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August 1, 2023 · 17 min read

Season 4, Episode 20 – TWiTH: The first Ford Model A is sold, with

We’re pretty much exactly in the middle of the 2023 Formula 1 season, so it’s perfect timing that on This Week in Tech History Abbey and Chris get down to business and talk about the very first Model A to roll off the lot. While other Ford models were perhaps more influential for the things they ultimately contributed to the automotive industry, this was the car that started it all with a whopping 8 horsepower and a top speed of 30MPH. We’d love to see Verstappen and Hamilton duke it out around the course in these bad boys.


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Abbey (00:05):

Did you watch Silverstone this weekend?

Chris (00:07):

No, I didn’t actually. I’ve missed the last two races. This whole like, planning a wedding, vow renewal thing has really put a wrench in my F1 watching.

Abbey (00:22):

I mean, we don’t have YouTube TV, but we were at our friends’ house out at the lake, and friends who were meeting us wound up showing up like, at lap 52. It was great. Verstappen obviously won. I was stoked that Lewis took third

Chris (00:40):

And McLaren is (Abbey: Yeah.) getting it together. (Abbey: Yeah.) That Daniel Ricciardo’s back, as of like, an hour ago.

Abbey (00:48):

I know. That’s exciting. I like him a lot.

Chris (00:50):

Yeah, it’s always fun to have him around. It’ll be exciting to see. I mean, who knows what that car can actually do, considering I think they have like, two points on the air. (Abbey: Yeah.) You know, it can only get better.

Abbey (01:05):

It can only get better. A great segue. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES IN) So today, Chris is here to talk with me about the first Ford Model A being sold. On July 23rd, 1903, the first Ford Model A was sold. It was sold to a man named Ernest Fenning, who was a dentist in Chicago. I find it crazy that the first one wasn’t sold in Detroit, but it was the first car produced by the Ford Motor Company and sold for $850, which is about $29,000 today. They produced 1,750 Model A cars between 1903 and 1904 out of a rented facility in Detroit. I also wanna clarify that like, there are two different Model As, so this was the very first one. There was another model that came out in like, 1927, 28, after the Model T, which I didn’t know. I realized that in the course of researching this. The Model A was equipped with a horizontal mounted flat engine that was capable of producing eight mighty horse power. It could hit top speeds of around 30 miles per hour, which honestly, I’m looking at the design of it…terrifying to go 30 miles an hour in that. There was like, a picture of the braking system on Wikipedia, and it was like, oh no.

Chris (02:24):

My golf cart gets a little squirrely at 25, so a Model A at 30…

Abbey (02:34):

<Laugh>. It did have different trim levels. So like, right off the bat, they were like, we’re gonna customize this for you. You could get two or four doors, even a tonneau cover, you could opt for a rear door, that wasn’t a standard, and you could get either a rubber or a leather roof. Two years later. It was replaced in 1904 by the Model C, which had like, a brief overlap, and they made the AC, which as Abbey Charles, I guess that has to be my favorite model. It basically was just the Model A with like, a 10 horsepower engine. They had spent almost their entire $28,000 investment, which is like, $911,000 today, building and promoting the Model A. When the first one was sold, they had something ridiculous like, $280 left in their bank account. This would prove to be a pivotal moment for Henry Ford, as his previous two attempts at starting motor vehicle companies failed. The Model A is relatively low cost, helped popularize the use of vehicles for the middle class, and set the stage for manufacturing with interchangeable parts, which eventually led to the development of the assembly line, which I think is the other thing that he is maybe more well known for. Today, Ford Motor Company is the sixth largest producer of cars in the world, and its F Series trucks dominate in the American truck market.

Chris (03:51):

That’s an understatement.

Abbey (03:53):

Yeah, as a Tacoma driver…

Chris (03:54):

Especially here in the South.

Abbey (03:56):

Yeah. Yep <laugh>.

