Henry Ford’s Model T and its impact in Australia

This 22 hp, 4-cylinder Model T Tourer was made at Ford’s Walkerville factory, Ontario, Canada, in 1916. Ford Canada supplied cars to the British Empire. MAAS collection, B727-1

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.)

Detail of Ford Model T motor car made at Ford's Walkerville factory, Ontario, Canada, in 1916, MAAS collection, B727-1
Detail of Ford Model T motor car made at Ford’s Walkerville factory, Ontario, Canada, in 1916, MAAS collection, B727-1
Detail of Ford Model T motor car made at Ford's Walkerville factory, Ontario, Canada, in 1916, MAAS collection, B727-1
Detail of Ford Model T motor car made at Ford’s Walkerville factory, Ontario, Canada, in 1916, MAAS collection, B727-1

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.

Great Western Road. Site of deviation at foot of Lapstone Hill, photograph taken before 1946, State Records NSW collection, Series 20224
Great Western Road. Site of deviation at foot of Lapstone Hill, photograph taken before 1946, State Records NSW collection, Series 20224
Looking north along George Street (with tram, T-model Ford and hansom cab) from Union Line Building, corner Jamieson Street, taken around 1920 by Sam Hood, State Library of NSW collection, PXE 789
Looking north along George Street (with tram, Model T Ford and hansom cab) from corner of Jamieson Street, taken around 1920 by Sam Hood, State Library of NSW collection, PXE 789

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.

Francis Birtles and his dog in his Model T outside Tarrant Motors in Victoria around 1910, State Library Victoria collection, H99.100/87 (detail)
Francis Birtles and his dog in his Model T outside Tarrant Motors in Victoria around 1910, State Library Victoria collection, H99.100/87 (detail)

Frances Birtles

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 21st Century by an international jury of 126 automotive journalists from 32 countries.

Post by Margaret Simpson, Curator

References

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

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7 responses to “Henry Ford’s Model T and its impact in Australia

  • H i
    very interesting piece on the model T . another interesting car in the collection is of course the Sheffield Simplex
    only 3 of which are reputed to be left in the world, as a volunteer at the Discovery centre Castle hill I have had a particular interest in this car as it was built in my hometown of Sheffield in the U K ,I made a visit to the other 2
    Simplex cars whilst in Yorkshire last year and although the Kelham Island museum in Sheffield was closed on the day of my visit because of my trip from Australia and particular interest in the car I was treated to meeting with the car and a curator, some very interesting stories of the flood which nearly claimed the car when the
    river Don flooded the museum a few years ago and the staff in the middle of the night had to push the Simplex up a 40 metre ramp out of harms way where it now lives safely on the top floor.
    While I was in yorkshire I was able to make contact with Mr John thring the owner of the other known Simplex and to my delight he invited me to accompany him on a trip to meeting of the Veteran Car Club in the
    Simplex the drive was some 50 miles from his home in Pontefract to the meeting and although the weather was
    typical Yorkshire it was an experience I would not have missed for the world,the history of Mr Thring”s car is very interesting and is the subject of something I hope to develop in the future .
    Thanks for the Ford article we certainly need the history of the motor car in Australia .

    Len Palmer volunteer Discovery Centre Castle Hill

    • Hi Len,
      I am pleased you liked the post on the Museum’s Model T. What a wonderful experience you had seeing the other two Sheffield Simplex cars in Britain even to riding to a car club meeting in one as well!

  • Thanks for this post on the Model-T, I found it most interesting indeed. I recently discovered that my grandfather, Edward Wilkinson, was one of the first mechanics to set up a garage for servicing the Model-T Ford in Sydney, sometime around 1920. I believe it was in Beamish Street, Campsie. Apparently, his business was quite busy as there were very few garages servicing this vehicle and many of his customers traveled considerable distance, some from the opposite side of the Harbour and further north.

    Ironically, some time later he was struck down by a model-T (driven by an intoxicated driver) while walking home along the side of the Hume Highway at Chullora. He was hospitalised for a considerable time as he had suffered extensive injuries to his legs. Since there was no insurance/third party at this time he lost his business in Campsie and was unable to work again which made for severe hardship for his wife and his family of six children during what has become known as the Depression Years in Australia.

    • Thanks for your interest in our blog. Thank you for the information about your grandfather’s garage. Sorry to hear about his injury later in life.
      Tilly Boleyn, curator and blog editor

  • I have been told that my father was the first farmer (orchardist) to own a T Model Ford in outer Melbourne area of Wonga Park in the mid 20’s.
    The story goes that he drove the car home sitting on a kerosine case on top of the petrol tank. Later another local orchardist assisted lifting the cab on. I was therefore interested to see that they were sold in a DIY kit so I assume this story is possibly correct. Can you clarify please

  • Does any one know whether Model Ts were commonly used around Birdsville. My wife;s grandparents lived near Beetoota 165km east of Birdsville. Between 1910 and 1920 when her husband was drowned in the Diamintina River she had 5 children and two were born in Adelaide. There were coaches to Marree and the train to Adelaide From Beetoota to Marree/hergott Springs is nearly 700 km, I believe that her husband had a car. I suppose that the question I am really asking is does any one know when buses would have been used on the Birdsville Track. Her husband may have driven her but we just do not know

  • I can’t answer this directly, but the Model T was used extensively in all outback areas – as a couple of examples, the first car in Alice Springs was a Model T police car in the 1920s (“A son of the red centre”, Johannsen, 1992), and one was used by Hudson Fysh in route preparation from Brisbane to Darwin for Ross & Keith Smith’s flight from the UK in 1919. But any cars, including Model Ts would have been rare before the post WW1 period – few wanted or could afford them before the war, and few were available during it.

    (Our ‘family car’ was a Model TT from 1939 – 1950, and I started to learn to drive on it when I was about 12)

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