Chevrolet was eating Ford’s lunch. But Henry had a better idea.
It’s 1932, the height of the Great Depression. Nearly a quarter of all Americans are out of work. What money is being earned buys less, as a 1931 dollar is worth 90 cents in 1932.
The President, Herbert Hoover, is a pariah — so much so that during his re-election campaign, Detroit’s mounted police are called to protect the president from jobless auto workers chanting “Hang Hoover.”
Of course, things aren’t going well for automakers either.
The previous year, 1931, Ford sold 395,000 Model As, down significantly from the million-plus vehicles sold in 1929. But the whole industry is down, having sold 1.1 million units, down from 4.5 million in 1929.
But the slump in sales hadn’t deterred Henry Ford’s plan to beat Chevrolet: build a Ford with a V-8 engine. Unheard of in a mainstream car, it was introduced 90 years ago this week, at the height of the Great Depression.
A wild idea to top Chevy
Whereas Ford once commanded 50% of the car market with his Model T, his refusal to change it gave competitors a chance to catch up, offering more power, more comfort, more amenities and colors other than black. And it wasn’t just Chevrolet. Mid-priced brands like Oldsmobile, Nash, Dodge, Hudson and others nibbled away at his dominance. While Ford still had the industry’s largest market share, it was sliding. By 1926, it stood at 36 percent.
The Model T was losing its luster.
So Ford shut down his factories as he developed his next car, the Model A. It would be a sea change from the Model T, with markedly better performance, thanks to its 200.5 cubic-inch 4 cylinder that produced 40 horsepower, double that of the Model T. It boasted a far more modern design and employed a 3-speed manual transmission, rather than the T’s planetary gearbox.
But while Ford’s factory shutdown cost him the lead in sales, it would reverse itself in 1928, with the arrival of the Model A. By mid-1929, Ford sold 2 million of them.
While Ford thought the car was good enough to last a decade, Chevrolet one-upped him, introducing its 60-horsepower “Stovebolt Six” and overtaking Ford.
Something had to be done.