Chris (03:59):

Big, expensive trucks abound. (RETRO SYNTHESIZER MUSIC FADES OUT)  So I have a really unique relationship to this one that I don’t think, you know, I know you don’t know about, because no one really does. (Abbey: Okay.) So my wife’s great, great grand uncle…so her dad’s great, great, great grandfather’s uncle was Alexander Young Malcolmson, who is the guy that made that $28,000 investment in the Ford Motor Company to begin with. There was this turning point that happened really like, at the inflection point for the Ford Motor Company, which was when they decided if they wanted to go down the, you know, what would become now the like, Ford F-150 route, which is like, inexpensive like, mass produced vehicles, which is what Henry Ford wanted to do. Malcolmson wanted to explore the, I think it was the Model T and, or not the Model T, I forget exactly which model it was. The Model K, he wanted to go like, down the Model K route and make luxury vehicles as a way to grow profits in the company, because at the point that they were at, they were making money and paying dividends on their original investments, and like, Malcolmson had something like 25% in the company. So Ford did some kind of shady maneuvering. He’s not a like, great dude like, all around. He like…(Abbey: Henry Ford?) Yeah.

Abbey (05:50):

No. We’re not <unintelligible> person <laugh>.

Chris (05:55):

<Laugh>. But he made some maneuvering and made a, essentially like, a parts company that would manufacture all of the parts to make the Model A, and in doing so, was able to shift all of the profits for the company to the manufacturing company, which Malcolmson wasn’t part of, (Abbey: Oooo.) forcing Malcolmson to sell his shares for like $175,000. So her side of the family is not Ford money, or else we probably wouldn’t be married, let’s be honest. Yeah, it wouldn’t be this guy, but yeah, they were there at the beginning of the Ford Motor Company.

Abbey (06:44):

That’s super interesting. I think, probably like, a large part of what has made Ford so successful was that they were geared towards, you know like, affordable cars that everyone could drive, and they did their best to build them with like, I dunno if necessarily like, the best parts and products, but like, that “Built Ford Tough” motto that they’ve always had was like, that was an original marketing tactic that they used with the Model A, despite the fact that they still had a whole bunch of problems with them, but they were problems that were like, common to all the other car companies of the day. I think Chrysler was already producing vehicles at the same time, but they were luxury, they were geared more towards that market, and I think that that was a smart business opportunity, maybe not done in the most affable way.

Chris (07:45):

Yeah. I mean, ultimately, it’s what made the company, right, and that (Abbey: Yeah.) like, I think as you mentioned, my father is a mechanical engineer. He was with General Motors for 30 something years. Now he works for a startup, an electric vehicle startup in Saudi Arabia, and I think that the biggest contribution that the Model A and that Ford made was the assembly line, right? The really like, the standardization of how vehicles are going to be made, and that assembly line model went on to be improved over the years with like, Toyota Kaizen, and like, you know, there’s a huge, huge growth from it, but it’s really responsible for vehicles…I think the structure of society, right, and how cities are built today.

Abbey (08:46):

When you look at the power the automotive industry has in this, not even in just this country and the world, it’s kind of mind boggling, and that has all happened, ‘cause the vehicles have been made so accessible, if they’ve been made indispensable. Especially as you look at, you know, I can’t remember exactly what the history was behind it, but like, LA used to have an incredible subway and train system, and the automotive lobby kind of came in and destroyed that. I’m probably just talking out of talking outta nowhere right now, but it was like, LA used to be a very walkable, traversable city, without the use of a car, and now (Chris: Yeah.) there’s nothing that will qualify LA as walkable. (Chris: <Laugh>. Yeah.) You have to use a car to get all the way across town, and it takes hours to do anything, and that’s happened in a lot of cities.

