The Rise of the Automobile
In the early 1920s, over 50% of all cars sold in the United States were Model
Ts, and Henry Ford was an American hero. People liked him because he didn't
put on airs. He chewed on a toothpick, drank soda from a bottle, and liked to
stay at home nights with his wife. Ford was a simple farm boy who made good -- your ordinary American billionaire.
But when people wrote him fan letters, they almost always talked about the car,
the "Tin Lizzie" as it was affectionately called. The Model T liberated millions
of people who had never traveled more than 12 miles from their homes. That's
the distance a horse could go in a single day. Farm women could now jump into
the family Ford and head off to town, anytime they liked. More farmers had cars
than bathtubs. When asked why, one farm wife said, "You can't drive to town in
Ford may have thought of the Model T as everyman's car, but it was every
woman's car too. Women took to the wheel in droves. In Hollywood, a group of
underpaid chorus girls got together to buy a Model T so they could spend their
days off at the beach. And boys started picking up girls at their homes and
taking them for joyrides, moving courtship from the front porch to the back
seat of the family Ford. Ever the prude, Ford tried to discourage this by
making smaller back seats. But with the Model T being a full seven feet high,
couples -- it became the joke -- could make love standing up.
Never was a technology better suited for a country. America was a big,
wide-open place and Americans were a restless people, always on the move. The
car greatly increased American mobility. And in a materialistic society, it
became an instant status symbol. Sex, speed, and status. The car has always
been about the pursuit of that unholy American trinity.
While the car liberated the driver, it enchained the workers who made it. It's
ironic that the challenging, experimental enterprise that produced the assembly
line at Highland Park created a new kind of work devoid of excitement and
challenge. Here is the continuing dilemma of mass production. Speed and
specialization drives down prices. But in democratizing consumption, it debases
At Ford's plants, spotters and foreman enforced regulations that forbade
leaning against machines, sitting, talking, singing, even whistling and
smiling. Ford workers learned to communicate without moving their lips. They
called this "the Ford whisper." And men went crazy from the speedup and the
tedium of the work.
The result was an enormous, hugely expensive labor turnover; almost 400% in the
first year the line was installed. Ford solved this problem with another
radical innovation: the five-dollar, eight hour day. This was when the average
work day was 9 hours and the average industrial wage, $2.45. Workers all over
the country poured into Detroit, and the press hailed Ford as an enlightened
employer. But Ford's fellow industrialists blasted him for undermining the
Ford, however, understood something most of them hadn't figured out yet: that a
mass production economy would grind to a halt unless workers were paid back
enough to buy back the products they made. When Ford's advertising department
brought him a slogan "Buy a Ford, Save the Difference," he changed it to "Buy a
Ford, Spend the Difference." The advocate of rural thrift had certainly altered
his tune. Still, Ford's passion was production, not distribution. Yet this
obsessive preoccupation with production would soon undermine his dominance of
the auto industry.
The River Rouge Plant
President Calvin Coolidge declared that "a man who builds a factory builds a
temple." Ford's Temple of Production was his new River Rouge plant, built in
the 1920s on land he used to explore as a boy, where the River Rouge empties
into Lake Erie. It was designed by the famous architect Albert Kahn, with a
lot of input from Henry Ford. And it was the largest factory in the history of
the world, a self-sufficient industrial city with 93 sprawling structures, 90
miles of railroad tracks, 27 miles of assembly line conveyors, and 75,000
employees, 5,000 of whom did nothing but keep the place clean.
The Rouge fulfilled Ford's dream of controlling every aspect of car making. He
bought iron ore deposits in northern Michigan and Minnesota, coal mines in
Appalachia, and rubber plantations in Brazil. And he shipped these materials to
the Rouge on Ford-owned railroads and Ford-owned ships. Ford made his own steel
at River Rouge, and his own glass. Eight miles of glass a day.
In 1928, Vanity Fair magazine ran a full spread of photographs of the Rouge by
Charles Sheeler. The caption to Sheeler's photograph, "Criss-crossing
Conveyors," describes River Rouge as an "American Altar to the new God of Mass
Production, an architecture symbol that defines America, just as the Pyramids
defined Egyptian civilization."
Notice Sheeler's style. The plant and its technology--the smokestacks, the
furnaces, the conveyors, the severely functional plant buildings--are presented
in clean, precise style--machine art for a machine age monument. And where are
the workers? Hardly anywhere in these pictures. It's the machines, not the men,
who are bringing in the future.
Ford's mind, like Sheeler's, remained fixed on the work, not the workers. None
of his rivals had a better-integrated manufacturing operation. Still, they were
catching up to him. That was because America was changing, but Henry Ford
wasn't. In a sense, Ford dug his own grave.
He had helped make America a nation of consumers, and now style started to
matter more than utility. Upwardly mobile people didn't want the same old Model
T, in basic black; they wanted the kind of long, sleek machines Babe Ruth was
hot-dogging around in, or, at least inexpensive versions of them.
No one understood this better than Alfred Sloan, the head of a giant new
automobile corporation called General Motors. Starting in 1923, Sloan
introduced a line of cars designed for different income levels. GM built
Chevrolets to compete directly with the Model T. But more affluent buyers could
move up to a Pontiac, an Oldsmobile, a Buick, and the quintessence, a
GM's cars came in a variety of alluring colors and with plenty of accessories.
And while Ford refused to sell on time, Sloan introduced installment buying. By
1926, three- quarters of American cars were bought on credit. Sloan also
pioneered the idea of the used car trade-in and the practice of planned
obsolescence; coming out, every year, with a car just a little better than the
previous year's model.
Finally, Ford was forced to capitulate. In 1928, he scrapped the Model T and
introduced the Model A, a sleeker, more luxurious car that came in a variety of
striking colors. It sold well, but it was too late for the Ford Motor Company.
GM passed Ford in sales and remained ahead long after Henry Ford's death in
But there was no stopping the changes Ford had set in motion. By the mid-1920s,
auto manufacturing was the leading American industry and the lifeblood of the
oil industry. And during the 1920s, highway construction was the second largest
item of government spending.