Before the Model T, cars were a luxury item: At the beginning of 1908, there were fewer than 200,000 on the road. Though the Model T was fairly expensive at first (the cheapest one initially cost $825, or about $18,000 in today’s dollars), it was built for ordinary people to drive every day. It had a 22-horsepower, four-cylinder engine and was made of a new kind of heat-treated steel, pioneered by French race car makers, that made it lighter (it weighed just 1,200 pounds) and stronger than its predecessors had been. It could go as fast as 40 miles per hour and could run on gasoline or hemp-based fuel. (When oil prices dropped in the early 20th century, making gasoline more affordable, Ford phased out the hemp option.) “No car under $2,000 offers more,” ads crowed, “and no car over $2,000 offers more except the trimmings.”
Ford kept prices low by sticking to a single product. By building just one model, for example, the company’s engineers could develop a system of interchangeable parts that reduced waste, saved time and made it easy for unskilled workers to assemble the cars. By 1914, the moving assembly line made it possible to produce thousands of cars every week and by 1924, workers at the River Rouge Ford plant in Dearborn, Michigan could cast more than 10,000 Model T cylinder blocks in a day.
But by the 1920s, many Americans wanted more than just a sturdy, affordable car. They wanted style (for many years, the Model T famously came in just one color: black), speed and luxury too. As tastes changed, the era of the Model T came to an end and the last one rolled off the assembly line on May 26, 1927.