The first Ford Model T left the factory in 1908. An incredible 15 million of them would be built, but after almost two decades of the same car, the public was clamoring for something new. Change was in the wind by the mid-1920s, but it took its time to make an actual appearance.
Henry Ford may have innovated the automotive assembly line, but he was hidebound in lots of ways. He resisted updating his famous flivver, and by 1926 it was hopelessly outmoded. The car still came with a manual crank, for gosh sakes, even though Cadillac introduced the electric starter way back in 1912. Hydraulic, four-wheel brakes were another great invention that Henry spurned, at least until 1919. The Model T’s four-cylinder engine produced an anemic 22.5 horsepower, as it had for years, when the competition had 30 or more, and Chevrolet was developing a more powerful six.
The Model T peaked at 1.8 million sales in 1923, and started declining. In 1927, just 399,725 found homes. And that was before the Depression. But Henry was still maintaining that the T was a perfect car, which would last its owner a lifetime if properly serviced. The company’s dominance was starting to slip: in 1924, the company had two-thirds of the American car market; by 1926 it was only half. Something had to be done.
Luckily, there was a forward-looking member of the family—Edsel. It’s unfortunate that Henry’s son is remembered for a 50s flop (that he never even saw) because he was an innovator. He left the world with such classic Lincolns as the Zephyr, Continental and Mark II, and he launched Mercury, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
Edsel Ford finally got Dad to go along with a new car, the Model A (never mind that there had already been a Model A). Precipitously declining sales finally brought the old man around. Edsel got to style it, and styling was his forte. A new chassis, engine and transmission were also planned. It seems like peanuts now, when new models cost billions to develop, but the Model A’s $100 to $250 million gestation was staggering at the time. Part of the bill was moving production to the huge Rouge plant in Dearborn, from Highland Park. Also, 36 North American plants had to be converted from the T to the A, and a dozen abroad.
Meanwhile, the dealers were going nuts because they wanted the new car they'd been hearing about. For the time, 125,000 deposits was impressive (the Tesla Model 3 drew 350,000). The transition was painful as plants were idled. Rumors flew about the attributes of the new car. Would it have that new V-8 that Henry was tinkering with?
No, it didn’t, though Ford delivered a V-8 soon enough, in 1932. As you may recall, it was John Dillinger’s getaway car of choice.
On May 26, 1927, Henry Ford telegraphed dealers, “Starting early production entirely new Ford car… superior design and performance to any now in low price light car field.” It was all pretty secretive. The dealers were told, “At present I can only say this about the new model—it has speed, style, flexibility and control in traffic…The new car will cost more to manufacture, but it will be more economical to operate.” There were spy photographers then as now, and a few managed to get fuzzy shots of the new model, but actual news was in short supply.
A long, hot summer followed. The first pilot Model A was built on October 21, 1927, and the introduction was December 22 of that same year—with as many as 10 million people (a tenth of the American population) lining up at showrooms to see it. What a Christmas present! Finally, Ford buyers got a proper three-speed transmission (the Model T’s three speed counted reverse), four-wheel brakes and hydraulic shocks. Here's the Model A introduction in a period newsreel:
Other long awaited features included safety glass, better fuel economy, and a 40-horsepower 200-cubic-inch uprated four capable of 65 mph. Body types were sport coupe, coupe, roadster, phaeton, two- and four-door sedan, and truck. Ford loved telling his customers that they could have any color as long as it was black, but the Model A could be had in Arabian Sand, Dawn Gray, Niagara Blue and Gun Metal Blue.
Henry had, they said, made a lady out of Lizzie. Here's the song to prove it:
Did it sell? Do polar bears live in the Arctic? They took orders for 400,000 in the first two weeks, on top of the 125,000 they already had. See the photo above of Henry Ford driving the 20 millionth built. He looks like it was his idea. Ford never gave Edsel his due, and the poor guy died young, in 1943 (of stomach cancer).
The Model A lasted only until 1931 (making way for the V-8), but five million were built. The car was a triumph, even if its introduction was somewhat botched. The Model A is now valued about $25,000 to $30,000 in excellent condition, making it a nice entry-level collectible. Prices are low because, well, they built a lot of them. Model Ts are cheap, too.