TBT: This is What Model T Production Looked Like Before the Moving Assembly Line

Oct 12, 2023

The first week of October always brings two of the most significant anniversaries in Ford Motor Company history: the introduction of the Model T on Oct. 1, 1908, and the introduction of the moving assembly line on Oct. 7, 1913. Though five years apart, the two dates are inextricably linked, as the latter hastened production and reduced the cost of the revolutionary universal car.

The early automotive assembly process was a stark contrast to a Ford facility today. Teams of workers toiled at separate stations, assembling parts and entire automobiles atop workbenches and sawhorses using parts delivered by stock runners. Workers often went station-to-station to complete specific tasks. 

A streamlined process was needed to make mass production of the Model T a reality. Henry Ford consulted with experts from other industries which were already using moving assembly operations. At one point, he and his team even studied the meat packing process of a Chicago slaughterhouse.

The concept of moving assembly was first used in the subassembly process for building essential parts, such as engines. Engine assembly at Highland Park around 1910 required parts brought into the shop by various means, which were scattered around the work area. The workers would retrieve the parts to bring them back to their workbenches, each of varying size and number of occupants, often creating traffic jams. 

We used to have our bolts over here, our spacers over here, our flywheels over here, our gears over here, our separate gears over here, our drums over here; and you’d constantly have to go get this piece and that piece.
William Klann
Former Foreman of Engine Assembly

Already in place in other industries, the idea to implement conveyors at Ford is believed to have originated with the transport of sand needed for mold-making performed in the plant’s foundry. The concept quickly spread around the factory by 1912, and while accounts of the first application in part assembly vary, items such as the magneto coil, which previously was wound by hand, was among the first to benefit around April of 1913. At the same time, assembly tasks were also being rethought, adding additional support to some and removing personnel from others, in order to speed the process. 

An experimental, rope-drawn moving assembly line drew skepticism, but it would be a precursor to the moving assembly line. Each Model T was tied up at the front axle and pulled along by a hand-operated windlass, as engineers added various chassis components at different intervals. When completed, Model T assembly now took less than three hours – a drastic improvement from the more than 12 hours required with the traditional stationary assembly system. By April 1914, assembly time had been further reduced to just 93 minutes, as three assembly lines were being used. 

In January 1914, the rope was replaced with an endless chain and tracks that moved the car along. The speed of the line, underpinned by parts that met exact specifications, was fine-tuned over the next few years to regulate each worker’s pace, as well as their optimal positioning. In addition to conveyors and chutes, the assembly line was also fed by arrangements like an overhead monorail system and a system of butcher’s hooks that delivered wheels. 

The moving assembly line approach would be put to the test during World War I, as the Highland Park plant was converted for the wartime production of items, such as shell casings, Liberator engines, steel helmets and ambulances. The concept was so effective it was quickly adopted even by smaller automakers, as well as manufacturers of other consumer products.

The drastic time savings allowed Ford to produce more Model Ts for less, dropping the price of the vehicle from $600 in 1912 to just $360 in 1916. While the company produced just 82,388 Model Ts in 1912, that number had significantly increased by 1914 to 308,162 cars. Production was nearly 600,000 by 1916. 

Though much of the plant’s operations ceased when the Rouge factory came online, various operations, including tractor production, filled the Highland Park building until 1974, when it finally was closed.

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