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Ford's Model T - 100 years old -

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Ford's Model T - 100 years old

The first Model T went on sale in September 1908. Fifteen million cars were made over a period of
twenty years. It was the first production line for cars. John Duncan describes the design, the
materials used and the production methods employed in producing the car. He also talks about the
personality of Henry Ford and how it contributed to the car's success. Peter Hodgson compares the
approach one hundred years ago to today's car manufacture, and the new materials being developed
for cars.


This transcript was typed from a recording of the program. The ABC cannot guarantee its complete
accuracy because of the possibility of mishearing and occasional difficulty in identifying

Robyn Williams: Henry Ford and the Model T, a car that transformed how we live and work. It'll be
100 in September. But let's jump the gun. Professor John Duncan, from the University of Auckland,
has written a new book called Any Colour So Long As It's Black: Designing the Model T Ford. He
spends time every year at Deakin University in Geelong, Victoria, where Professor Peter Hodgson is
a federation fellow, which is where I met them both.

John Duncan: In September 1908 the first Model Ts came out for sale. Altogether they made 15
million over the 20 years, and that's an enormous number.

Robyn Williams: Were they all black?

Peter Hodgson: They started off a different colour, but as the production rose then the real
problem was drying the paint. That was a difficulty in those days, and black paint would dry more
quickly in the ovens. So Henry Ford said, well right, they'll all be black.

Robyn Williams: Before Henry Ford revolutionised everything, how did they make cars?

John Duncan: Well, Model T when it came out in 1908 was manufactured in conventional ways. The
difference was he employed very high strength steels and he employed a really different
revolutionary design. And it was only a few years after that, when people realised that it was a
wonderful car in terms of performance, that the demand was so great that the moving assembly line
and mass production really got going.

Robyn Williams: Where did he get the design from? Was he a genius?

John Duncan: Well he'd had experience over a number of years in making cars. His first one was
1896. He also got involved with racing cars and that was a breeding ground for good ideas. But when
he was asked at one point where his ideas came from, he said, 'Well, I snatch them out of the air.'
And that's probably as good an answer as any.

Robyn Williams: The whole point about Model T is that it's seen to be a process that came off. He
must have been very, very clever at what he was doing.

John Duncan: He was very clever indeed, but he was also very single minded. He made up his own mind
as to what the car would be. He really formed some very good relationships with some very clever
people; Edison, Harvey Firestone the tyre man. These were all brilliant people and he got on well
with them. But he did his own thing, very much.

Robyn Williams: He has the reputation of being something of a fascist. Is that fair?

John Duncan: I wouldn't say that. I think these days you'd probably say maybe he had Asperger's
syndrome or something like that. But the fact is that had he not been like that, there wouldn't
have been a Model T, because it's just an idiosyncratic sort of product, as simple as that. He
thought about what car was needed, not what people wanted but what they needed, and he thought
about how he would design it to fit that need.

Robyn Williams: The reason I was being a bit harsh about his character is a friend of mine called
Robert Lacey actually wrote a biography of him and went to Detroit and lived there for well over a
year. And he was fairly terse about some of the aspects. But one of the things he said was that
they managed not just in an engineering way to revolutionise the system, but also he was insightful
enough to realise that he had to pay his workers enough so that they, themselves, could buy the
cars, and therefore he could have a turnover.

John Duncan: Yes, that's certainly true. Lacey's book is an excellent account of Ford's life. As
far as the $5 a day wage that you refer to, this was a genuine attempt by Henry Ford to pay his
workers as much as he possibly could and still make a reasonable amount of money. And the story is
(whether it's true) but he got a few people together in a room with a blackboard and he sat down
with them for the whole day until they figured out just how much they could pay. And they came out
with the five dollars. It was partly the idea that they should be able to buy his car, but it was
more the idea, well, here's an industry and everyone should share in it.