Chris (09:51):

Yeah. Unrelated to preparing for this, but there’s a movement to connect Wilmington and Raleigh like, Raleigh, Durham, to the rest of the like, northeastern corridor (Abbey: Mm-hmm <affirmative>.) and to put a like, a high speed rail line in, and all of that is really exciting, and is somewhere that we’re like, really like, behind as a country, but a lot of that can go back to, is directly traced back to the auto lobby and the push for cities designed for vehicles, for buses, as a form of mass transportation, as opposed to to rail. And you know, I think we’re getting to the point that we realize that that was ultimately, I think there’s room for both, but it’s exciting to see now, but also, you know, having lived in Detroit for a while, I graduated from high school in Detroit, you know, it’s still an automotive city for better or worse.

Abbey (11:09):

Yeah. My uncle has lived in Detroit, well, I mean, not his full life, but my family grew up in Michigan. One of my uncles used to work for GM. My family lived right next to the proving grounds, which is really cool. You could go sit by ’em and kind of like, see new concept cars driving by on the proving grounds, which is cool. My uncle’s been a mechanic and body like, auto body worker for as long as I’ve been alive in Detroit. Like, it’s really the lifeblood of that city, and it’s still like, the focus is moving away from that, I think in Detroit. Maybe not moving away, but becoming more inclusive of other things that make a city great, besides just vehicles.

Chris (11:55):

My wife, Kristen’s uncle, aunt and uncle live right next to the proving grounds now. Their like, family owned a bunch of land, the Malcolmson side of the family, owned a bunch of land out there, and now like, they’ve kind of subdivided some of it like, amongst the family and some of it has sold off, but it’s like, basically across the street (Abbey: Yeah.) from the proving grounds. It’s nice out there. I mean, Michigan’s a really interesting state. It’s like, it’s the, if you look at all of the states in the country, and percentage-wise, the number of people that were born in the state that still live there, Michigan ranks the highest, (Abbey: Really?) yeah, of residents that never leave the state. (Abbey: Interesting.) So it’s a very unique specific feeling to Michigan.

Abbey (12:53):

All I’ve got, my younger sister lives now, in the city where I was born, which is in Michigan, in Traverse City.

Chris (13:00):

I mean, that’s the good side of the state. Like, you know, and this is total like, bias for me, ‘cause I’ve, you know, I told Kristen that I’ve moved out of the Midwest three times, and I don’t intend on doing it again.

Abbey (13:13):

Yeah. You just like to say it out loud.

Chris (13:16):

<Laugh>. But the west side of the state is really beautiful, and it’s, (Abbey: Yeah.) you know, everybody talks about like, Michigan summers, and they really are amazing. Like, (Abbey: Yeah.) it’s a really magical time to be there, but part of the reason it’s magical, is because the rest of the seasons are so bad. But, (Abbey: Yeah.) you know, the west side of the state is really great.

Abbey (13:38):

My parents bought a house on a lake when my dad retired. He was really excited and moved back to Michigan, ‘cause that’s where him and I were both born, and my stepmother grew up in Hawaii. I think they lasted about three winters, before my stepmom was like, “Absolutely not. Like, it’s nice here three months of the year.” She doesn’t really drive, so she was like, “This isn’t enjoyable to me.” (Chris: Yeah.) Yeah. Anyway, Michigan. Wow, we got off topic. Does your family live in, is their property in Milford?

Chris (14:12):

It’s right outside of Milford, yeah. (Abbey: Okay, yeah.) I think technically their address is Milford, but they’re out in the country.

Abbey (14:21):

A weird place to have a joint connection to. Milford, Michigan.

Chris (14:24):

Yeah. Yeah, exactly. The original Henry Ford Motor Company plant was in Highland Park, and the original Model A, it was Model A or Model T, was built in Dearborn at the Rouge River facility, but the original Highland Park one, were the first assembly line was, and I think that was the Model T, (Abbey: Yeah.) it’s a little rough around there. That facility has like, fallen into disrepair, and I don’t like, yeah, I lived in Detroit for a while and like, in high school, used to go down to shows downtown and like, lived in Brooklyn for a long time and like, worked in some neighborhoods that like, were certainly not gentrified, and like, I know how to like, take care of myself, and like, I generally don’t feel unsafe around Highland Park, which I did not necessarily feel the most safe.

