It was Henry Ford’s dream to “democratise the automobile” by not only making it available to the rich but to everyone. He did this by producing the inexpensive Model T, a car which took the world by storm and was a significant invention during the Industrial Revolution. Between 1908 and 1927, a staggering 15 million Model Ts were made and sold worldwide when car manufacturing was still largely in its infancy.
The Birth of the Model T
To build his Model T, Ford built a huge factory at Highland Park, outside Detroit, USA, which enabled him to establish assembly line techniques with moving production lines from 1913. Athough Ford wasn’t the first to use these, they were continually refined and made more efficient. Ford’s Model T had no fancy adornments like brass carriage lamps, which were common in luxury cars at the time., It did have a windscreen and side curtains, not always common on expensive cars. Model Ts were made of vanadium steel, a light yet strong steel alloy resistant to shock and fatigue. Early models came in green, red, blue and grey but from 1914 the only colour available was black. This was because Japan black enamel was the only colour which could be applied with the primitive spray-painting techniques of the time and could dry quickly enough on the production line. (This all changed in 1926 when quick-drying Duco lacquer was introduced.)
Model T comes to Australia
The Model T arrived in Australia in 1908 as a knock-down kit and was assembled by local dealers. It became affordable by a whole new class of potential motorists who were far from wealthy including farmers and tradesmen. The car quickly proved to be much more convenient than a horse and buggy for doctors and clergymen making house calls who didn’t have to worry about catching, hitching, feeding, watering, shoeing, housing, cleaning and generally looking after a horse. It was comfortable, convenient and could travel much more quickly than a buggy or coach.
Early Australian Drivers
It should be remembered that when the Model T arrived people knew little about cars in Australia at the time. It wasn’t unusual for them to spend one or two days trying to start the new imported car without realising that the tank needed petrol. Others would spend years driving in one gear not knowing how to, or realising they could, change gear. There were few formed roads, no garages and petrol supplies. Petrol was scarce and expensive and was purchased in tins from a few chemists or grocers. Cars were often unreliable and there were no mechanics so drivers had to repair breakdowns. Handbooks and motoring advice columns had articles on how to mend broken springs, bent axles and broken steering columns. Motorists even had to carry a comprehensive collection of nuts, bolts, wire and spare tyres to ensure returning home at the end of a drive.
In 1909, institutions such as the Melbourne School of Motoring opened to teach new owners to drive as very few people knew how to drive their cars before they bought them. Owners of the big expensive cars, the norm before the Model T, often had their own uniformed chauffeurs. However, it was the car salesman who taught the purchaser of the Model T how to drive. Farmers were apparently the worst pupils as they expected a car to behave like a horse – to stay on a course when directed and to steer automatically around any obstacles in its path.
Early Australian Roads
Dust was an enormous problem for early Australian motorists, especially until windscreens became standard issue. Men wore goggles, caps, leather gloves and motoring jackets while women required loose dustcoats of tussore silk or other light materials and scarves or veils worn over their faces to filter the air. The modern wrist watch became acceptable for men to wear at this time as it was too difficult to consult a pocket watch while at the wheel. Hills were taken in first gear and some, such as the old Lapstone Hill Road up the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, was taken in reverse as this gear was lower and the gravity fed petrol could reach the carburettor.
The Model T was to be ideal for Australian conditions. The Australian motoring writer, Pedr Davis, said that it was dubbed the ‘Squatter’s Joy’ because of its popularity, especially with farmers. The simple, lightweight design, which was criticised at first, proved more rugged than its heavier more sophisticated competitors and the 25 cm ground clearance, ability to ride over stumps and being able to go through water made it popular and useful on rough bush tracks. Weighing only 760 kg, the car could be easily righted if it overturned and was extremely economical to run for the time. The car was so reliable and tough that it accomplished a number of cross-country trips to prove the car was a useful form of transport in outback Australia.
One early cross-country journey was by the famous overlander, Francis Birtles, whose 5,600 km journey down Australia from the Gulf of Carpentaria to Port Phillip Bay in 1913 was sponsored by Ford and achieved in a Model T. Birtles was accompanied by his faithful friend, Rex the “wonder dog”, who wore his own special pair of dust goggles. Birtles had to dig the car out of numerous bogs in the Gulf country and sandy creek crossings in the centre. Camping along the way, he caught his own bush tucker and used fuel left in special dumps for the trip. The car was said to be in perfect condition on its arrival in Melbourne and during the trip even won an impromptu race against a British car, which had cost 1,000 pounds to buy. (At the time a Model T with a touring car body only cost 210 pounds).
Advertising the Model T
A Ford advertisement in ‘The Land’ newspaper of 1914 showed how tempted the Australian public were by this amazing little car:
Obey that urge! Do it now! Get a Ford! It’s the one “hunch” on which you can’t go wrong. More than 325,000 owners will vouch for FORD merit Ford simplicity Ford serviceability and Ford economy. Obey that urge! Do it now!
The advertising was obviously working because in 1914 over 100 Fords were being sold per month in NSW alone. The population of the state was only 1.8 million at the time. The Model T was so good it virtually sold itself and all advertising for the car was suspended between 1917 and 1923 with the exception of promotion by local dealers. To demonstrate just how simple the Model T was to construct, Ford technicians assembled a complete car in only 150 minutes during the South Australian Agricultural Show of 1917, a display watched by some 4,000 people. Stunts like these helped to sell the car but it was its low price that was the real attraction.
A Model T was many families’ first car and took car ownership from the rich and privileged to the general public. It was easy to maintain, simple, sturdy and versatile, had interchangeable parts, and was virtually unchanged throughout its long 19-year production run. The car forced many competing manufacturers out of business, including a number of fledgling Australian car makers who could not compete with Ford’s low price. Some dealers were assembling Model T’s better than others so to standardise production, the Ford Motor Co. of Australia was formed in 1925. Assembly of Model Ts was established in a disused wool store in Geelong, Victoria, using a type of production line system.
In all a total of 250,000 Model Ts were sold in Australia and Ford assembly plants were subsequently built and opened in Brisbane, Fremantle, and Adelaide. Known affectionately as “Tin Lizzies”, Model Ts are one of the few cars that over the years have been celebrated in song, legend and folklore. In the words of Ford’s advertising of the day, it was “truly the car for the multitudes – The Universal Car”. In 2001 the Model T was voted Car of the 20th Century by an international jury of 126 automotive journalists from 32 countries.
Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, July 2015
Pedr Davis, ‘the Australian Dictionary of Motoring’, Pedr Davis Pty Ltd, 2001
Margaret Simpson, ‘On the Move: a history of transport in Australia’, Powerhouse Publishing, Sydney, 2004