The car that brought Ford back into the reckoning.The Model A
The winter chill could not deter the thousands of New Yorkers at the Madison Square Gardens, nor could the policemen manage the surging crowds. It was December 1927, and all of them had turned out in huge numbers to be there at the first public showing of the Ford Model A.
A month back, in November 1927, Ford Motor Company had taken out five consecutive ads in thousands of dailies in the United States, and kept the suspense going till the fifth day, when readers could see how the car looked in print. The Madison Garden show was the climax of the hype Ford had built up surrounding the Model A.It was not enough for the New Yorkers to just see the car, they put their money behind it – over 50,000 citizens of the Big Apple had paid deposits for the new Ford. This event would be repeated across the nation; it was reported that in a short span of just 36 hours, more than 10 million people had seen the car in flesh – 10 per cent of the population of the United States.
Now, about 75 years later, in the New York of India, I am looking at this 1928 Model A convertible phaeton, and wondering just what it was that the Americans saw in this car. For me, it looked like the countless stereotyped images I have seen of vintage cars – large but thin wire-wheels, engine cowl jutting out of the rest of the body and a shape that suggested b-a-s-i-c. Close your eyes. When I say ‘vintage’, isn’t this the shape that comes to your mind? The imagery is so familiar that it’s something like deja vu when I see the Model A in real life.
Oh, but if I was there back in 1928, the A would be a head-turner, the car to own – Ford’s effective marketing machine notwithstanding. It was the much awaited modern Ford, an able successor to the legendary Model T, which had already sold a mind-blowing 15 million units by then. The invincible Tin Lizzie, which was already 19 years old and still looked almost the same, was showing chinks in its armour. Better cars from arch rival General Motors, especially Chevrolet, were walking away with precious market share. Leaving the poor T gracing showrooms rather than roads across the States. Even offering it in different colours – other than black! – didn’t help matters.
Henry’s son, Edsel, decided to do something about the decline and after a great amount of effort, managed to convince his father of the need for a new Ford. The automotive giant’s plants were shut down, around 60,000 workers were told to get some rest, dealers subsisted on service and parts, and six months and $18 million later this car, the Model A, entered to the rousing reception I told you earlier about.
The wait was worth it. For one, the Model A looked stylish, like a common man’s Lincoln and that too at a very accessible price of $450. It was also a major leap from the T in terms of shifting gears – a floor-mounted gear lever, would you believe it – compared to the T’s planetary transmission system that was operated by foot. Oh, there’s more. It featured safety glass for the very first time, and it had brakes on all four wheels vis-à-vis two on the T. Just as well, as the A was twice as powerful than the car it replaced.
From whatever I have heard of Model T owners here in Mumbai, the car’s quite a handful to drive. You have to forget the general layout of all the cars we’re familiar with and re-learn driving. Compared to that, driving the A would be easy. Or so I thought. All I had was two legs, and there were five elements to manage. In order of appearance, from left to right, was the horn pedal(!) with its distinctive ‘polyphonic ring tone’ (I really wish you could hear it), a starter lever, the clutch
pedal – we pause here for the steering column – brake pedal, and finally, a tiny accelerator pedal, to be used in case of emergencies only!Now for the hands. The large steering wheel had two levers mounted in the centre, to the left was the advance/retard, and to the right, guess what, the accelerator lever. So which meant it would be a handful and a legful to drive the Model A. I depress the starter lever and the engine chugs to life. Behind the distinctive nickel-plated (‘premium-feel’ in modern Ford car spiel!) radiator shell is this rather big four cylinder engine. Displacing 3300 CCs, the motor was bigger than the T’s by 400 CCs. And with 40 horses developing at 2200 revs, the A is quite perky too. You see, compared to Tin Lizzie’s 72 kph top speed, the A could achieve 100 kph. Not that I would ever do something like that in this car, even on empty roads.
I shift the tall gear lever to first, put my hand through the steering wheel spokes to bring the throttle lever down and get moving. It’s time already to shift to second. Depress the clutch pedal, shift but forget to bring the throttle lever upwards. Only to hear some disapproving clucks from the exhaust. Still the A moves, and a few metres down, the car’s asking for another shift – it’s not begging me, but recommending me to get into third. This time I remember to reduce throttle, and shift. Oh by the way, if I haven’t told you this, all this while I was trying to steer the car around taxis and other cars without mussing up the process, braking for potholes and desperately seeking for the horn to get people out of my way.
Third brings some amount of relief, as all I have to do now is to balance the throttle lever and the brakes. The steering wheel is direct, it’s like manoeuvring the wheel in any of my Bburago scale models. It does its work well,provided your hand doesn’t get stuck between the spokes. There’s an art to drive this car actually, something I do virtually in all the cars with a low window sill, beginning with the Maruti 800. You rest your elbow on the window, use your thumb and left hand to steer and that leaves your index and middle finger to shift the accelerator lever. Simple, no?No. It takes some amount of getting used to, especially that delicate moment in time when you release the clutch pedal and get the revs up. Why didn’t they have automatic gearboxes then? Anyway, I was happy to be in third and play around with the throttle lever as if it was a novelty. Heck, it is a novelty. And all this while I was thanking Edsel for standing up to his pa and bringing those two extra brakes in the A.
However, the one thing which Edsel couldn’t convince Henry was the suspension bit. The A was all-new, except for the leaf springs which were placed transversely – perpendicular to the wheels, in line with the axles. Maybe ol’ pa Ford was right after all. The A’s sprung quite well for the tarmac, with our road tester Sameer Kumar sitting in the back seat and giving it a thumbs up (“Not bad, feels like a living room sofa!”). Yeah, just you wait till the potholes come along, buddy.
The pent-up demand for a new car from Ford translated to huge sales. Yet, for all its newness, the A was still simple, with only about 600 parts making up the whole. Over four million Model As were sold, till production stopped in 1931 – for a car that was destined for greatness like the T, the A’s life was incredibly short-lived. Call it bad luck. The reason for that was the Great Depression – in 1931, the Model A sales simply crashed from great heights of the previous two years. And it would never recover.
Surprising, considering that after the Model T, Ford put the A in the nomenclature to indicate it was a fresh start, like in their first car, the 1903 Model A. A re-start that has now led to Ford’s centenary celebrations. Congratulations, Ford!