1917 to 1920

(From a Ford announcement in 1916)

On August 1st, the Ford Motor Company began its fiscal year of 1916-17 with an announcement of sharp reductions in the prices of Ford cars, the following new prices being placed in effect:

Chassis, $325; Runabout, $345; Touring Car, $360; Coupelet, $505; Town Car, $595; Sedan, $645. These new prices bring the pleasure and profit of motoring within the reach of added millions.

This price announcement was followed by the introduction of new models embodying marked changes in the familiar lines of Ford design. The hood is of graceful streamline design. There are sweeping crown fenders both front and rear. The radiator is larger, and with a new enclosed fan construction has a greater cooling efficiency. The new cars are finished in black with nickel trimmings, and are equipped with non-skid tires on the rear wheels.

The Ford enclosed cars—Sedan, Coupelet, Town Car—represent the same attractive changes in design, equipment and construction that have been made in the open models. In the Sedan, we have also included several refinements in interior appointments. There is a new folded plait upholstery on both front and rear seats, while both rear side windows, as well as the window in the rear of the body, are finished with attractive black and white silk shade curtains in harmony with the color scheme of the upholstery.

It is a joy to drive the Sedan every day of the year. A year around car it is, with the most comfortable of upholstery and inviting appointments. Cool and breezy in the summer time, it fully protects the occupants from heat and sun. And for the demands of fall and winter driving, one cannot wish for a cozier, more attractive car either for social purposes or general family use. There’s generous accommodation for five persons—a broad back seat for three passengers, while both individual front seats have the hinge back, right-hand seat folding out of the way when not in use. Wide doors giving access from either side. Double water-tight windshield, and big plate glass windows are regular features which you will appreciate in an enclosed car.

The Sedan has the low cost of operation and upkeep that is a feature of all Ford cars, and with its simplicity and easy facility of operation, is an ideal car for a woman to drive. Nothing to puzzle or confuse but, instead, a simple distinctive Ford control that anyone can quickly understand. It is comfort, service, beauty, builded (sic) upon Ford quality.

Model T Fords of the “brass era” are probably the most desirable types to the average enthusiast. Certainly they are the most ornate and spectacular in appearance. Yet the Model T that comes to mind at the mention of the subject is the all-black Ford of the 1917 to 1925 era. More were built during this period than at any other time; about two-thirds of the total Model T production!

The 1917 to 1920 models might be considered the “elite” of the black Fords; not because they were the earliest, but because they represent the period of the greatest changes. Changes not only in the car, but in the Ford Motor Company itself.

James Couzens, the number two man in the company, had resigned in October of 1915, just prior to the “black era.” Couzens was probably the one person most responsible for the success of the Ford Motor Company and he, like Henry Ford was “his own boss” and not about to be directed by someone else. Clashes in policy and principle between the two lead to his leaving the company (he eventually became a U.S. Senator). Couzens’ leaving set the stage for events to follow in the next five or so years.

In 1915 the Ford Motor Company had the following stockholders: Henry Ford, James Couzens, John and Horace Dodge, John Anderson, Horace Rackham, the heirs to the Gray estate, and Couzens’ sister, Rosetta V. Hauss. Ford and Couzens were the only stockholders who participated in the management of the company, a situation which apparently galled Ford. Couzens’ departure left Ford alone.

Henry Ford’s displeasure with “unproductive partners” was pretty well indicated when he formed Henry Ford and Son, a separate firm, to manufacture the Fordson tractors, in November of 1915. In this new venture, he had to answer to no one. Ford’s philosophy was to put the profits from the Ford Motor Company back into the company to increase production, sales, and of course, profits; rather than distributing these profits among stockholders. This philosophy was not shared by the other stockholders, the Dodges in particular. One consequence was that the Dodges brought suit against Ford to force him to distribute the profits. On February 7, 1919, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Dodges; Ford not only had to distribute company profits in the future, he also had to distribute those dating from August of 1916—with five percent interest! This action was a sizable setback for Ford but he rose to the challenge. He resigned!

Installing his son, Edsel, as president of the Ford Motor Company, Henry Ford let it be known that he was retiring to pursue some of his other interests, one of which was the manufacture of another car, much better and more modern than the Model T, and which would sell at a lower price. One effect of this announcement, or rumor, was a drop in the sale ability of Ford Motor Company stock. After all, who would want to invest in a firm whose future was uncertain because of the loss of its leader, with said leader becoming a competitor?

The result was that the Ford stockholders were put in a position where they were willing to sell. Henry Ford was willing to buy! In 1919 Ford borrowed seventy-five million dollars, bought out the stockholders, and became the sole owner of the Ford Motor Company. James Couzens, the last to sell, received $30,000,000 for his interest; the Dodge brothers, Anderson, and Rackham received $12,000,000 each. The heirs to the Gray estate received the sum of $25,000,000. Mrs. Hauss, Couzens’ sister, who had invested just $100 in 1903, received $260,000. Now in complete control, Henry Ford merged Henry Ford and Son with the Ford Motor Company; kept Edsel as president; and resumed “command.”

