Tough Guys and Pretty Boys:

The Cultural Antagonisms of Engineering and Aesthetics in Automotive History

by David Gartman

The Utilitarian Vision of Henry Ford

The automobile entered the American scene around the turn of the century as an expensive toy for the rich, for its high price ($600 up to $7500) put ownership beyond the reach of all but the affluent. Wealthy families like the Vanderbilts and Rockefellers used their cars not as utilitarian transportation but as objects of sport and display in a leisured lifestyle. The rich conspicuously displayed their wealth by racing, parading, and touring their expensive vehicles in public. The bodies of these early automobiles also displayed their good taste, for they were works of the coachbuilding art. Designed and built separately by the skilled craftsmen of coachbuilding firms such as Brewster, Fleetwood, and Judkins, the bodies of these cars were molded into fashionable forms and finished with layer after layer of lacquer paints. Above all, the early American car was testimony to the freedom and wealth of the privileged few.

Early on, however, automotive pioneers like Henry Ford saw the potential for the auto as a tool of mass transportation in a nation of great distances. The farm boy Ford was motivated originally by a desire to lighten the toil of farmers and help them haul goods to market. In 1908 his Ford Motor Company introduced a car for the masses, the Model T. It was the epitome of a no-frills utility vehicle--light, sturdy, plain, stripped of accessories, and selling for the low price of $825. In order to build his utility car cheaply, Ford pioneered mass production, combining elements invented by other industries and individuals into a new system of manufacture. He took the skilled crafts that dominated the early automotive production process and divided them up into simple, individual tasks, which could be performed by unskilled workers using specialized machines. Then he laid out these tasks in closely spaced production and assembly lines. These lines increased productivity by minimizing the amount of time and labor spent hauling work between dispersed tasks. But they also increased work intensity by transferring the control that workers once exercised over the speed of work to managers. Since the unskilled workers employed by these new methods were also cheaper and more plentiful than skilled craftsmen, mass production greatly lowered the costs of manufacturing automobiles. But to achieve the high volumes required by these methods, cars had to be standardized to a few simple models, and their parts had to be designed specifically for rapid, mechanical production. Thus, in 1910 Ford dropped production of his other two models and produced only the Model T for the next seventeen years.

With the rise of mass production, the task of designing the auto body was taken away from coachbuilders and their aesthetic traditions and given over to body engineers, whose main concern was the cost-cutting production of strong, durable shelters for the human occupants of cars. They redesigned the coachbuilt body for these criteria, resulting in mass-produced cars like the Model T that were flat, square, black, and fragmented in appearance. The flatness and rectilinearity were dictated by metal presses and welding machines, which had difficulty stamping and welding the curved panels characteristic of coachbuilt bodies. The unintegrated, fragmented look resulted from quick assembly, which allowed little time for close fitting and finishing. And with respect to paint, Henry Ford dictated that customers could have a Model T in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. This was not because he was chromatically bigoted, but because he sought the quickest and cheapest method of painting cars. The craft method of finishing coachbuilt bodies required up to twenty coats of lacquer paint and a month to complete. Ford pioneered a method of flowing on enamel and quickly drying it in mechanized ovens, which reduced the requisite time to about four hours. The only drawback was that high oven heats changed all color pigments, except black.

So Ford's Model T was not only cheap, but it looked cheap as well. But this mattered little to most Americans of modest incomes who bought them, for they were looking mainly for a cheap, reliable, and efficient way for getting from one place to another. And Henry's little tin lizzie fit this bill to a T. They sold in droves. By 1923 mass-production efficiencies had lowered the price to a mere $265, and half of the autos in the entire world were Model Ts. Ford ruled the automotive world with an iron fist.

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