Anyone strolling by 58 Bagley Street in Detroit early in the morning of June 4, 1896, would have seen a strange sight: Henry Ford, ax in hand, smashing open the brick wall on his rented garage. He had just started his first gas-powered car and it was too big to fit through the door. In this centenary year of Ford's achievement, we ought to pause to remember what he did, and marvel at how it changed the world.
In 1896, Grover Cleveland was just finishing his second term as president of the United States. The automobile was such a novelty that few people other than a handful of tinkerers had even set foot in one. In 1903, the year the Ford Motor Company went into business, the city of Detroit fixed a speed limit of eight miles per hour for almost a mile around city hall. Convicted speeders paid $100, which was about two months' wages for an average American worker. But the "average American worker" was not driving America's first cars. They were, as Ford observed, "a rich man's toy" or, as Woodrow Wilson claimed, a "new symbol of wealth's arrogance.".
Henry Ford changed all that. He didn't invent either the auto or the mass production scheme he so brilliantly employed to churn out cars by the millions. But he did, in his own words, "build a car for the great multitude." When he built the Model T, he "put America on wheels" and made Michigan the car capital of the world.
Ford was an entrepreneur and, as are most entrepreneurs, a visionary as well. His all-American car had to be "large enough for the family." It had to be "constructed of the best materials by the best men to be hired." And it had to be "so low in price that no man making a good salary [would] be unable to own one.".
When Ford cranked out his first Model Ts in 1909, he was well on his way to fulfilling his vision. Sales that year were a modest 18,000; by 1913, he almost reached 250,000; in 1920, he sold over one million Model Ts. Prices fell as fast as sales rose.