle named The Ford quadricycle in 1896.
Now Carl Benz had already created the world’s first gas powered car in 1886, so the quadricycle wasn’t breaking any records in that category. It had bike tires, a somewhat limited 4 horsepower engine, and really was just a test of sorts. It never reached mass production, though it never seemed like it was intended to, but a few years later, this project would start to become something more. In 1899, Ford created the Detroit Automobile Company. Its primary purpose was building delivery trucks and showing that vehicles could be a cheap alternative to horse drawn carriages. Even though the idea started out strong, not many trucks were produced and later the company collapsed.
Ford’s Detroit Automobile Company did start up again a few months after it went down, but went under a new name, The Henry Ford Company. Ford didn’t stay with this company for long and eventually left it and this company later went on to become another well known car manufacturer, Cadillac. While Ford took a break from his start up companies, he invested his time into making race cars, and he got recognition for his engineering skills, which eventually lead him right back into the automobile business. He gained some valuable investors along with some engineers to help assist him with his next endeavor. In 1903 in Dearborn, Michigan, Ford started the Ford Motor Company. The main focus of this company was developing an affordable car that was for everyone.
Cars during this time were often priced at $4,000, which would be around $100,000 today. If you seen someone driving a car, it meant that said person was really wealthy and was pretty much financially stable. Ford’s first car to be developed with this company was the Model A and was priced at $800, or about $22,000 today. Now this wasn’t exactly cheap, but it was definitely much cheaper than most other cars on the market, and people liked it.
The Model A was seen as a more premium take compared to the other inexpensive car brands. The Model B was Ford’s next project, but was targeted to the wealthy instead of being focused on being cheap, but that business strategy ended with the Model B. Ford went back to the drawing board and made a few other cars that were constantly improving on each other and were reasonably cheap, but only one of these cars really cemented Ford in history. This car was the Model T. This wasn’t the first car ever made, it wasn’t the first cheap car, but it was the first car to be massively successful. Ford didn’t even create the assembly line and wasn’t the first to implement it in car manufacturing, but what he did was introduce a basic platform for all other cars to strive for. A 20 horsepower engine in a car that was priced at $850, which was quite impressive in 1909.
People from all over the country were purchasing this car, which gained the company a lot of recognition. All this publicity Ford was getting got the attention of another car manufacturer, General Motors. Gm already consisted of other car brands such as Oldsmobile and Cadillac. GM seemed like it wanted control over the whole car market and approached Ford with the intent of buying his company. Ford was willing to sell, but General Motors thought the price he was asking for was too high and because of this, they declined. As the Model T continued to be a successful hit, some improvements along the assembly line kept being made, which speed up the car-making process which allowed more cars to be made. As a result of this, prices dropped as well.
Workers were paid quite well for the time and had pretty good working conditions. Those workers often earned enough money and bought themselves their own Model T and as the everyday man gained personal transportation, America’s culture changed. Automobile transportation was starting to become the go-to choice of traveling just because of time and money. Before cars, the bicycle, horse and carriage, and train were the only means of getting from one point to another and it wasn’t all that great, but it was all people had during that time period. With cars being so widely available, traveling was just a more convenient experience.
As the need for horse and carriages decreased, which seemed to be the most popular choice of the three, so did the old trails of which they traveled on. The landscape of America went from poorly visible, dirt paths to neatly paved roads and highways connecting every part of the country. Houses were starting to be built with garages for the first time, gas stations were starting to pop up everywhere, traffic lights were implemented into every busy intersection, and parking lots began to arise in most cities. Although, it wasn’t just the landscape that changed, but american society itself had faced a dramatic change that resulted in a new way of living. People living in not so crowded towns located in rural areas were now able to travel to the distant populated towns. This caused people to become a little more connected with each other and were more willing to arrive for work. Businesses started to join in on this automobile revolution and often implemented ways to gain a profit from it.
An example of this would be how fast food chains decided to create drive throughs for customers. These restaurants thought it would be a good idea to dedicate a whole portion of the building for cars and considering drive throughs are still around today, it was a pretty good decision. Henry Ford did eventually retire from his company and not too long after, died on April 7, 1947. Ford had ended up reaching his goal of bringing the car to the masses. It brought change to infrastructure, daily life, leisure, and work.
In a lot of ways, Ford’s cars weren’t the best, they weren’t the cheapest, and they weren’t the most interesting, but that didn’t matter. The Model T existed in a perfect moment in history and because of that, it changed America.