What It Was Like to Build the Model A, Ford’s Most Popular Car Ever

Ford showed its very first car at the Detroit Auto Show in 1903, the Model A, and it was a success. The mid-size car was produced in the U.S. from 1907 to 1915, and over that time period the Model A registered 27.7 million sales. So it is no surprise that Ford faced tremendous expectations in adapting its popular auto to a gas-powered era.

The Model A was manufactured with a cage-door, was built of 35 pieces and almost completely carbon-fiber. From the outside, the biggest challenge faced by the Model A was making it look like an automobile. Ford used the unique design of the metal cage to give the model an instantly recognizable shape.

Building the Model A was labor-intensive. The battery required to power the transmission was difficult to control and simple machines would deliver barely enough to run the Model A. One company called some of its machines the only “trainable” ones, only capable of traveling a few miles per hour.

But that also meant Ford had to keep its costs low, and this is where the pioneer of mass production came into play. Within two years, it became common for Ford to take hundreds of thousands of vehicles, make a few changes to the engine and mold them to its body. In short, a car was developed from nothing into something that looked like a real car by redesigning every part, down to the final paint finish.

Read our article Why the Model A Was Right 100 Years Ago

Ford developed new manufacturing techniques that might even have saved the company from bankruptcy. Instead of investing the millions in raw materials to develop the Model A’s body or transmission, Ford found factory workers willing to work on her if she were cheap enough. Ford and her designers built a car that could match or beat any other, if properly frugal, Japanese concept car from the time.

But not everything was perfect about the initial Model A, so Ford built a new one.

Although the Model A was built with a steel cage, the original car was crudely made of rope. Eventually, when Ford built a new one, the rope made its way into the engine and transmission and tightened over time, causing problems for the car.

After the collapse of the San Francisco rail system, Ford originally planned to have passengers using horses to carry riders in the Model A. But after Ford’s economics department looked at the cost of that, it was made clear that horseback rides would not be practical.

Ford also planned to have fire engines use the Model A’s E-Mode engine, but these were not commercially available at the time. When those engines became commercially available, Ford halted production, choosing instead to spend those precious dollars on other products. The E-Mode engine is a direct result of a layoff caused by Ford’s poor business practices of 1903 and 1905.

— Story and photo by Andrew Kaczynski

(Published Tuesday, April 25, 2017)

Leave a Comment