AA FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION that will keep coming up is this: What are the best ways to design for maintenance? At the very beginning of the auto industry, no less than three radically different design-for-maintenance philosophies fought it out. One lost, but not because of maintenance issues. The other two won big by rejecting each other’s approach to maintenance.
Electric automobiles were the first to market, almost fully formed by the 1890s. Technology historian George Basalla writes:
The electric car appeared to have all of the good points of the horse and buggy with none of its drawbacks. It was noiseless, odorless, and very easy to start and drive. No other motor vehicle could match its comfort and cleanliness or its simplicity of construction and ease of maintenance. Its essential elements were an electric motor, batteries, a control rheostat to regulate speed, and simple gearing. There was no transmission and, hence, no gears to shift1
By the first decade of the twentieth century, dozens of manufacturers in America and Europe were offering electric automobiles. New York, London, and Paris had fleets of electric taxis and delivery vehicles.
Gasoline-powered internal combustion engines were arriving at the same time, but they were a pain to run. Owners who could afford it hired a chauffeur to repair and drive the complex machines. The electric vehicles were so easy to use that they were marketed especially to women. An advertisement for Rauch & Lang Electrics listed the advantages:
Electric Car Supremacy
Every member of your family can drive it—no chauffeur needed. It offers all of the best qualities of a gasoline car without any disagreeable features—danger from gasoline—-offensive odors of oil-—grime, dirt, and the difficulties attending its operation…. Its upkeep is far below that of the gas car, to say nothing of the depreciation difference…. No machinery to get out of order—no mechanician needed—no engine trouble—no nerve racking gear clashing—no exhaust noise to disconcert the timid—nothing, but just the enjoyment of rapid transit in an easy, luxurious, delightful manner.2
Electric cars scored high on all the issues of vehicle maintenance. Compared with gasoline engines, they had far fewer moving parts and almost none of the problems that come with fluids: no explosive gasoline, no scalding water steaming out of the radiator, no oil to change. The electrics ran cool and quiet, with none of the high temperatures and percussion of internal combustion engines. Only the lead-acid batteries needed frequent attention—their water had to be checked and refilled, the accumulated sludge removed, and the positive plates cleaned.
The main limitation of the electrics was the short distance they could travel on a battery charge. Since they were at their best in cities, they were tailored for the urban wealthy with luxury items such as “upholstered chairs, clock, reading lights, lady’s toilet case, gentleman’s smoking set, flower vase of cut glass, and silk curtains,”9 according to one chronicle of the age. Shopping districts lured affluent customers with free charging stations. Owners who could afford it hired service centers near their homes to pick up, charge, clean, and maintain their electrics at night and deliver them the next day. The cars were stabled at night, like a horse.
Henry Ford’s wife Clara loved her 1914 Detroit Electric Model 47 Brougham (a brougham had a roof over the passengers but not the driver) and drove it well into the 1930s, while her husband’s mass-produced Model T’s were displacing cars like hers from the world. A deluxe electric like Mrs. Ford’s cost $3,000. The Model T’s cost $300.
And other forces were at work. Gasoline got steadily cheaper, thanks to widespread petroleum discoveries. The invention of the electric self-starter in 1912 was a breakthrough: drivers no longer had to risk broken teeth or a dislocated shoulder to start their car. All they had to do was push a button. In addition, bicycle enthusiasts had founded the Good Roads Movement to force the government to pave rural roads, and the early drivers of touring gas cars joined the movement. As soon as dirt roads began to be paved in the 1920s, gas cars sped far into the countryside and left the city-bound electrics behind.
Maintenance for electrics was easy thanks to their simplicity. A completely different kind of low maintenance arrived with the most epic exploit in early automobile history.
It took place in England and Scotland in the summer of 1907. The demonstration model of a new internal combustion car was driven for 40 days straight, 14,000 miles over mountainous country, in all weathers, at up to 80 miles an hour. An official judge from the Royal Automobile Club was on board to chronicle the number and nature of breakdowns during the endurance test. He recorded no breakdowns at all—apart from the occasional stops to repair tire punctures common to all vehicles then. (A car doesn’t just have moving parts; it is a moving part.)
Though the car was still running perfectly at the end of the test, the manufacturer disassembled the entire vehicle anyway, just to see which parts showed signs of wear. Several pins and a fan belt were replaced, and a valve was reground. That was all. The company made sure that everything about the test and its results were celebrated in the press.3
The manufacturer was Rolls-Royce. The car was called the “Silver Ghost,” so named because of its swanky color and stealthily quiet running. Its price was high, but buyers deemed it an investment. They figured that the value of a durable, gorgeous car widely described as “perfect” could only increase with time. Sure enough, a century later, most of the early Silver Ghosts are still running—each one worth a fortune.4
It was simple for salesmen to awe reporters and customers. They would place a coin balanced on edge—or a brimming martini—atop the Greek-portico radiator and invite the potential buyer to put the gearshift in neutral and accelerate the massive engine to full power. The balanced coin would not fall over; the martini would show not a ripple; the only sound was an intense, exhilarating purr.
The superb performance and reliability were designed into Rolls-Royces through how they were made. Each Silver Ghost was manufactured as a bespoke, unique vehicle, meticulously crafted by a dedicated team. The experts assembling the car were armed, according to the book The Perfectionists, with “their loupes on lanyards, their slide rules, micrometers, calipers, verniers, and pressure gauges5.” Charles Rolls told a reporter:
To produce the most perfect cars you must have the most perfect workmen, and having got these workmen, it is then our aim to educate them so that each man in these works can do his particular work better than anyone else in the world6.
