- The Model T: A Centennial History
Henry Ford’s Model T is considered the most important automobile of the twentieth century. It achieved that status not merely through long production (1908–27), but by influencing people to adopt automobility, a process that transformed the world. Thus the question of how, exactly, a machine could be so important is, or ought to be, of interest to all historians. The fact is, of course, that few historians have detailed interest in or training in the technical details that underlay the Model T’s success, just as fewer Americans in general have direct personal knowledge of the car and maker that their predecessors made iconic and turned into a household name. We live in a time when everyone, it seems, knows the Model T as a name, but fewer and fewer know why they know it. What’s needed is a book to inform scholar and layman alike, in a succinct and “accessible” way, what they need to know and why they need to know it, about Henry Ford and the Model T.
That book is Robert Casey’s. If the phrase “necessary and sufficient” could be applied to the Model T, as summarizing the engineering and marketing ideas it embodied, the same could be said of Casey’s centennial history of the T. This slender book is a splendid tutorial. Assuming very little knowledge on the reader’s part of the context in which the Model T was developed, built, and sold, Casey seamlessly knits together the key strands of the T-tale with relaxed but highly informative prose that results in a very enjoyable story very well told. In six short chapters—“Automobility in 1908,” “Creating the Model T,” “Manufacturing the Model T,” “Selling the Model T,” “Owning and Driving the Model T,” and “The Meaning of the Model T”—Casey manages to condense what could easily be a hefty tome into a short but lively narrative.
The brilliance of the Model T, as Casey shows us, derives in large part from the ways in which Ford meshed engineering and aesthetics to create a machine that enabled people not merely to travel differently, but to discover that they wanted to travel as only a motorized vehicle could allow. Casey puts it perfectly when he writes (p. 10) that “the sheer joy of controlling a powerful, rapidly moving machine proved irresistible to many,” and that was only, as he puts it, one of the “things car owners hadn’t known [End Page 237] they wanted to do” (orig. emphasis). Too often, people say of the Model T that it succeeded because of its strictly utilitarian qualities, ignoring the profound ways in which it expanded the experiential and aesthetic world for those who drove it. To make clear for modern readers just how novel driving the Model T was, chapter 5—“Owning and Driving the Model T”—is alone worth the price of the book, for it puts the reader in the car and the context with just enough detail to ensure understanding how different the Model T was then, as it is, again, today. For example, as Casey writes (p. 99), “Driving a Model T or any open car of this era is a visceral experience. The noise is constant: the engine and transmission whine, the body rattles, the top flaps, the wind blows. You are always aware of your environment: temperature, precipitation, road dust, and outdoor smells. . . . You must actively drive this car.”
Although Casey’s day job is as the John and Horace Dodge Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford, and thus he might be thought by the terminally cynical to be a “house” historian where it comes to the Ford/Model T story, his book does include discussion and details of the less-desirable consequences of the Model T’s success. He writes of Ford’s labor issues, and he highlights the questions that Ford himself had in his later years over what he had wrought by bringing the Model T to...