Ford and the Model T

By the time that 1908 had rolled around, Henry Ford had already formed three automobile companies after completing his famous Quadricycle of 1896. The first two of those companies failed his vision of a low-cost car for the masses, and he either left them or was thrown out for non-performance.

Ford was a tinkerer who, at one point, had dallied with the speed demon. His most famous example is the 1902 999 speedster, a beast of a car that could only be mastered by the soon-famous Barney Oldfield. Ford eventually had to step away from the temptations of speed cars and focus on making a vehicle for the Everyman. He could not do both.

1902 999 speed car, Barney Oldfield driving, Henry Ford standing. This was Barney Oldfield’s first professional ride in a race car, a move from bicycles that would make him famous. photo courtesy The Henry Ford

Ford Motor Company of 1903 was the third attempt at forming a company that would finally fulfill Henry Ford’s calling. When the photo below was taken in 1924, Ford Motor had produced almost all of its record 15,000,000 Model Ts, a vehicle that is considered by many to be the most important American car made during the 20th century.

Henry Ford standing with his 1896 Quadricycle and a 1924 Model T Touring, the ten millionth example. Almost 15 million Ts would be produced before end of production in 1927. photo courtesy Automotive History Collection, Detroit Public Library

Did Ford Ever Make a Speedster?

The easy answer is: “No.” Ford Motor Company never officially produced a sporty vehicle that they named a “speedster.”

Nevertheless, in at least two instances they came close. Very close…

First Try

1907 Ford Model K 6-40. Referred to in the photo as a “Speedster.” Note the lack of a windshield and other accoutrements that would lend it to be called such. photo courtesy Philadelphia Free Library Automotive Collection

The first occasion was the Ford Model K 6-40 Gentleman’s Roadster, a luxury sporting car that Henry Ford was more or less coerced into producing to appease his partner of the time, Alexander Malcomson. Malcomson wanted a luxury car to appeal to the upper class buyer, while Henry Ford’s real allegiance was with rural and working class folks; the low-cost Model N was Henry’s solution.

1908 Ford Model N Runabout. company brochure

Consider the sales material for the Ford Model N:

“To a man who buys a $600 car the amount invested is as great as $6,000 is to the wealthier man who pays the higher figure for his equipage.

“And no matter what the price, the man who buys an automobile from a responsible house … has a right to expect a practical motor car and one which with ordinary usage will withstand the hardest work over rough American roads.

“All these things Henry Ford had in mind during the two years he was working out the designs and the plans for his cherished scheme – a car that would combine all that was best in an automobile and built in such numbers and at a price that would place it within the reach of … men to whom a motor car is a necessity rather than a luxury—and who can pay accordingly.”

The two cars couldn’t have been more different: The Model N was a four cylinder that produced 15 hp, had an 84-inch wheelbase, had a terminal speed of 45 mph, and cost $600. The Model N was a car designed for Henry Ford’s low-budget target market.

1908 Ford Model N Engine company brochure
1908 Ford Model N Chassis company brochure

The Model N and its variants, the Model R and Model S, preceded and anticipated the Model T which would be introduced in late 1908. These models formed the pathway that led to the Model T, which was Henry’s true vision.

The Model K, in complete contrast, was a large six cylinder that produced 40 hp, rolled on a 120-inch wheelbase had a top speed of 70 mph, and cost $2800. This vehicle appealed to the luxury crowd that Malcomson hobnobbed with and that Henry Ford secretly despised.

1907 Ford Model K 6-40 Runabout brochure copy. Note the promotion of this as a speed car, as well as its similarity to other luxury speedsters of the time like the American Underslung, the Pathfinder, and the Peerless
1907-08 Ford Model K 6-40 brochure image. Only a handful of these were made. What a pity!

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