What the World Owes the Flivver

What the World Owes the Flivver

The Flivver and the Tin Lizzie were nicknames for the Model T Ford developed by Henry Ford. For many years it has been known as “The car that changed the world” and “The car that put America on wheels.”

The Model T was the result of the tremendous creative energy of Henry Ford and his all-consuming passion to “create a car for the multitudes.” Its production brought about innovations in automobile design, manufacturing procedures and methods of conducting business that did definitely change the world. In the process however, Henry became so obsessed with his metal Pygmalion that he almost plunged Ford into bankruptcy rather than move on when the Model T went into decline.

In Henry’s boyhood, cars were status symbols of the wealthy and luxury trumped function. Each car was a hand crafted, custom made product. The wealthy car owners usually employed chauffeurs to drive and maintain their “toys.” Henry dreamed of “building a car for the great multitude.” This car should be well built, economical in price, simple to drive and simple to repair.

He began his dream working nights and weekends in a storage shed behind his house. Here he successfully produced a car, which he first drove in June 1986.

In 1903, he started the Ford Motor Company on Piquette Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. Between 1903 and 1906, the Ford Company built and sold the Ford Model A and Model N. Although highly profitable, these cars were expensive and did not fulfill Henry’s dream. So in 1906, in secret, Henry organized a team and started work on developing the Model T.

They researched, planned and experimented to find the best methods and materials to produce the car Henry dreamed of. They decided to use English valadium steel, new to America but three times stronger and easier to make than the steel in use in American cars at that time.

Then serendipity entered the picture. One of Ford’s men, William C. Klann happed to visit a slaughterhouse and observe animals being cut apart as they moved along a conveyor. The idea struck Klann that if something could be disassembled so quickly and efficiently, you could do the opposite with an automobile. The car would move on the conveyor and each worker would install a part. Speed and efficiency would be gained as each worker performed the same task repeatedly. Klann sold the idea to Ford’s team, which put it into action. This launched another Ford innovation, the automated assembly line. In 1914 a Model T was coming off this line every 93 minutes.

The phenomenal increase in production resulted in fantastic profits prompting Ford to make another innovation, this time in business practice. He reduced the price of the Model T. The idea of price reduction to increase volume was totally unheard of at that time.

Another equally shocking business practice followed in 1914. Ford doubled his employees’ wages and reduced their workday from nine to eight hours. His rationale was they could now afford to buy his cars.

In spite of his innovative thinking in developing the Model T, when sales declined in 1927 as his competition caught up, Ford almost plunged the company into bankruptcy by his reluctance to move on beyond the Model T.

Belmont University Musical Theatre Department presents RAGTIME in Fall 2008. “Henry Ford” is from Ragtime, a musical by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. It features Ben Laxton (’11) as Henry Ford with Deonte Warren (’10) as Coalhouse Walker Jr. amongst the ensemble. Ragtime is a part of Belmont University’s series on The Art of Being Free. The performances took place in Massey Performing Arts Center on November 21-23, 2008 in Nashville, TN.
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