Peak output from the Rolls-Royce factory, from 1908 on, was two cars a day.
Henry Ford started manufacturing Model T’s—also in 1908—with the opposite goal. In order to build a car so cheap that his own factory workers could afford it, he abandoned construction by craftsmen and bet everything on a revolutionary substitute—the assembly line. His strategy came from a philosophy of precision and maintainability that was the reverse of the Rolls-Royce model.
At the Rolls-Royce factory, the highly skilled workers used files to minutely adjust every part to fit perfectly in the car they were working on. At the Ford factory, files were forbidden on the assembly line because anyone using a file to improve a part would slow or stop the line. The parts would arrive at each station perfect enough so that no micro-adjustments were needed. The worker’s job was limited to assembly, usually of just a small portion of the car—and his moderate pay reflected the modest skill required. Thanks to the resulting efficiency, a finished Model T came off the line every three minutes.
The whole process depended on the manufacture of truly interchangeable parts. That was where Ford put his obsession with precision. The specialized machine tools upstream of the assembly line had to make provably identical parts, which depended on extremely accurate measure—finer than one ten-thousandth of an inch.
The two approaches to precision deployed by Henry Royce and Henry Ford led to two versions of success. Rolls-Royce produced the best cars in the world—nearly 8,000 of them in 20 years. In the same 20 years, Ford made the most popular cars—over 15 million. Royce hired and trained the world’s best workmen; Ford hired and unleashed the most innovative production engineers. Historian David Hounshell writes:
Ford had attracted to his factory a core of perhaps a dozen or a dozen and half young, gifted mechanics, none of whom had developed set ways of doing things. Encouraged by Ford, this group carried out production experiments and worked out fresh ideas in gauging, fixture design, machine tool design and placement, factory layout, quality control, and materials handling.7
By selling Silver Ghosts only to the rich, the former newsboy Henry Royce became wealthy himself. Henry Ford was born a farm boy in Ireland. By pricing his Model T’s to sell to the middle class and poor, he became the richest man in the world. When he died in 1947, he was worth $200 billion in current value. With every year of the Model T’s production, he improved its quality and lowered its price. In 1908 a Model T cost $850; in 1916 it was $345, and in 1925 down to $260. (The equivalent decline these days would be from $23,600 to $3,900.)
At that time, nearly everyone lived and worked on farms or ranches and in small towns. Most of them were proudly self-reliant, skilled at repairing anything they owned. Ford knew that and designed for it. In his 1922 book My Life and Work, he wrote, “I believed… that it ought to be possible to have parts so simple and so inexpensive that the menace of expensive hand repair work would be entirely eliminated. The parts could be made so cheaply that it would be less expensive to buy new ones than to have the old ones repaired.”10 He built the car to be so robust you could drive it anywhere and so simple and transformable that you were invited to adapt it to your own needs.
Wikipedia’s “Model T” entry has this to say:
It could travel a rocky, muddy farm lane, cross a shallow stream, climb a steep hill, and be parked on the other side to have one of its wheels removed and a pulley fastened to the hub for a flat belt to drive a bucksaw, thresher, silo blower, conveyor for filling corn cribs or haylofts, baler, water pump, electrical generator, and many other applications.
The huge aftermarket for Model-T add-ons and parts filled pages of the Sears Roebuck catalog and the shelves of specialty shops. Conversion kits proliferated for Model T-based tractors, trucks, taxis, rail cars, snowmobiles, boats, and even airplanes.
In a revered 1936 New Yorker essay titled “Farewell to Model T,” E. B. White wrote:
When you bought a Ford, you figured you had a start—a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed an almost limitless assortment of decorative and functional hardware…. You bought a Ruby Safety Reflector for the rear… a fan belt guide to keep the belt from slipping off the pulley… a radiator compound to stop leaks… special oil to prevent chattering… a tool box which you bolted to the running board, a sun visor, a steering column brace… and a set of emergency containers for gas, oil, and water…. Owners… invented gadgets to meet special needs. I myself drove my car directly from the agency to the blacksmith’s and had the smith affix two enormous iron brackets to the port running board to support an army trunk…. Everybody carried a Jiffy patching set, with a nutmeg grater to roughen the tube before the goo was spread on. Everybody was capable of putting on a patch, expected to have to, and did have to.8
(Those days are gone. Most drivers in developed countries don’t know how to change a car’s tire anymore, much less how to patch the inner tube. On one-third of new cars, there’s no spare tire at all.)
Anyone who tried to customize a Silver Ghost would probably screw up its tightly integrated perfection, so no one did. Every Model T, on the other hand, required some customization just to function well, and that inspired owners to devise all manner of new features and functions. A Rolls-Royce, impressive as it was, had just one use. When Ford put the power to make changes in the hands of his millions of customers, the Model T’s evolved rapidly in all directions and were put to countless uses.
Royce served his customers well by crafting a vehicle that they could trust as totally reliable. It would never embarrass them by not running beautifully. Ford did a different favor for his customers. He designed a car so cheap that anyone could buy it and so uncomplicated that anyone could learn to do the maintenance it required. Once the customers took that on, they discovered that the power to maintain is the power to improve. Model T’s inspired user creativity at a massive scale worldwide.
Decades later, something similar occurred when user inventiveness was unleashed by personal computers, then by cell phones, and then by the World Wide Web. As each of those took off exponentially, the result was explosive. Model T’s showed how that could happen.