Abbey (15:27):

This isn’t a “nighttime, walk by yourself” spot.

Chris (15:30):

No, no. Definitely not. But it is, when you’re there, there is a very distinct feel of, this is a building that like, something world-changing happened in. Like, it does. It’s kind of sad to see it in the state that it is now, because it is such an important place.

Abbey (15:51):

Have you been to the NASCAR museum yet in Charlotte? (Chris: No.) Yeah, we found out about that kind of like, when we were out here looking for houses, we stopped in a brewery, someone asked if we were going. Talking about it.

Chris (16:05):

We are now <singsong>.

Abbey (16:07):

We are now <singsong>. We didn’t wind up making it, ‘cause we had to catch our flight, but I think it’s super interesting that North Carolina is such a hotbed for racing.

Chris (16:17):

Hey, Haas F1 has some headquarters here. (Abbey: Really?) Yeah. Well, Gene Haas, all of his like, teams are based outside of Charlotte, so (Abbey: Yeah.) they’re F1 contingent, and what’s-his-name lives in the US, in North Carolina, primarily…Gunter, Gunter Steiner. (Abbey: Oh, really?) So maybe you can run into Gunter Steiner somewhere around North Carolina.

Abbey (16:49):

Let’s try. I think at one point, the only NASCAR team that wasn’t located in North Carolina was in Denver.

Chris (16:54):

Oh, that’s right. I remember that.

Abbey (16:57):

I don’t think they survived long. We did go by the Watkins Glen course when we were out there. (Chris: Yeah.) That looked pretty cool. There were a bunch of Porsches doing testing.

Chris (17:07):

So there’s a, I always find this interesting, that around the New River Gorge area in West Virginia, also Henry Ford back in the day, in an effort to cut costs to manufacturing, wanted to control every bit of the supply chain, so coal was an important part of powering the manufacturing facilities. So he purchased a bunch of land in the New River Gorge and was mining coal around West Virginia in, I think it’s Middleburg. The issue was the rail lines transporting the coal to Detroit, because he didn’t own that portion of it, so he ended up shutting them down, and they’ve kind of fallen into disrepair, but they still exist. You could go hiking around New River Gorge and see these big like, coal shoots that are coal conveyors that are from Henry Ford back in the day.

Abbey (18:14):

Oh, very cool. Yeah, West Virginia. Yeah, the whole country up there. Driving through that, I was pretty…it’s hard to make the connection like, you know, obviously you have to have mountains to mine coal from, but seeing the mountains in West Virginia and…yeah, that would be…you need to get your rail on lock, because there’s a lot of hill, a lot of land traverse. So they could have just loaded up, could he not figure out how to build a truck for that?

Chris (18:46):

It’s interesting to like, think about, in relation to each other, (Abbey: Yeah.) the like, auto baron that is Henry Ford and the coal barons, and the rail barons back in the day, and Henry Ford, who we think of as, yeah, I mean especially like, around Detroit still, there’s like hospitals are “Henry Ford”. There are like, museums and buildings all over the place for Henry Ford. Like, yeah, not quite like Rockefeller, but not that far off. He couldn’t afford to buy the rail lines, so to like, put it into perspective, the amount of wealth that was in the rail lines was very…

Abbey (19:37):

Dwarfed him. Dwarfed Henry Ford. (Chris: Yeah <laugh>.) Yeah. <Unintelligible>, I was also, as part of this, I looked up what the fastest production cars are now, and in that, realized that the fastest production car that a person can purchase is faster than an F1 car.

Chris (19:57):

It’s the Lucid.

Abbey (19:59):

Lucid, yeah.

Chris (20:00):

But the specific Lucid Air Sapphire, the 1200 horsepower, three electric engine sedan with limousine-style seating in the back <laugh>.

