BUSINESS

Ford early years and the new Model U

HENRY FORD put the world, or at least middle class North America and Western Europe, on wheels by mass-producing simple, reliable automobiles that the average family could afford. He said, "I will build a motor car for the multitude. It shall be large enough for the family, but small enough for the unskilled individual to operate easily and care for, and it shall be light in weight so that it may be economical in maintenance. It will be built of honest materials, by the best workmen that money can hire, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it shall be so low in price that the man of moderate means may own one and enjoy with his family the blessings of happy hours spent in God's open spaces.'' Has Ratan Tata taken a leaf out of Ford's book with the Indica and Indigo?

Martin Leach, President, Ford of Europe, has recently pointed out that the Ford Motor Company was launched in a small wagon factory in Detroit on June 16, 1903. For the next five years, Henry Ford, first as chief engineer and later as president, directed an all-out development and production programme. Between 1903 and 1908, Ford and his engineers feverishly went through 19 letters of the alphabet - from Models A to S. Many of these cars were experimental models that never reached the public. Some had two cylinders, some had four and one had six; some had a chain drive and some were shaft driven and, in two, the engine was under the driver's seat. Perhaps the most successful of the production cars was the Model N, a small, light, four cylinder machine that sold for $500, whereas the six cylinder, $ 2,500, `K' limousine, sold poorly.

The Model K's failure confirmed Ford's determination that the company's future lay in producing inexpensive cars for a broad market. That strategy bore fruit with the Model T, which chugged into history on October 1, 1908 with a 2.9 litre, four-cylinder engine and a pedal operated, two speed and reverse, epicyclic gearbox. The simple and reliable vehicle was an instant hit and the first year's production was a record breaking 10,660. Ford called it the `universal car' and it became the symbol of low-cost, reliable transportation. Curiously, the Model T actually made its world show debut at the Olympia Motor Exhibition in London in November 1908.

By the end of 1913, the Ford Motor Company was producing half the automobiles sold in the U.S. In order to keep ahead of demand, Henry Ford thought of mass production. He reasoned that, with each worker remaining in one assigned place, with one specific task, the automobile would take shape more quickly as it moved from section to section. To test this theory, a chassis was dragged by rope and windlass along the floor of the Highland Park, Michigan, plant in the summer of 1913. Modern mass production was born! The cars were eventually rolling off the assembly lines at the rate of one every ten seconds.

The low cost revolution that mass production brought about made for a 'democratisation' of technology allowing Ford to introduce laminated glass windscreens on the Model A (the T's successor) in 1927, MacPherson strut independent front suspension (Earle MacPherson was a Ford engineer) on the 1950 Consul/Zephyr, and anti-lock braking (ABS) across an entire car range, on the 1985 Granada/Scorpio.

The Model U was introduced early this year in a 21st century attempt to recreate the spirit of the Model T and to showcase the new chairman's green credentials with Bill Ford under pressure to show that he has not abandoned his green agenda after replacing Jacques Nasser as chief executive. He has not, though, bowed to pressure to de-emphasise the large SUVs that have become the company's bread, butter and jam. These dangerous, fuel-inefficient and polluting giants, based on the nearly half-century old F-Series light truck's design, are a particular source of green ire.

Powered by a hydrogen-fuelled internal combustion engine, equipped with a hybrid electric transmission and green materials and processes, the Model U is said to be capable of adapting to developing technologies and changing life styles.

With reconfigurable interiors, the `U' can adapt even to extreme individuality thanks to a series of slots in the floor, door panels and instrument panel in which different components can be mounted, moved around or added later. These slots are designed to provide power and access the vehicle's electronic network. The exterior is highlighted by a power retractable roof, rear window, `tailgate' and `trunk', allowing the vehicle to easily go from closed to many degrees of open.

The supercharged and intercooled, four-cylinder, 2.3 litre engine coupled to the advanced transmission, offers the equivalent of nearly 20 kilometres per litre in urban conditions and a range of about 480 kilometres, plus near-zero regulated emissions and a 99 per cent (that's not a typo!) reduction in carbon dioxide out of the exhaust.

All this technology, though, is running up against the same chicken-and-egg vicious circle that BMW has with its hydrogen fuelled 7-Series limousine — not enough fuel stations will be built unless enough cars are on the road, and not enough cars will be sold unless enough fuel stations are available. If you like the Model U's unusual looks, don't hold your breath waiting to see it on the road because Ford Motor has now forgotten Henry's credo: Simplicity, reliability and affordability.

C. Manmohan Reddy