Henry Ford did not invent the assembly line, but his car and moving assembly line were the most famous and memorable.

After inventing the car in 1896, Ford relocated his workshops to Mack Avenue and Piquette Avenue in Detroit.

These first two factories were small-scale structures designed to produce a restricted number of cars. Only in 1913, at Ford’s third factory in Highland Park, did mass production on a large scale commenced.

As seen in these rare photographs, Ford used assembly line techniques in all aspects of car production throughout the factory. The resulting productivity gains and price reductions prompted manufacturers of all types to implement Ford’s innovative manufacturing methods.

Henry Ford declared his intention for the Ford Motor Company in 1907: to build “a motor car for the great multitude.” Automobiles were expensive, handcrafted devices at the time.


The Model T, a simple, sturdy car with no factory options, not even a color choice, was designed by Ford engineers as the first step toward this objective.

The Model T was designed to be durable for service on the rough American rural roads of the time and economical to run and maintain. It was introduced in 1908 and sold over 15 million units before being phased out in 1927.

The Model T was less expensive than most other cars from the outset, but it was still out of reach for the “multitude.”

Ford realized he’d need a more efficient method to produce the car to lower the price. He and his team researched other industries and discovered four principles that would help them achieve their goal: interchangeable components, continuous flow, division of labor, and reducing wasted effort.

Using interchangeable parts meant that the vehicle’s individual components had to be the same every time. In that manner, any valve could be used in any engine, and any steering wheel could be used in any chassis.

This entailed upgrading the equipment and cutting tools used to produce the parts. However, once the machines were adjusted, a low-skilled laborer could run them, thereby replacing the skilled craftsperson who had previously produced the parts by hand.

It needed to be organized to improve the workflow so that as one job was completed, another could begin with minimal set-up time. Ford was influenced by Chicago’s meatpacking houses and a grain mill conveyor belt he saw.

They would spend less time moving around if he brought the job to them. Then he divided the work by dividing the Model T assembly into 84 distinct steps.

Each employee was only taught one of these procedures. Ford hired Frederick Taylor, the father of “scientific management,” to conduct time and motion studies to determine the exact pace at which the work should be done, and the precise motions employees should use to complete their tasks.

Ford’s assembly method had two basic components: a conveyor system and the restriction of each worker to a single repetitive job. Despite its apparent simplicity, the method necessitated extensive planning and synchronization.

As a result, Ford’s cars were produced in three-minute increments, much quicker than previous methods, reducing production time from 12 hours to 93 minutes by 1914 while employing less workforce.

Ford manufactured more automobiles in 1914 than all other automakers combined. The Model T was a huge commercial success, and by the time Ford produced its ten millionth vehicle, Fords accounted for half of all cars on the planet.

Because it was so successful, Ford did not spend any money on advertising between 1917 and 1923; instead, the Model T became so well-known that people assumed it was the standard.

More than 15 million Model Ts have produced at a rate of 9,000 to 10,000 cars per day in 1925, or 2 million yearly, more than any other model at the time, for only $260 ($4,017 today).

In the 1999 Car of the Century competition, the Ford Model T has voted the most important car of the twentieth century, beating out the BMC Mini, Citroen DS, and Volkswagen Beetle.

Ford’s Model T was effective because it offered cheap transportation on a large scale and because the car represented an innovation for the rising middle class and became a powerful symbol of the modernization of the United States.

Ford had another novel idea at the time: workers were also prospective customers. Ford workers’ wages were raised to $5 per day in 1914, an outstanding wage, and they quickly proved him correct by purchasing their own Model Ts.

Other industrialists and professionals called Ford a “traitor to his class,” but he was adamant that well-paid workers would put up with boring work, be loyal, and purchase his cars.

Not only did Henry Ford raise his workers’ wages, but he also reduced the hours they were required to work. Henry Ford reduced shifts by one hour and raised wages for workers.

The reduction in shift length enabled Ford to add a third shift and employ more workers. The assembly line enabled Ford Motor Company to become a 24-hour business.

Fordism arose as a result of the moving production line. Fordism refers to large-scale production coupled with higher wages, and it spread to other industries following Ford Motor Company’s $5 day.

Others followed this move by Ford, transforming the business and manufacturing worlds across the country as workers started to pursue jobs with higher wages and shorter hours.

Ford’s success sparked imitation and competition, but his dominance stayed unrivaled until the mid-1920s when he refused to admit that the Model T had become obsolete.

More luxurious and better-looking cars emerged at prices not much higher than the Model T. These became increasingly accessible to low-income buyers through a growing used-car market.

In Britain, William R. Morris (later Lord Nuffield) attempted to imitate Ford as early as 1912, but British engineering companies were unwilling to commit to large-scale production of automotive components.

Morris sought parts in the United States, but World War I cut short his early attempts. Morris, along with his British competitor Herbert Austin and André-Gustave Citroen and Louis Renault in France, resumed the manufacture of low-priced cars in the 1920s.

British manufacturers had to deal with a tax on horsepower, which was determined using a formula based on bore and number of cylinders.

The result was to encourage the design of small engines with narrow-bore and long-stroke cylinders, as opposed to the wide-bore, short-stroke engines that were popular elsewhere. This design hampered the sale of British cars overseas and stifled production growth.

Even though mass production in the automotive industry coincided with the advent of large-scale business organizations, the two emerged separately.

However, they were related and influenced each other as the business grew. The assembly line needed a significant investment in plant and tooling, and Ford was already the largest single American producer when it introduced the technique.

In turn, the mass producer benefited from the cost advantage, making it increasingly difficult for smaller rivals to survive. There have been outliers, but the overall pattern has been consistent.

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