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No one played a greater role in making motoring available to the masses than Henry Ford. His down-to-basics Model T, coupled with mass manufacturing techniques, brought the price of automobiling down to a level affordable by millions of ordinary workers. Its Model A successor expanded the company's reach further yet, as did the legendary "flathead" V-8 engine of 1932.
Way back in 1896, Henry Ford first drove the Quadricycle he'd created. In 1903, he founded Ford Motor Company, and the first Model A was sold. Barney Oldfield grabbed headlines racing Ford's 999. Henry himself also raced, setting a 91.37-mph world record in 1904.
Even before the Model T, in 1906, Ford ranked Number One in sales. That year brought a huge six-cylinder Model K to market. Then came the clincher. In October 1908, Ford launched the Model T. Through the next two decades, more than 15 million were sold. Owners often had pet names for them, "flivver" being among the most popular. Ford's 22-horsepower four-cylinder engine mated with a planetary-gear transmission, operated via foot pedals.
In 1913, Ford adopted the moving assembly line, and serious mass production was born. In the early days, mass production was often called "Fordism." A year later came the $5 day for certain adult workers. That wage came at a price, courtesy of the ironically named Ford Sociological Department, which investigated workers' behavior when off the job.
By 1916, the price of a Model T runabout fell to $345. Not until 1919 did an electric starter become available, and it wasn't standard until 1926.
In 1921 alone, Ford built more than 1.2 million cars, versus about 130,000 for the second-highest producer. Ford introduced a weekly payment plan in 1923. Participants would get a car only after it was fully paid for, $5 at a time. By 1924, when the runabout's price sunk to $265, the average worker made $1,293 a year.
Just as Chevrolet was starting to edge closer in sales, Ford introduced the Model A as a 1928 model, fitted with a 40-hp engine and a conventional three-speed gearbox. Four years later, the big news was Ford's 65-horsepower flathead V-8 engine. Soon, Ford V-8s were praised not only by regular drivers, but by such arch-criminals as John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow.
Ford had purchased Lincoln Motor Company in 1925, and developed a mid-level Mercury for the 1939 model year. When Henry Ford died in 1945, Henry II took the presidency, hiring a group of "Whiz Kids" as advisors. An all-new, boxier 1949 model debuted in June 1948, with a more conventional chassis but a similar flathead V-8. A hardtop coupe debuted in 1951, along with Ford-O-Matic. In 1954, a new Y-block ohv V-8 shoved aside the old flathead.
In 1955, Ford unveiled the two-passenger Thunderbird "personal car." Seatbelts became available in 1956, but attracted little interest. Highlights for 1957 included a Skyliner retractable hardtop and a Ranchero car/pickup. Supercharging became available, too, for the porthole-bedecked Thunderbird.
The ill-fated Edsel brand debuted in 1958, as a four-passenger Thunderbird "personal-luxury" car replaced the iconic two-seater. Ford joined the compact-car race in 1960 with the first Falcon. An even more memorable debut date was April 1964, when the first Mustang "ponycar" appeared, as a 1965 model.
In 1969, Thunderbirds could have an optional skid-control brake system, activated by a miniature computer. A subcompact Maverick coupe arrived in 1970, but saw only moderate success. A subcompact Pinto sold better, until instances of the car catching fire due to gas-tank problems came to light.
In 1984, some 7,400 compact Tempos sent to fleets were fitted with driver-side airbags. Ford's rear-drive Aerostar minivan arrived in 1986. Ford also unveiled the new Taurus sedan, with a body described as "jellybean" shaped. Taurus took the nation by storm, and the latest version remains in Ford's lineup today.
Thunderbirds departed in 1997, but returned in new form for 2002-05. Ford's big rear-drive V-8 Crown Victoria adopted its final form for 1992, and in 2008 the last Crown Vics went to retail customers. The first compact Focus debuted for 2001, replacing the Escort that had lasted two decades. Ford released its Mexican-built Fiesta subcompact as a 2011 model.
Trucks have long been a Ford staple, led by the F-Series-the top-selling U.S. trucks for more than two decades. Ranger pickups had their share of compact-truck fans, until 2011 when Ford decided to discontinue that model in the U.S. Ford last reworked the Mustang for 2010, including breathtaking GT500 editions.
Burly four-wheel-drive Broncos paved the way, but later SUVs and crossover wagons ranged from the compact Escape (launched for 2001 and available with a hybrid powertrain since 2005) through the midsize Explorer and huge Expedition-along with the elephantine 2000-05 Excursion. Late in the first decade of the 21st century, Ford launched the midsize Edge and bigger Flex crossover wagons. Windstar minivans morphed into Freestars before fading away in 2007. Next up from Ford in the U.S. is a C-MAX wagon, already sold globally.
Ford shunned the federal bailout provided to GM and Chrysler, stating that its finances were satisfactory. By then, looking toward a narrower future, Ford had been shedding a series of earlier acquisitions, including Aston Martin, Jaguar, Land Rover, and Volvo.