DEARBORN, MI—Still reeling from a $12.6 billion loss last year and a steadily declining customer base, the Ford Motor Company announced plans Monday to invest its entire third- and fourth-quarter manufacturing and advertising budgets into reintroducing the Model T, one of history's best known and most innovative car models.
"Today's drivers want to get in touch with the experience of sitting behind the wheel of a finely crafted, planetary-gear vehicle with manual crank shafts," said Ford's president and CEO Alan Mulally, who expects the first line of Model Ts to be available for sale by mid-December and safe for driving as soon as it is neither snowing nor raining. "We're getting back to the basics, bringing the quality and elegance of 1908 into the 21st century. We want to show the country why, at one point, every single car driven in America was a Ford."
Although market analysts have for months predicted that the struggling company would sell off its less successful subsidiaries and expand into hybrid cars in order to remain economically viable, the Michigan-based auto producer decided instead to open 12 new factories and retrofit another seven at a cost of more than $100 million in order to produce parts such as the oil-lamp headlights and wooden artillery wheels for the two-speed Model T.
While Mulally admits that the initial cost of producing the so-called "Tin Lizzies" will be an enormous investment, the company will save millions of dollars by paying workers on the man-powered assembly lines—once considered a revolutionary breakthrough—wages at 1911 rates. Working in back-to-back 10-hour shifts, employees should be capable of producing 20 to 25 units per week, meaning the 32,000 Model Ts that Mulally believes will lift the company out of near bankruptcy will be on the road within six years.
"Frankly, I think we've gotten so concerned with adding frills like GPS navigational systems, seat belts, and exhaust pipes that we've forgotten what really matters: open-air bench seating," Mulally said. "We promise that each Model T that comes off the line will last much, much longer than today's cars. Face it, we just don't make them like we used to."
Though the company planned to make the announcement this spring, it was delayed after a number of parts could not be secured from their original, early-20th-century suppliers—many of which, after two world wars and one major economic depression, no longer exist. Throughout the process, Mulally personally spent two hours on the phone trying to track down rubber from the Belgian Congo, and sent top executives all the way to Mandalay to find a company that still produces magneto generator parts.
But despite the Model T's need for coil boxes, crank ratchets, and spring shackles that cost nearly five times as much as today's standard auto components, Ford executives are hopeful that a combination of the automobiles' "interchangeable parts" design and low $950 sticker price will propel the company back to the success it enjoyed a century ago. In an effort to convince the American consumer that automobiles are "not just for the scion sons of wealthy robber barons anymore," Ford will unveil a massive advertising blitz this fall, including a series of black-and-white ads, short news strips shown between double features at the nation's leading silent-film houses, and so-called "barkers" who will shout the Model T's praises through megaphones on street corners across the country.
"Everyone from schoolchildren to quiz-show participants has been hearing the name 'Model T' for almost a century now," Ford marketing director Patricia Curtis said. "You can't buy that kind of name recognition."
To compete with the Model T, several other major auto manufacturers have begun reproducing their own classic car lines, including Chrysler's DeSoto, Karl Benz's original Motorwagen, and BMW's World War II–era German U-boat.