Henry Ford and the Moving Assembly Line

Henry Ford’s Goal

Across the globe, an approximate sixteen Ford cars are built every sixty seconds. If I’m doing my math right (and by that I mean if Google is doing my math right) that would mean that Ford can build a car in under four seconds! I’m totally joking, that’s not how it works, though that would make for fun factory tours. No, the real way that car companies are able to produce at such a swift rate is of course by utilizing moving assembly lines (and multiple of them, even the fastest assembly line couldn’t put a car together in four seconds). Before moving assembly lines, each car took around twelve hours to build, and due to the inefficiency of production, cars were only affordable for the wealthy. Henry Ford wanted his cars to be accessible to the general public. He saw a world with streets free from horse poo, and he wanted to help make it a reality.


The Model T

In the company’s early years, they produced cars named after letters, the first of course being the Model A. By 1907 they were selling Model Ks, though it seems they may have skipped a few letters to get there. The Model K sold for $2,800 dollars, which of course was a lot more money then than it is now, otherwise, my bank account wouldn’t make me feel such deep shame. The Model T was introduced in 1908 and was an immediate success. Also called the “Tin Lizzie” by people with curled mustaches and pocket watches, the Model T was widely hailed as the first affordable automobile at $850. Thanks to the invention of the moving assembly line in 1913, prices for the Model T dropped to below half that by 1916 as Ford fine-tuned his system.


The Assembly Line

The first moving assembly line used a rudimentary system that had a winch and rope pulling the car along the floor, which sounds a lot more ridiculous than it looks (probably because the word winch is so goofy). Even then it was a massive improvement in efficiency compared to the previous system, wherein two to three people would just sit and assemble a single car over the course of around twelve hours. Henry Ford’s assembly line simplified the entire manufacturing process of the Model T down to 84 individual steps that would be executed by a team of workers as the vehicle was pulled down the line, almost like a giant moving Lego set. In 1914 a mechanized conveyor belt was added to the system, and a $5 daily wage was introduced as a way to inspire loyalty in employees and ensure that they could afford the cars that they spent their days building.



The $5 a day was enough to combat the job absenteeism that ran rampant through parts of the early 20th century, and with a loyal and motivated workforce, production could only get better. The term “Fordism” was coined as a way to describe this method of delivering low-cost goods for consumers along with high wages for workers, and it quickly caught on, and in more than just the automotive industry. Refrigerators, toasters, vacuum cleaners, all manner of consumer goods manufacturers began using moving assembly lines, and before long they had become the standard in American production. Even today, Fordism is considered the basis for economic and social systems in mass production industries.


Fun Fact!

Early automobiles still utilized a good deal of wood, and the production of the Model Ts yielded a fairly hefty amount of wood scraps. Rather than throw these stumps, branches, and piles of sawdust away, Ford decided that they should be turned into the largest tree fort of all time. I make that claim with zero proof beyond the raw fact that no human being when in control of that much wood, could possibly resist the fantasies of a badass treehouse. He must have had an iron will, though, because in the end, Ford had the wood processed into charcoal. With help from none other than Thomas Edison, a charcoal briquette factory was erected, and for years Ford sold charcoal to smokehouses. Decades later, backyard barbecuing became a household norm and an investment group bought Ford Charcoal, renaming it Kingsford Charcoal after Ford’s cousin-in-law who helped to oversee the business. And yes, that name does sound familiar, and that’s because they’re still around helping you cook up juicy burgers to this day.


Ford and The World Wars

Henry Ford was a pacifist, but following a peace mission to Europe in 1915 he would end up supporting the war effort, using his factories to produce boats, cannons, trucks, and a number of other wartime products. Allied Forces used the Model T as a base for multiple military vehicles such as ambulances and supply trucks, and two Model T engines were even used in a prototype tank that only saw fifteen models produced. Later, during the Second World War, Ford built a factory in Detroit that would be used to build B-24 bombers for the Allies, producing one plane nearly every hour, 24/7. Despite all this, Ford detested violence, and often worried about war profiteering. He also totally reminds me of Iron Man’s dad. Remember Iron Man’s dad? When he was in the first Captain America? He had a mustache. No? Oh well.



By 1919, Ford was responsible for 50% of cars in America, and 40% in the UK. Any automotive manufacturers that couldn’t keep up with the technological innovations being made in production methods went bankrupt, and of the two hundred car companies that existed in 1920, only seventeen were left by 1940. The Model T remained Ford’s primary production model through 1927 until innovation inevitably forced technology forward. It was awarded the title of most influential car of the 20th century in 1999, and even today it sits within the list of top ten most sold cars of all time, proof that Henry Ford’s goal to build affordable cars for the masses was a resounding success. And when was the last time you saw horse poo on the road?