Robyn Williams: Professor John Duncan. But make no mistake, Henry Ford was strange. Robert Lacey on
the secret of his success.

Robert Lacey: If you'd asked him, he would have told you it was reincarnation. He's a weird spirit,
Henry Ford I. His explanation of his genius is the sort of explanation that gets advanced to
explain someone like Mozart, and why he was playing the piano at five. He said he learned it all in
previous lives.

One of the reasons why he espoused the theory of reincarnation was that in fact he learned a great
deal from his father, with whom he did not get on, and he somehow wished to erase that. In fact his
father, William Ford, who came across from Ireland in the 1840s was a mechanic, a carpenter. He was
the man you went to in Dearborn if a machine went wrong. He was the man who had the latest tools
and he was the man who went to the great exhibitions from the community, to Philadelphia and so on,
the Great Exhibition of 1876, and saw all the new inventions and brought the news back to the
village. Henry Ford came from a technologically minded sort of family.

Robyn Williams: Robert Lacey. Back to John Duncan. What about the assembly line, the process made
famous by Charlie Chaplin? That was linked to Modern Life, you know, where the poor man is being
eaten up by the assembly process himself. How much was that part of the process of Model T?

John Duncan: Well, it came later. Henry Ford designed the car so that it fitted beautifully the
idea of a moving assembly line and different units coming together. People will say that there were
assembly lines other than Henry Ford, before he started there, but the thing to focus on is that he
came up with a unique and a brilliant design, and the performance of the car was very good, and so
people wanted it and the demand became high, and in order to satisfy that demand they just had to
have the new techniques of assembly and manufacture.

Robyn Williams: How did it revolutionise affairs in the United States, what difference did it make?

John Duncan: Well, he did create these vast factories. And the point is that the design started in
1908 and that went for 20 years and then at the end of that time the rest of the car manufacturing
industry in the United States had caught up with Ford, and that was when the car was superseded.
But I think he just led the way and everyone else followed.

Robyn Williams: Peter Hodgson, you're at Deakin University, what's your role in this plot?

Peter Hodgson: Well, the research group here is heavily involved in the future car industry, and in
particular how do we get lightweight materials into modern cars, and the interesting parallel
between the two is that the Model T was the first to use high strength steels. So it was a
lightweight car. And I think that what we're trying to do here is actually revolutionise the car.
As we go through this crisis with fuel and the environment, et cetera, we really are starting to
see for the first time consumers really saying they want to see environmentally friendly cars.

Robyn Williams: So you have lightweight materials, you have different ways of propelling them, I
suppose. Do you anything directly to do with some of the fuels at all?

Peter Hodgson: No, our research here is purely on the body structure, so the materials that go into
the body, high strength steels, lightweight alloys like aluminium and magnesium, and the composite
technologies as well.

Robyn Williams: And how is that going? Is it being applied to any of the cars that are coming off
the assembly line at the moment?

Peter Hodgson: Around the world we are seeing it. I think Australia tends to be a little bit of a
slow follower. But the new models from both Holden and Ford will have high strength steels in them.
But we work also with Volvo, and Volvo probably have led the way in terms of getting high strength
steels into modern cars.

Robyn Williams: And where are they made? I suppose the designs are being done here in the
laboratory, but how are they taken up?

Peter Hodgson: The unique partnership here is that we actually work very closely with the Ford
stamping plant and assembly line, so the research we do here is actually being trialled in the
plant at the same time. And I think that we can do it technically. The issue always gets down to
economics. Can we put these materials into cars in a way which doesn't make the cars too expensive?
This industry is a funny industry. It's massive. There's a lot of capital and a lot of technology
involved, but the margins a car maker makes are very, very small, as we've seen globally, and so
it's almost getting down to does this bit of steel cost five cents more than that bit of steel,

Robyn Williams: And I suppose the sheer scale is against you, and this is what Henry Ford is guilty
of to some extent. You don't just make one or two custom-built cars, you've got to make tens of
thousands of them. And if you make a mistake, going for the wrong line, and in composites you've
got vast numbers of different materials you could use; if you punt the wrong one, you could be in

