Ford History
and the Ford Sports Cars

Ford history is an important part of motoring history, and has been since the earliest days of the automobile. Ford cars have put millions of people on wheels, and along with motoring for the masses Ford has produced some classic American sports cars, notably the Thunderbird and Mustang.

Early Days

Henry Ford was one of the early pioneers of automobile engineering, starting to build cars when they really were little more than horseless carriages. Ford was a farm boy but his passion was more mechanical. In 1879, when he was 16 years old he started an apprenticeship as a machinist, a job he did for three years. It was a humble beginning for one of the greatest industrialists and car manufacturers the world has seen.

Ford became an engineer with the Edison Illuminating Company in 1891, and rose to Chief Engineer in 1893. At this stage he had the time and money to start his own work on the new-fangled automobiles and by 1896 he had built his first car. It had two-cylinders, two forward gears, no reverse, was steered with a tiller and had a top speed of 20 mph. His second car was completed in 1898.

The Ford Motor Company

Ford went from Edison to the Detroit Automobile Company, and then in 1903 he started his own business, the Ford Motor Company, with 11 other stockholders and $28,000. The first “Ford” car was the original Model A, It had two-cylinders mounted under the floor, chain drive and cost $850. The first sale of a Ford car was to a Detroit Doctor.

The Immortal Model T

Ford was determined to provide affordable motoring so that the ordinary person could afford to by a car. His backers thought that the way to riches was to make cars for the rich, and these different views created friction between Ford and his backers. Eventually Ford bought them out.

Ford’s dream of affordable motoring lead to the Model T, the “Tin Lizzie”, introduced in 1908 and produced for 18 years with very little change. 15 million were sold, making it the second best selling car in history, beaten only by Volkswagen’s Beetle with 21 million sold. Tin Lizzies came out in a variety of forms, tourer, phaeton, doctor’s coupe, two-seat speedster, “Fordor” sedan and even custom bodies made by the owner.

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Henry Ford
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Ford’s Great Innovation

The Model T of 1908 cost $850, the Model T of 1924 only $290, around one third the price! The price reduction was largely due to Ford’s introduction of the moving assembly line. Before the Model T, manufacturers used to have workers building entire cars one at a time. With the assembly line, workers stayed in one spot and added parts as the cars moved down a line past them. Boring for the workers, but it certainly reduced the time needed to build a car and brought the price down to an affordable level. The moving assembly line has been used to build cars ever since.

Ford made another innovative move that upset a lot of people. In 1914 auto workers were paid $2.34 for a 9 hour day. Ford slashed an hour of the working day and increased wages to $5 a day at the same time. Later wages increased up to $10 a day.

The Model A

Ford had gone against popular opinion and won often enough that he probably had good reason to think his judgement was best and others were wrong when they disagreed with him. He didn’t want to change the Model T or bring out a new model.

But in 1927 Model Ts weren’t selling as they had been. Other car companies were bridging the gap, bring out more advanced cars that were also reliable and cheap. Henry Ford’s son Edsel and most of the Ford Board were urging production of a more advanced Ford. At last, in January 1928, after a factory closure of 6 months the Model A was unveiled. It was a fairly conventional car, with a 3.3 liter (201 cu in) four-cylinder engine and an attractive body. Four and a half million were sold from 1928 to 1932.

The V-8

Ford’s next big innovation came in 1932; a mass-produced V8 in a car costing only $460. The engine was 221 cu in (3.6 liters), had side valves and produced 70 bhp. With the roadster weighing in at just one ton, performance was exciting. Ford V-8's won the Monte Carlo rally in 1936 and 38. The side valve V-8 powered Ford cars up to 1954 when a new 130 bhp ohv engine came out. By 1958 the biggest Ford V-8 was 354 cu in (5.8 liters) and 300 bhp.

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Ford, 1936
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In 1959 Ford produced its 50 millionth car – not bad for a business started by a farm boy.

The Sporting Fords

Ford was never a sports car manufacturer in the way Porsche or Ferrari was. Its main focus was affordable motoring for the multitudes. But along the way they brought out some attractive and desirable sporting models.

Way back in 1906 Ford had a 6 litre (366 cu in) roadster available, the Model K, brought out by Ford’s original partner, Alexander Malcolmson (The Model K was also available as a luxury tourer). Henry Ford hated it. He wanted affordable motoring and the Model K was just the opposite. It cost $2500-$3000, around three times the cost of Ford’s original Model A. Ford bought out his partner in 1906, and the impressive roadster only lasted another two years.

The Model T was affordable, and its roadster was an attractive and sporty car, rather like a downmarket Model K. Stripped down Model Ts were used for racing, and the car was also a favourite for customizers and hotrodders. Like the VW Beetle many years later you could buy aftermarket performance parts for it to make it go better. Aftermarket speedster bodies became available, and later there were roadster bodies intended as sporting road cars rather than race cars.

The Model A roadster was not really a sports car, but it was still more sporty than a tourer or sedan, and of course the 1932 Ford brought V-8 power to the people. The flathead V-8 was a favorite for hotrodders for many years.

The Thunderbird

1955 brought a real American sports car, the classic Ford Thunderbird. It was marketed as a personal luxury car rather than a sports car, and it wasn’t intended to be a Porsche or Jaguar beater. The Thunderbird was a two-seater with good looks and a 292 cu in V-8. Top speed was well over 100 mph. The sporting T-Bird didn’t last long though. By 1958 the car had turned into a flabby five-seater convertible.

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1956 T Bird (red hardtop) Standard
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The Mustang

The Ford Mustang certainly hit a chord with the young at heart. Available as a great looking car in three styles it was a runaway success with over 400,000 being sold in the first 12 months.

The Mustang could be bought as a four seater soft-top tourer, a closed two door coupe or a fastback closed coupe. Engines ranged from a relatively wimpy 2.8 litre straight-six of 101 bhp through to a 7 litre V-8 of 390 bhp and a top speed of 130 mph. And for a heart thumping muscle car you could have the Shelby GT350 or GT500.

Just like the Thunderbird, the Mustang grew fatter as it got older. The most desirable Mustangs are from its introduction in 1964 through to 1968. Click here for classic Thunderbird and Mustang specs.

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1965 Mustang
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The Ford GT40

The GT40 was a real race car, designed to win the Le Mans 24 hour race. Ford had to build 50 to qualify as a production sports car, but demand was so high that 107 were built. Most were sold to be used in competition, but 31 were built for road use with a derated engine of “only” 300 bhp.

Ford Into The Future

Ford has gone from strength to strength. It started as a farm boy’s dream of affordable motoring for everyone and it succeeded way beyond what Henry Ford could have imagined in 1903. It gave reliable motoring to the masses right around the world. Even the sports (or sporty) cars were affordable.

The Ford Motor Company is starting the 21st century in a powerful position, owning Lincoln, Mercury, Mazda, Jaguar, Land Rover, Astin Martin, and Volvo in addition to the Ford brand. It is ready for an even brighter future.

And the sports cars are still coming. Both the Thunderbird and the Mustang are with us as up to the minute 21st century models.



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