You Auto See It!

by Susie Hodgson

Southern California has long been known as a car town. Not a subway town, not a taxi town – but cars!

And we’ve got some doozies here at the Gordon R. Howard/Burbank Historical Society Museum. One of our most famous automobiles is a Model T. It’s more than 100 years old, but doesn’t look it. (Southern California is also the land of looks! No one looks their age!)

The Model T is probably the most famous old American car there is. A fellow from the Detroit area is given credit for coming up with it and something tells me you’ve heard of him: Henry Ford (1863–1947).

Before the Model T, there were cars, but they were luxurious horseless carriages. Ford wanted to build a car for the common man. The Model T cost $825 at first (1908). That would be about $18,000 today. Interestingly, the price went down over the years as production became more efficient. In 1925, you could buy one for $260, or about $4,000 today. Here are some more facts you may not know about the Model T:

- The Model T, nicknamed the “Tin Lizzie,” was produced for 19 years, only surpassed by the VW Bug. Note that there are several stories saying how the Tin Lizzie got its name.

- There’s a famous quote attributed to Henry Ford. He said it in 1914: “Any customer can have a car painted any color he wants, so long as it is black.” Notice that he said this is in 1914, but the Model T made its debut in 1908. That’s because the car USED to come in different colors: gray, green, blue and red.

- The Model T had a 4-cylinder engine, could go as fast as 42 miles per hour and initially had a crank engine. It was also an all-terrain vehicle since most roads were dirt.

- As of 1914, Model T’s came off the Ford-invented assembly line at 3-minute intervals. The car was so popular, it didn’t need advertising.

- Henry Ford was a prolific inventor and held more than 150 patents. He even used leftover wood scraps to create Kingsford Charcoal.

- In 1919 Henry Ford turned over the Presidency of Ford to his son, and only child, Edsel. Edsel was named after a close childhood friend of Henry’s and was a popular boy’s name at the time.

- Edsel and Henry had an acrimonious relationship. Edsel was beloved by people; Henry wasn’t. Edsel welcomed unions; Henry detested them. Edsel liked art and nature; not Henry. Henry publicly belittled his son’s ideas. Edsel did not want to be President and developed ulcers. He was dead of stomach cancer by 1943 at age 49. Henry resumed control again, but he was in very poor physical and mental health. Henry Ford died in 1947.

- Henry thought himself a good boss. He instilled “Fordisms,” which amounted to a morals clause: no heavy drinking, gambling or what we today call “deadbeat dads.” Ford had a “social department” and a high-level executive in charge to monitor employee behavior. Still, union activity erupted, creating one of the most famous and even violent walk-outs in history.

- With World War II came Ford’s entry into military and aircraft production. Nevertheless, Henry Ford was a strong isolationist known for being sympathetic to the Nazis. Edsel felt just the opposite.

- The Ford Company then hired some of the most brilliant minds in the country (MBA’s known as the “Whiz Kids”) to pull the company out of tough economic times. Leading the group was Robert McNamara, who would himself later leave to serve as the Secretary of Defense under JFK and, later, LBJ. In that role, he was known for escalating the Vietnam War.

- Meanwhile, in the 1950’s, Ford came out with a much-hyped, heavily-marketed “Next Best Thing,” originally referred to (in whispers) as the E Car. “E” stood for “experimental,” but most of us know it by its later name: the Edsel, also known as the greatest flop in automotive history.

- Today, the very name “Edsel” symbolizes disaster. There were seven models of Edsel; all failed. While the Edsel had some futuristic features, it didn’t matter. The Edsel lost $350 million (equivalent to more than $2 billion nowadays) and never came close to breaking even. Why? Some say distasteful vehicle styling (as in, ugly). Others claim poor workmanship. Still more say that the car failed to understand American consumers, while some declared it did not have any internal support. Edsel scholar Jan Deutsch stated simply, “wrong car at the wrong time.”

(Wes Clark: Henry Ford once spent an evening in Burbank in the famous Rock House. That story is here.)

Want to learn more about Burbank? Come visit us!

The Burbank Historical Society/Gordon R. Howard Museum
Located in George Izay Park, right next to the Creative Arts Center
Phone: (818) 841-6333
Web site:

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