Henry Ford's Model T just celebrated its 110th birthday. Introduced on October 1, 1908, the Model T was the first and most popular mass-produced automobile in the world. By 1921, Ford Model Ts accounted for over half of the world’s automobile production.
The car was lauded for the revolutionary process by which it was manufactured (the moving assembly line), but the automobile itself was an engineering marvel. Let's take a look back at this industry-inventing automobile and the technologies and materials that made it possible.
It Starts With A Vision
Henry Ford's goal was to make an automobile for the great masses. For this reason he needed to make the car as cheap, durable, rugged, and fuel-efficient as possible - truly a challenging optimization problem.
The Model T was introduced in 1908 for $825, which was a significant amount considering a teacher's annual salary at the time was $850. Over the course of 19 years, dramatic improvements in manufacturing efficiency and supply chain integration lowered the cost to only $280.
The Model T weighed about 1,200 pounds and had a 100-inch wheelbase and a ten gallon gas tank. It got about 13 to 21 miles per gallon of gasoline, but because gasoline was not widely available in the early days of automobiles, the car was designed to run on gas, grain alcohol, or ethanol.
Despite its nickname “The Tin Lizzy”, a Model T’s bill-of-materials included iron, wood, and (for structurally crucial components) steel - but no tin. The fender and most engine components were made of high strength iron. The body panels were composed of a framework of wood to which cheap sheet steel was fastened. But, undoubtedly, the most breakthrough material of the car was Vanadium Steel.
Henry Ford searched the world for the best materials he could find at the cheapest cost. In 1905, during a car race in Florida, he noticed that the parts of a wrecked French sports car were lighter but stronger than what was being used in mass-produced American vehicles. This French concoction was known as Vanadium Steel.
Ford recognized that, despite its higher price tag, the steel's high tensile strength (nearly three times greater than cheaper, lower-grade steels) and its ability to be easily machined would allow him to make a stronger, lighter, better performing car. As part of the pre-production process for the Model T, Ford imported an expert who helped the company build a steel mill and mass-produce the metal.
Vanadium Steel eventually was used in nearly all of the Model T's highly stressed parts including the crankshaft, forged front axle, wheel spindles, springs, and transmission gears (vanadium steel running in an oil bath). Steel was a critical, albeit very heavy, component.
Same Problems, Different Day
Fast forward 100 years: on modern vehicles, most of the weight still comes from different varieties of steel. In 2007, the average car weighed 3,000 pounds and contained 2,400 pounds of steel. The average truck weighed 4,000 lbs and contained 3,000 lbs of steel. In cars, steel is used to create the underlying chassis, exhaust pipes, door beams, roofs and body panels.
But - due to tighter fuel efficiency regulations, the trend is towards lighter, more expensive materials. Just as Henry Ford sacrificed price for performance, engineers in today’s car company’s are forced to make the same crucial decisions.
Ford at it Again
In 2015, Ford overhauled its iconic F-150 pickup, replacing the truck’s steel body panels with lightweight, corrosion-resistant aluminum and shed 400 pounds in the process.
Because of the switch to aluminum, the Ford F150 was able to shed 400 pounds (10% weight reduction). For every 10 percent reduction in vehicle weight, fuel economy increases 5-7 percent and the F150 2015 exceeded that by improving MPG by 7.4%.
Because of the increased cost of aluminum, this 400 lb reduction adds about $725 to the raw material costs of the truck. However, due to advanced recycling practices spurred by former CEO Alan Mulally, about $280 of this additional cost gets recovered during recycling.
Another pleasantly surprising outcome of the lightweighting effort is that it allowed Ford to scale back on parts that were introduced to account for the car’s excess weight. For instance, the F-150 uses a smaller but powerful 2.7-liter Ecoboost engine option, smaller brakes and a lighter suspension. These updates further reduced truck costs and improved its fuel economy.
Today's cars also use tremendous amounts of plastics in auto manufacturing. Plastics make up about 50% of the construction of new cars today by volume - but mostly for non-structural components. This is unsurprising because traditional plastics are durable, cheap and can be turned into just about anything.
Another recent trend is to use high-cost, high-performance fiber-reinforced plastics (pejoratively referred to as "Black Aluminum"). While the F-150 reduced a lot of weight, it still uses heavy steel for many components like the cage and chassis. Daring companies like Hyundai are looking into carbon fiber car frames which would reduce frame weight by 70% and vehicle weight by 30%, without compromising on rigidity or safety features.
Bonus Fact: Henry Ford, a bastion of efficiency, used wood scraps from the production of Model Ts to make charcoal, which he then sold. Originally named Ford Charcoal, the name was later changed to Kingsford Charcoal.