On March 19, 1908, the Ford Model T was announced. Although the car would not begin shipping until September of that year, the response to the announcement was enthusiastic. One agent wrote, “we have rubbed our eyes several times to make sure we were not dreaming,” and another exclaimed, “It is without doubt the greatest creation in automobiles ever placed before a people, and it means that this circular alone will flood your factory with orders.”
Although the Model T is generally associated with the assembly line, the car was in fact not built on assembly lines until 1913, five years after its introduction. (Although production was from the beginning designed with a strong focus on efficiency.) The assembly line was initially used for making components–first the magneto, the labor content of which was cut from 20 man-minutes to 5 man-minutes. Next was the transmission cover–18 minutes reduced to 9–and then the engine–594 minutes to cut 226. Finally, line-based chassis assembly was tried. In the initial attempt, six assemblers followed the slowly-moving chassis, picking up appropriate parts at each location. This reduced the chassis assembly labor from 12.5 man-hours to just under 6. Next, the line was changed so that the workers would stay in place, thus making each task more specialized. By April 1914, chassis assembly time was down to 1.5 man-hours per car.
Workers mostly didn’t like the new system, and turnover soared. It was this distaste for assembly-line work, as well as the desire on the part of Ford and his partner James Couzens to be perceived as enlightened employers,that led to the famous five-dollar-a-day pay rate. For the first time, it was possible for a person making automobiles to have a realistic prospect of owning one.
In early 1914, the wife of a Ford assembly worker wrote anonymously to Henry Ford:
“The chain system you have is a slave driver! My God! Mr Ford. My husband has come home & thrown himself down and won’t eat his supper–so done out! Can’t it be remedied?…That $5 a day is a blessing–a bigger one than you know, but oh they earn it.”
Jobs like this are now referred to nostalgically by politicians and social critics as “good jobs”–and indeed, they were and are in many ways. It’s interesting to note, though, that there is almost a century’s worth of social criticism which attacked assembly line work as dehumanizing and specifically as a creator of anomie.
Here is the price history of the Model T–note that the price of the touring model fell from $850 initially to $290 in 1925. See also this analysis of the prices in terms of manufacturing learning-curve theory is here–note the linearity of the inflation-adjusted prices on the log-log scale. (p 39 & 40)
More Model T information here.
The information on assembly line productivity, and the quote from the Ford worker’s wife, are from the book From the American System to Mass Production, 1800-1932, by David Hounshell.