No country in the world contains more cars. In fact, more than 240 million "horseless carriages" ply American roads. Speedsters race them. The police chase them. For better or for worse, nearly all U.S. citizens embrace them.
Fellow learners, those metallic millions started with Ford--Henry Ford. No, Ford didn't invent the car. But his car changed the way the country moves. Here's how it happened, how Ford got the U.S. auto industry rolling.
Behold, The Bicycle!
Henry Ford was born in 1863 in Dearborn, Michigan, four weeks after the Battle of Gettysburg. As a boy, he had an instinct for gadgets and machines but little use for literature or history, which he considered "more or less bunk." He quit school at the age of 15 and soon headed for the big city.
By the 1890s, Ford had a good job as chief engineer for the Edison Illuminating Company in Detroit, but the ambitious young workaholic had his eye on even bigger things. The nation was caught in a "bicycle craze," and the sight of millions of people wheeling around the country gave Ford ideas. So did the "Silent Otto" internal combustion engine, which he saw demonstrated in Detroit at the decade's start.
Behold, The Quadricycle!
Ever since the debut of the locomotive, inventors had been dreaming of a practical horseless carriage, and Ford was determined to create his own. In fact, others beat him to the punch. By the late 1880s, both Karl Benz and Gottlieb Daimler were building cars with internal combustion engines in Germany. Ford didn't even build the first gasoline-powered car in Detroit. In March 1896, Charles Brady King rolled out his "Tootsie," a wooden wagon with a four-cylinder engine that could move it five miles per hour (8 km/h).
But, in the wee hours of June 4, 1896, after a continuous 48-hour stretch of adjustments and banging away in the shed, Ford unveiled his "Quadricycle" to a bleary-eyed assistant and his wife Clara. Weighing in at 500 pounds (225 kg), the little beauty had a two-cylinder, four-horsepower engine, four bicycle wheels, two driving speeds, no reverse gear, no brakes, and a modified doorbell buzzer for a horn.
Ford's Quadricycle could burn rubber at speeds undreamed of by Charles King: a blistering 20 miles an hour (32 km/h). Elated with his creation, Ford hopped into the driver's seat and prepared to take it for a spin. Unfortunately, it was then that he noticed the shed door was too narrow. No matter. Ford grabbed an ax, smashed a hole in the brick wall, and trundled out. (His landlord was so impressed with the car that he refused payment for the damage.)
Two months later, at the concluding banquet of the 1896 Edison Illuminating Companies Convention, Ford was thrilled to meet his idol, Thomas Edison, whom he considered "the greatest man in the world." Edison asked the young man to explain his machine, and Ford obliged by sketching out the particulars on the back of a menu. Impressed, Edison banged his fist on the table and exclaimed, "Young man, that's the thing! You have it. Keep at it." Later in life, Ford recalled, "That bang on the table meant worlds to me."
Behold, The Model T!
Ford started the Ford Motor Company in 1903 with a group of associates, after an earlier business venture turned sour. By 1907, he and his family controlled the business. The next year, Ford started manufacturing the car that would change the speed, look, and nature of American life: the Model T.
Up to that point, cars were viewed as road-hogging toys for the idle rich. But the Model T was designed to be practical and affordable for everyone. Billboards said, "Even you can afford a Ford." One of the original prophets of mass production, Ford designed an innovative assembly line that helped him keep the Model T's price down. By 1927, its price had fallen steadily from $850 to below $300, wiping out many of the car companies that had tried to compete.
The Model T had a 20-horsepower engine and a top speed of 40 to 45 miles per hour (64 to 72 km/h). Until 1914, it came in several colors, but after that, the speed of the assembly line required the paint to dry rapidly, and only black would do. Ford, famously paternalistic, is supposed to have said buyers "can have any color they want, as long as it's black."
Ford made about 17 million Model Ts and became the largest automobile manufacturer in the world. At one point, a new Model T rolled out of the factory at Highland Park, Michigan, every 24 seconds. Americans now had a vastly increased sense of mobility and independence. Filling stations, parking lots, and highways spread across the country--and hitching posts, carriages, and trolley cars began to disappear.
Eventually, Ford's decision to stick to making one model of car allowed other companies to pass his by. By 1931, Ford had fallen behind General Motors in sales. Still, Ford's ingenuity and business acumen helped drive America into the 20th century. He wasn't always a pleasant man, but in the words of Will Rogers, Henry Ford "changed the habits of more people than Caesar, Mussolini, Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Xerxes, Amos 'n' Andy, and Bernard Shaw." More than anyone else, Henry Ford gave America its wheels.