While the Model T is perhaps the best-known product ever built by the Ford Motor Co. – and voted the “Car of the Century” by a group of automotive media and experts from around the world, it was actually the Model A that put the company in gear.
And a 1903 Model A Rear Entry Tonneau recently returned home after a circuitous, 109-year journey. Purchased at auction last October but only being displayed by the maker, it’s the oldest known surviving Ford vehicle.
“The timing was perfect to bring this key part of Ford heritage back to the family as we celebrate the 150th anniversary of my great-grandfather’s birth and his vision to improve people’s lives by making cars affordable for the average family,” said Bill Ford, the great-grandson of Henry Ford and the family firm’s current chairman. “His vision to build cars that are reasonably priced, reliable and efficient still resonates and defines our vision today as well.”
While the Ford Motor Co. is now one of the world’s largest automakers, the road to success was anything but smooth for industry pioneer Henry Ford. His first two companies folded and he won backers for a third try only his unlikely victory in an early auto race. He seemed destined to fail, again, when the red Rear Entry Tonneau was sold in July 1903, a month after the carmaker was incorporated.
But three customers came through, including a Chicago doctor and a butter maker from Britt, Iowa. Dairy farmer Herbert L. Nary put down $170 on the Model A, an $850 runabout, car No.3 and chassis No. 30. With a 72-inch wheelbase and a weight of 1,250 pounds, it was capable of producing a whopping 8 horsepower out of its 100 cubic inch engine and could reach a peak 30 miles per hour – if you could find a road smooth enough.
The August 1903 issue of Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal reviewed the Model A and reported that, “When in motion there is a light purring of the gear to be heard if one listens for it; there is absolutely no vibration to be felt; the riding is perfectly smooth and agreeable.”
The Model A has had a total of just five owners over its more than one century run – though that included a Swiss car dealer. Put up for auction last year, it was acquired by Ford Chairman Bill Ford who returned it to the company’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.
About 1,700 of the original Model A series were produced over 15 months. It would be another three years before Ford rolled out the car that were ultimately determine his place in history, the first Model T debuting in 1908. In 1914, Ford’s new plant in the Detroit suburb of Highland Park, Michigan launched production on the world’s first moving assembly plant, arguably one of the most revolutionary inventions of all times – and a technology that ultimately saw the price tag for a Model T drop to as little as $240.
In 1927, the 15 millionth Model T was produced – by then, Ford was assembling half the cars sold worldwide. But Ford was falling increasingly behind his competitors and was forced to shut production down while he retooled for a more modern replacement that, ironically, brought the return of the Model A designation – though it had nothing in common with the original but for the Ford badge.