Peter Hodgson: That is a dilemma. In fact John and I often talk about it at lunch times and at
morning tea, you know, are we caught in a mindset which says you have to make a car this way. Do
you have to use these big stamping presses and assembly lines? And in fact in the 100th anniversary
of the Model T there is actually a design competition which six universities around the world,
including Deakin, are part of. And in fact I think part of that is actually challenging, should we
actually think about the car as it is now. Can we make it in a different way, which again goes back
to the Model could be assembled anywhere in the world, maybe manufactured in different parts
of the world and brought together.

Robyn Williams: So which are the other universities involved?

Peter Hodgson: The universities are Aachen University in Germany, the Arts Centre College of Design
at Pasadena, Deakin, the Lawrence Technology University in Southfield Michigan, and the University
of Michigan in Dearborn, Michigan.

John Duncan: Dearborn, of course, was the home of the Ford museum and Greenfield village. The home
of Henry Ford, too, in his later days.

Robyn Williams: Are there any Model Ts left in Australia?

John Duncan: Well there's 20,000 Model Ts worldwide. And there's going to be a big rally to
celebrate the centenary in Echuca at the end of September this year. And my car is number 262 in
the rally, so it says there's more than that. So there'll be a good number of Model Ts there.

Robyn Williams: What's it like to drive?

John Duncan: Well, it's a little bit different from a modern car. The biggest thing you have to get
used to is it only has two speeds, a low gear and a high gear. And in low gear, you sort of go
along about nine kilometres or 14 kilometres per hour. You take your foot off the pedal and it
jumps into high gear at about 30 kilometres per hour.

Robyn Williams: Speeding along!

John Duncan: Yes. That's a very good example of the way Henry Ford designed a car that would work,
that novice drivers, and so many of them were, couldn't damage the gears or anything else. And he
designed a car that had two speeds, and people said, well, we would like more, but he said, no, two
is what you need.

Robyn Williams: Is yours black?

John Duncan: No, because it was a special deluxe body built by my grandfather. And they used to
paint them in fancy colours. So it's bright yellow. Lovely colour.

Robyn Williams: Fuel-efficient?

John Duncan: Well, no. Those engines are very low compression and not very fuel-efficient, but the
Model T was as good as any other car at that time. But bear in mind, it's a 20 horse power engine
in a car under 600 kilograms. So that's a pretty decent performer.

Robyn Williams: And towards the end of his life, Ford, crusty old fellow...what did you think of
him as he aged and developed his strange habits?

John Duncan: You have to give him credit that when he finally was forced into stopping the Model T
in 1927, then he came out with a Model A which was a successful one, and then in the early 30s the
V8, and that was the first low, reasonable cost V8 engine. And then during the war he had a hand in
building the Willow Run plant that made big bombers as though they were motorcars coming off an
assembly line. A lot of that was done by his son and his colleagues, but you have to give him
credit, he kept in there over a long period of time.

Robyn Williams: Peter, are you going to take part in this celebration?

Peter Hodgson: No. I'm not actually a car enthusiast, I have to admit. I'm probably more a metals
person than an actual car person. This design competition which we're part of, as I said, it's
really about getting the young engineers here thinking outside the box. Can we make a lightweight,
safe, low-cost, pull apart, put back together again type of vehicle? And we've had some
brainstorming sessions here and it's been fantastic to see their ideas. There really have been some
really great ideas by these 18 to 25-year-olds, saying, well, what would I like to do in a car?
Forget about how they're made now. And I think that's where I guess I see my role, as actually
being with them, coaching them and sharing in their pleasure.

Robyn Williams: Professor Peter Hodgson, Deakin University's man of steel, with John Duncan, whose
book Any Colour So Long As It's Black is published here by Exile. More Ford in September.