The Latest Model

By Daniel Gross

n today’s era of short attention spans we’ve become trained to look for – and to buy – the latest model. Whether it’s the Zagat guide or Beaujolais nouveau, fashions from Milan or cars from Germany, savvy consumers eagerly anticipate the most recent version of a product they may already own.

And while the rhythms of model years and vintages seem ingrained in our lives, it wasn’t always so. Indeed, one of the most important models ever made – the Ford Model T – endured for nearly two decades without much change at all.

“I'm going to democratize the automobile,” Henry Ford had said in 1909, a year after he introduced the Model T. “When I'm through, everybody will be able to afford one, and about everybody will have one.”

Ford wasn’t too far off the mark. In 1921, the Model T – the first mass-produced automobile – held 60 percent of the new-car market. And by June 1924, some 10 million Tin Lizzies, as the sturdy coupes were known, were roaming the nation’s roads. All of them were black, and all of them closely resembled the original.

Ultimately, however, the Model T became a victim of its own success. Having created a mass market for cars, Ford faced competition. The most formidable rival was General Motors. Under the leadership of Alfred P. Sloan, Jr., GM gained ground on Ford by tapping into the American consumer’s need for newness. With the Chevrolet, GM introduced important marketing wrinkles including the installment plan, trade-ins, and, most significantly, model years. By doing so, the company gave status-conscious American consumers – which is to say most of them – an incentive to purchase a new car when their old one was working perfectly well.

Ford stubbornly clung to the Model T. But by early 1927, the Chevrolet was outselling the Model T. And so on May 26, 1927, Henry Ford watched the 15 millionth Model T Ford roll off the assembly line at his factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Then he shut down the plants and stopped producing Model Ts.

Nearly 20 years after the introduction of the Model T, Ford and his colleagues designed a new car – the Model A. They gave it a new engine, a three-speed transmission, and hydraulic shock absorbers. In December 1927, Ford began to show the new car, and within weeks, 600,000 customers had signed up to buy one. By 1929, the Model A had recovered the ground it had lost to Chevrolet.

Today, of course, auto companies spend untold billions annually pitching hot new designs to car aficionados. Henry Ford managed in a simpler time. For nearly two decades he was able to ring up massive profits on a single car, which came in any color the customer wanted – provided it was black.

Daniel Gross is editor of Sternbusiness.