By Matt Schmitz on September 30, 2013
Time was, transporting car bodies for assembly at the manufacturing plant required horsepower — not the unit of energy an engine exerts, mind you, but actual horses making large deliveries.
A century ago — on Oct. 7, 1913 — an innovation at Ford Motor Co.'s facility in Highland Park, Mich., not only revolutionized the car-building process but helped change the landscape of the nation forever: the moving assembly line.
The first car to roll off the line 100 years ago next week was the Model T, which had debuted five years earlier as part of Henry Ford's goal of bringing the automobile to the masses. Despite those egalitarian aspirations, the Model T remained too pricey for the majority of Americans to afford. With the efficiencies and cost savings resulting from the moving assembly line passed on to the consumer, Model T prices dropped from $600 in 1912 to $360 by 1916, and even more in subsequent years as automated assembly improved.
"By bringing the work to the men, Ford engineers managed to smooth out differences in work pace," according to the automaker. "They slowed down the faster employees and forced slower ones to quicken their pace. The results of mass production were immediate and significant."
Before moving assembly, teams of workers put cars together one at a time atop sawhorses, rotating from one station to another, with the chassis remaining in the same place until completion; frequent late parts deliveries caused traffic jams of workers trying to complete their portion of the process, resulting in production delays, the automaker stated. Consulting experts from varying backgrounds, Henry Ford's development team combined the influences of industries like canning, brewing and steelmaking to create the world's first moving assembly line. The first incarnation used a winch and a rope (later a chain) stretched across 150 feet of an open space on the factory floor, along which 140 assembly workers were stationed, installing different components as the chassis was dragged across the floor.
Although crude, that landmark line would result in man hours for final assembly plummeting by three-quarters to just three hours; by the following year that elapsed time dipped to 90 minutes, thanks to the advent of the power-drive "endless" conveyor system. At its peak of production, a Model T was being built every 24 seconds. By 1916, Ford's Model T output had spiked to more than 585,000 — about seven times the number built in 1912. By 1927, Ford had produced more than 15 million of the affordable Model T — nearly half the world's cars at the time — which, according to History.com, spurred a migration from the farm to the big city along with widespread industrial innovation in the U.S.
"Henry Ford believed that a company should make more than just profits, that it also should make people's lives better. To do that, he believed in the power of innovation — finding new ideas and better ways of doing things," the automaker said in a statement.
News Editor Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers. Email Matt