Abbey (20:13):

Retails for a cool $250K.

Chris (20:16):

That’s not bad. That’s not bad for zero to 104 in seconds, and you still sit in the back like, you’re in like, a Maibock. Like, that’s pretty sweet <laugh>.

Abbey (20:24):

Yeah. But then does somebody have to drive it for you? Like, if I’m spending $250K on a car, I’m in the driver’s seat.

Chris (20:33):

I mean, yeah.

Abbey (20:33):

I also found it really interesting that like, the top four cars, or the four fastest production vehicles right now are all either electric or hybrid.

Chris (20:44):

Which I mean, it makes sense. That’s part of the beauty of electric vehicles is instantaneous torque, which is very exciting. I mean, for a long time…

Abbey (20:59):

But you also gotta think like, how much battery weight do you have to take into account to not interfere with the power that that’s creating?

Chris (21:13):

I mean the electric Hummer is an example. It seems like it would be ridiculously overpowered, but it’s a 9,000 pound curb weight vehicle.

Abbey (21:22):

God, that’s heavy.

Chris (21:24):

It still isn’t very fun to drive.

Abbey (21:26):

Nope. I’m now car shopping for a GTI, and it’s one of the last years I think that they would make, they’re gonna start switching everything over to either hybrid or (Chris: Yeah.) full electric, and you can still get one with a six speed manual.

Chris (21:43):

My dream car for a long time was a, maybe still actually like, have a kid and like, get a Cadillac CTS-V wagon, manual. That’d be like, you know, I just want the, like…

Abbey (22:01):

Chris’s best friend has one of those. It is insane. Insane. He doesn’t have the wagon. He has the two version, the sedan AS. Yeah, instantly fast.

Chris (22:14):

My friend’s mom got one and totaled it in three days <laugh>.

Abbey (22:21):

A car, beyond her abilities <laugh>. Yeah.

Chris (22:23):

Yeah, actually this isn’t that bad. The Hummer EV makes a thousand horsepower, zero to 60 in 3.3. (Abbey: Okay. Not too bad.) For a 9,000 pound vehicle, that seems…

Abbey (22:41):

Dangerous? (Chris: Yes.) Like, you shouldn’t be able to move that amount of mass that quickly. I’d like to see what the…I didn’t look up the base weight of an F1 car, but those average just over a thousand horsepower. I’m sure they’re ridiculously light, which makes ’em that maneuverable.

Chris (23:02):

The minimum weight is 1,759.

Abbey (23:04):

Minimum. So they’re probably all 1,765.

Chris (23:09):

Yeah, exactly. I mean, especially this year with all of the cars, you noticed everybody has gone to a lot more black in the design to cut down on decals and just raw carbon.

Abbey (23:24):

Raw carbon looks great.

Chris (23:25):

Shaving grams.

Abbey (23:27):

Shaving grams. Someone tell Henry Ford. (Chris: Yeah <laugh>.) Tell the spirit of Henry Ford. This is what you started. I think it’s a good place to wrap up. I’m sure we could sit here and talk about racing all day, and that very few people wanna continue listening to that. We’ll take that off.

Chris (23:44):

On a closing note, did you watch the NASCAR race in Chicago? (Abbey: No.) It was in Grant Park in downtown Chicago. It was like, straight course in the rain <laugh>, (Abbey: Whoa.) and the guy that won it was a Kiwi. (THE FRONTIER THEME FADES IN) It was his first NASCAR race ever. He’s a like, fantastic driver in the like, the New Zealand/Australia series.

Abbey (24:13):

Be like, “I’m just gonna go.”

Chris (24:16):

Yeah. It was entertaining. It was a disaster, but was entertaining.

Abbey (24:21):

Who doesn’t love a good race crash, as long as no one dies.

Chris (24:25):

Yeah. They were all low speed, so it was fine.

Abbey (24:29):


Faith, via previous recording (24:30):

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