F ord automobiles have had a strong following. Collectors have adored the early Model Ts, venerated the older pre-T models, appreciated the Model A that attracted good sales during the early period of the Great Depression and so on, up to more recent collectibles.
What is it about those Fords that has garnered such admiration?
Brass Model T Fords made before 1915 are fondly collected by serious hobbyists who want to capture a feeling of the bygone age of pioneer motoring, plus the legendary status of the most popular car made in America.
The Ford name is legendary. That’s especially true for vintage cars. Henry Ford made his mark on the psyche of Americans by being a true individualist. He shunned the social life of Detroit; set his own corporate rules apart from the rest of the industry; seemed eccentric with his experiments, ideas and ideals; but most often stuck with his way, regardless of consequences. Americans have always liked an individualist who made good in business.
The Model T
The Ford name on a car carried part of its maker’s mystique. The Model T was individualistic in many ways. It was simple, when most cars tended to be fancy. It was unusual in that it was a low-priced car with a four-cylinder engine. It did not care for styling as much as practicality. Its price dropped and dropped until it cost less than $300 in the mid-1920s. That took place in an era when prices generally edged upward. When small-town garages became dealerships and profits brought wealth to them and the community, the Model T was equated with success. Americans like that, too.
The American ideal likes positive momentum. When the Model T made it big in sales, there seemed no way to stop it. For many consecutive years in the teens and ’20s, sales went off the chart. They were astronomically phenomenal. No one had seen such success in manufacturing up to that time. Buying a Model T became a cult thing. The quaint old jazz song, “Everybody’s Doing It, Doing It, Doing It” was especially appropriate when Model T ownership was the subject.
The Model T not only put America on wheels, but it also put America into a closed car. The Model T was enormously popular with an enclosed body. Granted, the Essex by Hudson and other makes offered closed-car convenience and comfort. But once Ford swung in that direction, the trend was assured in the lower-price field.
Fords had an early reputation of getting you out of a hole ‘ literally. Lightweight with a high silhouette, coupled with good pulling power, the old Fords seemed to plow through mud and ruts with more success than other brands.
Fords were versatile. In the days before permanent anti-freeze, the owner simply drained the radiator and block at night, then poured hot water into the radiator the next morning. The resultant crackling and popping of hot water awakening frozen brass might have been painfully melodic, but it did not seem to harm the car’s operation, at least for the short term. Back then, who ever thought that a Model T would last more than a few years?
Collecting pre-T cars
Enough about the T. Nearly everyone can relate to a Model T, even if it is only through legend. But the earliest Fords are collected for their oddity. Pre-Ts stir a special fascination. Collectors honor the venerable age of early models and examine mechanical advancements toward later Fords. Of special note is the 1903 Ford for being the first of the current company. However, we should not forget that there were previous Fords under two different companies that failed. The second of those basically eliminated the Ford association from any remaining parts and changed the car to Cadillac. So, indeed, Cadillac had its birth thanks to a failed Ford enterprise.
While Mr. Ford’s Quadricycle of 1896 was a crude-but-promising vehicle, only one was made. It is a museum piece today. There have been some versions fabricated by collectors, just to recapture the thrill of the earliest of Fords. Even when people see those facsimiles, they stand in awe that such a contraption was the beginning of Ford.
The legends after the legend
The Model A developed in the late 1920s had a big advantage. The Ford network of dealers and distributors was the mightiest among the mighty, when numbers and dollars counted. Mr. Ford had been slow in offering the Model A; so slow, in fact, that he stopped his production lines for months before the new car was designed, then placed into production. Many dealers barely survived but hung on, since they knew a winner of a car was in the offing. Most were not disappointed. The magnificent Model A Ford was just about everything a car buyer could want in the economy field.
That is, for one thing: A V-8 engine.
My father used to tell the joke, “What did Henry Ford tell his family after dinner?” The answer was simple: “V-8 (vee ate).” I thought it was more of a witticism or a saying, but he said it had been the joke of the age. It was a popular joke, and every time it was told, Henry probably smiled over the free publicity. He did not mind that his cars had, at times, become the butt of jokes and songs and jingles. Each time mentioned, he asserted, might have resulted in a new sale.
The V-8 engine made a mighty big leap when it nestled under the hood of a Ford for 1932. The change was timely. Vikings had V-8s, riding the wave of good response that came from Cadillac’s choice in 1915 to concentrate on the V-type engine. Packard had invested in Twin Sixes (V-12s) around that same time and well into the 1920s, then gave way to the straight-eight, initially popularized by Duesenberg. Continental and Lycoming, two of the nation’s largest producers of automobile engines, had been pushing the straight-eight by 1930. The four had become passe in many respects.
The V-8 in a low-priced Ford put power and performance at the hands of the most timid of drivers, the most ordinary of folks, the least privileged of buyers at a time right before the Depression sank its claws into the muscle of America. The Model A outpaced the Chevrolet six in the minds of buyers, just because of the aura of the eight.
The remainder of prewar Ford design concentrated on styling, interior appointments and, eventually, four-wheel hydraulic brakes (for the longest time, Ford was a holdout, avoiding that feature until the late 1930s, due to the desire of Henry Ford, the story goes).
Truly, Ford held many good cards as it played its corporate hand in the new-car market before 1945. It was a benefit for car collectors today, since Ford’s large-scale production assured a good number of survivors that can still be purchased reasonably and restored without a high-end mortgage on the house.