21st Century Ideas in Model T Days

I f someone brings up recycling, alternative energy, environmental awareness and experimental engines in a conversation, you might think the subject was about modern automotive research. Readers might be surprised that all of these topics were active Ford Motor Co. projects during the Model T era.

    Both recycling and alternative energy research were done at Ford beginning in 1913.

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There are many stories about the Model T but not so well-known facts are that Ford Motor Co. experimented with alternative power plants for the Ts during its lifetime, including five and eight-cylinder engines and electric-powered versions of the car.

    The recycling efforts grew out of the success of the Model T and the amount of materials left over from making them. For example, researcher Trent E. Boggess reported in a 2000 article in Vintage Ford that just one new Model T produced 25 steel disc leftovers that could be reused in other ways.

    And the many crates used to ship in parts from various Ford vendors were reused so successfully that by 1924, the company was recycling the equivalent of 90 million board feet of lumber per year.

    By 1913, Ford officials were noting the excess materials that were left from successful Model T production. Henry Ford made the decision to begin a new department to manage the leftover materials. It was the work of the Ford General Salvage Department that made new uses possible from the assembly line scraps.

    Metal excess from fenders, crankcases and more were reused, as was copper, asbestos and wood. Steel, remaining from making transmission clutches, was used again for coil box, timing gear and transmission cover plates. Fender steel scrap pieces were given new automotive life as oil filler caps.

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Ford Motor Co. automotive assembly meant taking large quantities of expensive raw materials at its Rouge River Plant. Long before that plant was built, the Ford Salvage Dept. was created to recycle excess materials and to keep Model T costs down.

    One use for scrap metal that became popular was the pressed steel emergency brake levers in later Model Ts. Asbestos leftovers were used in water inlet and carburetor gaskets. Copper went into new carburetor components. Even scraps from sheets of cardboard used to make tool boxes for new Model Ts were re-used as padding in shipping Model T parts.

    The Salvage Department also repaired and reconditioned all manner of tools in the Ford plants.

    It was one more reason the Model T prices went down as the years went on and Ford Motor Co. gained a reputation for its practicality.

    Had another effort in 1913 been successful, some Fords might have been known in an entirely different manner for their source of energy.

    Electric autos and trucks were well known before the Model T but in 1913, inventors and friends Thomas Edison and Henry Ford thought they could produce a better version of the electric car.

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As this 1914 image of the Highland Park assembly process shows, the Model T assembly operations were very efficient. Model T sales were so strong that the Ford Salvage Dept. briefly rebuilt older Model Ts for resale.

    Edison’s storage batteries had gained a level of popularity and Ford’s Model T was an overwhelming success.

    So a marriage of the two products seemed like a good idea. The outcome was a little known prototype that featured brougham styling, a tiller and worm drive. One might think of it as the Electric LTD!

    The Ford-Edison effort suffered from the dual plagues of many electric car efforts. Its batteries were quite heavy and the car’s range wasn’t practical. So the Ford-Edison electric faded into history.

    By the end of World War I, Model Ts were everywhere in North America and the world. Ford Motor Co. began a program that put some new life into the older flivvers, something that was probably unprecedented in early automotive history. The company set up sub assembly areas to disassemble older Model Ts and to recondition them’recycled Model Ts.

    “Everything was stripped from the car,” recalled Stuart Carmichael, who began to work at Highland Park as a young man and shared his memories with Ford Life in 1971. “They would put the old frame on an assembly line just like a regular car. They would put a reconditioned engine and all the parts into it  and return it to the dealer to sell as reconditioned car.”

    Carmichael recalled the reconditioned Model Ts were priced at approximately $700 and their engines had been tested, delivering even better gas mileage than new cars.

    “The bugs were out of them,” Carmichael noted.

    While the full-car recycling seemed like a good idea, it did turn two factions against Ford Motor Co. for a short time. One was scrap iron dealers because for a time, the company demanded that dealers sell older or junked cars back to the company exclusively.

    And General Motors-controlled parts vendors also began putting the squeeze on Ford. In just a few years, the factory recycled Model Ts and the factory disassembly and reconditioning efforts went away.

    Environmental awareness was another side effort of the early Ford automotive culture. Henry Ford and his companions, as well as son Edsel, made every effort to get out and drive their cars to new locations. Their cars became, in effect, early recreational vehicles that took them to new locations for camping weekends and extended vacations.

    Ford Motor Co. films and publications documented those trips and also showed people throughout the United States and Canada that there were new wonders that they could explore in every direction in their Model Ts. No longer did people have to dream about seeing the wonders of nature. It was now possible to plan their own trips.

    And intrepid Model T adventurers found new ways to use their vehicles. There are many stories of Model Ts made into campers and mini houses. Some were made by the owners but component makers also found ways to couple tents and kits to the Model Ts. One company specialized in something called  the Telescope Apartment, a set of portable add-ons that could be folded out into camping units with plenty of storage and even a shower stall.

    While the electric Ford-Edison efforts were unsuccessful, the company didn’t stand pat. In the 1920s, Ford Motor Co. began looking at new ways to power the Model T. And both a five-cylinder engine and an X-8 configuration were considered.

    The five-cylinder engine proved to be quite unbalanced but the X-8 went further in testing. Versions of the X-8 were produced in air-cooled and liquid-cooled versions. According to one account, Ford researchers mounted an X-8 in an Oldsmobile for testing.

    The downfall of the X-8 included oil circulation, a high crankshaft, water and dirt problems on lower spark plug locations and overall weight.

    The venerable Model T four could have seen a more modern engine during its tenure. Instead, Ford research went forward with a practical V-8 engine, introduced in 1932.

    History often shows us that what some think of as new trends and concepts have often been tried in the past. That’s certainly true of some of the most modern concepts in automotive research of the 21st century. They were all part of the Model T era of automotive history.

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