1914: The Year of the Horseless Carriage

Henry Ford had a lucky number in 1914, and it was 5. The $5 day. A $500 Model T. And a $50 refund for anyone that bought a Model T that year, totaling a cool $15.5 million.

Why?

To say thank you for buying over 300,000 Model T’s in one year, that’s all.

It sure beat Arby’s 5 for $5, or Subway’s $5 footlong.

The 1914 Model was the same as the 1913 model, save for rounded corners on the bottom of the doors. So what changed to make 1914 Ford’s breakout year?

The assembly line. Ford’s men – serious, grim thinkers like Charles Sorensen, with camshafts for brains – had experimented with mass production techniques for years, but it wasn’t until late 1913 that they had a good grasp on how to best maximize production at the company’s spacious Highland Park Plant. The moving assembly line was born, the chassis zooming along the factory floor at a relentless, almost inhuman pace. Ford had to pay the $5 a day to stop pissed off people from walking off the job, but it was worth it.

At the old pay of around $2.25, the car company had an eye-popping turnover rate of almost 300%, worse than even Burger King today. After, working at Ford was a source of pride. Employees wore their Ford badges on the lapels of their Sunday suits. Fordism was a religion and Highland Park was Henry Ford’s sprawling crystal church.

Times were good. Americans were falling in love with sputtering roar of the Model T’s engine. The iPhones of the day, aftermarket modifications ranging from clamp-on dash lights to flower vases sold like hot cakes as buyers put their own stamp on their beloved cars. One owner in rural Oklahoma drove up to 36 men around town on his stripped Model T to show off his new ride.

And it wasn’t just America that was gaga over the Model T. British gentry were sporting tricked out Model T’s with folding windows, and in Korea, locals were using the car to chase off tigers. All Ford had to do now was ride the wave.

Some rival car makers took note. Anderson Electric put out advertisements in 1914 proclaiming its new policy “to make more cars and therefore, better cars than have ever been made by electric manufacturer; to sell these cars for lowers prices than have ever been asked before; to take only a small profit on each car, relying on large volume for an adequate yearly earning.”

Gee, where’d they get that bright idea from?

Still, a typical Anderson Detroit Electric cost a lofty $3,000, and though it got an impressive 80 miles per charge, it had a top speed of maybe 20 miles per hour. Usually, men bought electric cars for their wives – Henry Ford even bought his wife Clara a Detroit Electric 1914 Model 47, probably after one exceptionally rough night on the couch. Polite society of the time reasoned that cranking an engine and checking the gas with a dip stick was too unrefined and complex for a woman.

As an Ohio Electric ad put it: “It is an every-day occurrence for women who have never operated an electric to step into an Ohio and drive away with but a word of instruction.”

Not everyone saw it Henry Ford’s way yet, though. The Wall Street Journal panned Ford’s $5 wage as corporate suicide, and most automakers still believed seductive, high-priced cars were the way to go. The 1914 Winton Six by the Winton Motor Carriage Company was a perfect example. Priced at $3,250, the Winton Six had a whopping six cylinders compared to the Model T’s measly four, and could be factory customized with all sorts of whizbang features.

“It will be a car to command respect and win commendation wherever you may drive it, and you will enjoy personal satisfaction above any you have yet experienced as an automobile owner,” an ad declared. “And that personal satisfaction is, after all, the only real reason for buying any car.

The Winston Six was ahead of its time in that sense, perhaps too ahead of its time. Americans might’ve even agreed with Winston, but in 1914, we didn’t have enough money to buy a car that, if adjusted for inflation, cost about $70,000. The Model T was just enough car, as Henry Ford always said, particularly for the unwashed farm folk that made up over half the country’s population and over half of Ford’s customer base.

Not that it stopped Bridgeport, Connecticut-based Locomobile from dreaming of a more luxurious future. The aptly named company bragged that it never made more than four cars a day, that it preferred quality to Ford’s ubiquitous quantity. Why settle for the Model T’s old-fashioned gas lamps when you could have real Tiffany light fixtures? While Ford was replacing leather with the mysterious “leatherette”, Locomobile was importing French velvet and British broadcloth. That’s class.

1914’s cheapest Locomobile touring car went for $4,400, not a bad price when you consider the bells and whistles. Some rich urbanite must’ve bought it, because Locomobile kept churning out vehicles until the stock market crashed in 1929.

For the time, though, Ford’s Model T was clearly top dog. But the rush, the mad thrill of a car at full tilt, was changing us. Ladies wore risque bathing suits and men, slim trousers. Packard sensed this seismic shift, upping the ante with a ridiculous 12 cylinder engine that bled oil and sex, leaving Cadillac’s shiny new V8 in the dust. The ads said it all:

“The feminine plaintiff in a New York heart-balm action testified that she had been led by the gift of a Twin Six. A Philadelphia girl confessed that a mere ride had been her undoing.”

Even the czar of Russia owned one, Packard assured us.

The year was 1914, and anything was possible.

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