September 27 is a red letter day for transport. Two significant events took place, eighty-three years apart, that revolutionised and democratised the way we get around. In 1825 George Stephenson’s Locomotion Number One became the first steam engine to carry passengers on a public line, the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Within a decade, such was the pace of technological progress, it was obsolete. In the interim, however, it had killed one of its drivers when the boiler exploded in 1828.
The second transportive event, which took place on this date, happened in 1908. That was the appearance of the first ever Model T Ford, which emerged shiny and new from the Piquette motor plant in Detroit, Michigan. It was revolutionary for a number of reasons. Prior to the introduction of the Model T, cars were items beyond the merely luxurious. They were handcrafted, expensive to purchase and costly to maintain. At a stroke Ford’s new brand swept all of that away. The Model T was produced on an assembly line, in far greater numbers than any of its competitors, and was relatively cheap and low maintenance for its time. In his 1922 autobiography My Life and Work, Henry Ford outlined his vision for the Model T. He wrote …
‘ I will build a motor car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one …’
One of the things Ford wanted, for example, was that men who worked on the assembly lines of the Model T could actually afford to buy one themselves. To realise this objective it greatly helped that they were paid a decent wage at a time when industrial unrest was rife and America’s ‘robber baron’ industrialists were often reliant on the National Guard to break strikes.
In its first year of production a modest ten thousand, six hundred and sixty Model T’s were sold. Sales figures doubled the following year and had really taken off by 1917 when almost three quarters of a million units were sold worldwide. The model’s best year was 1923, when Ford shifted around two million of them. Some of those would have been manufactured in the company’s plant in Cork which opened in 1917 to make tractors, but began producing cars in 1921.
But were all fifteen million of them exactly the same colour? Did Henry Ford actually say, ‘You can have any colour you like, as long as it’s black’. The answer to the first question is, ‘no’. As regards the latter question, indeed he did. Once again you need look no further than his autobiography for confirmation. This is how he describes the moment.
‘In 1909 I announced one morning, without any previous warning, that in the future we were going to build only one model, that the model was going to be the “Model T,” and that the chassis would be exactly the same for all cars, and I remarked “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.” I cannot say that any one agreed with me. The selling people could not of course see the advantages that a single model would bring about in production. More than that, they did not particularly care.’
Now even though his name was Henry Ford, despite the fact that he was the undisputed boss, and notwithstanding that his name was attached to the car, he didn’t get his monochrome desire until 1914. Before that date not only did his company produce Model T’s that were grey, green, blue and red, the colour black was not even available. The first black Model T came off the assembly line in 1914 and thereafter, until the final year of production, you could, genuinely, have any colour you wanted, as long as it was black.
By the time production ceased in 1927 a total of fifteen million Model T Ford’s had been manufactured and purchased. The Model T then, graciously, gave way to the Model A, which was available in a variety of shades, to which Henry Ford doubtless turned a colour blind eye
So, while Henry Ford did issue the instruction that all his Model T’s should be monochrome black, that didn’t happen until the seventh year of production. It’s fake history.