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The Twenties
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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 a bathtub."

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.

Labor Conditions

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 work.

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 capitalist system.

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.

Competion Arises

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 Cadillac.

[picture of an early car advertisement]

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 1947.

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.

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