At the end of World War I, many in the Ford management wanted to supersede the Model T with a new car. Ford, however, was interested only in production of the Model T—and history indicates that Henry got his way. The frustration of some of the top personnel might be indicated by the exodus of many of the top men between 1919 to 1922. Carl Emde, C. Harold Wills, Charles Morgana, Dean Marquis, Norval Hawkins, and William Knutsen were but a few of the key men to leave the company. Perhaps the best-known was William Knutsen, who left in 1921, joined Chevrolet, led that organization to its position of leadership, and who ultimately became president of General Motors. Of course, not all of these men “quit.” Some, no doubt, were eased out of their jobs because of their differences with Mr. Ford.

The Ford Motor Company changed. And so did the Model T.

Engine production figures for the period are interesting. For the fiscal years (August 1 to July 31) they were:
1917    750,512
1918    642,750
1919    521,600
1920    988,484 *

The decline in production was due to Ford’s war efforts. A good part of the cars produced no doubt went to the military. Production figures for the calendar years are a little more indicative of the situation:
1916    586,203
1917    834,663
1918    382,247
1919    827,245 *
1920    1, 038,448
1921    1, 978,100
* Does not include 1300 shipped to Manchester, England, in late 1919.

It is important to remember that the Model T did not truly come in annual models. Changes were made as they were developed. When we speak of, say, a 1917 Ford, this is not to say that all Fords of 1917 were alike. The “typical” car of the period would fit our descriptions, but there could be variations. In many cases we have no accurate data on just when changes were made. An example would be the 1917 cars, which first appeared in August of 1916. The brass-radiator cars built before the change would be called “1916” while the black-radiator cars would be “1917,” even though both were made in 1916.

1917 was an “odd” year for the Ford Motor Company, when it came to its Coupelet bodies. There were apparently three different styles. When the style year began, in August 1916, the Coupelet was a duplicate of the 1916 model except for the change to the new fenders, hood, radiator, etc. of the “iron era.” This body was quickly dropped in favor of a transitional style Coupelet which had a padded top. The date of this change is not known but is believed to have been in late 1916 or early 1917. This body type lasted for just a short time, and was replaced with the familiar Coupe body style at, perhaps, mid-1917, which was probably called a “1918” model. (These 1917 and 1918 Coupes continued the removable side posts, while the 1919 to 1923 Coupes had solid posts, but the general style was the same.)

We have no data on how many of each of these body styles were made. Ford records available today do not indicate the type of Coupe; all three were grouped under “Coupe” in the production records. A total of just 7,343 “Coupes” were built between August 1916 and August 1917.

It has been only in very recent years that we have been able to confirm that this interim “1917” style coupe was actually ever built. Artists conceptions of the car have appeared in various publications but the Ford catalogs of the era (that we have seen) show only the earlier or the later style, not the style of the “padded roof” coupe.

The “typical of the year” cars are described in the following:

(Introduced August 1916) While basically a restyling of the 1915-16 models, the 1917 Model T Ford appeared to be an all-new car. The brass radiator was replaced with a higher one with a black shell. The hood was larger and mated smoothly with the cowl. Fenders, front and rear, were now crowned and curved to follow the wheel outline. The steering column gear box and control levers were nickel-plated, as were the radiator filler neck and the wheel hub caps.

In addition to the major styling changes, there were a number of minor modifications. The front body (firewall) brackets, which had been forgings in the earlier cars, were now pressed steel. The hood clash strip was now a metal stamping instead of wooden as in all the earlier Fords.

The windshield frame and mounting brackets on the open cars were modified during 1917. Similar to the 1915-16 type, the cast support brackets now bolted to the frame rather than being riveted. In addition, the windshield hinge was modified so that the hinge was off-center, making the windshield a little higher when in the folded position. Apparently the change in the mounting (bolts instead of rivets) came first; the new hinge came later.

Along with the new windshield, but not necessarily at the same time, came a restyled top. Rather than the one large window in the rear, three rectangular windows (about 5-1/4 by 9-1/4 inches each) appeared. Otherwise the top appeared similar to the 1915-16 type.

Even the upholstery underwent a modification. The last bit of real leather, at the front roll of the arm rests, was eliminated. In its place was a steel end cap, with the imitation leather now extending to this cap. (This modification was made in the late 1916 cars, before the styling change.

Early production 1917 cars continued to have the light switch on the firewall, just to the right of the coil box. The horn button was located on the top surface of the steering column, as on the 1915-16 models. In late 1917, actually during “1918” production, the light switch was combined with the horn button. Now located on the left side of the column, the button was pushed for the horn, and turned for the headlights.

There was no dashboard (instrument panel) at this time; the ignition switch was still located on the coil box. However, when a speedometer was installed, the manufacturer (Stewart and others) supplied a dashboard.

Accompanying the new radiator was a new fan and fan support arm assembly. The fan itself was similar to the previous type except that it had an iron pulley (which apparently appeared during 1916) instead of one of brass. The support arm no longer had a bend and was a bit longer. Early 1917 cars were equipped with a fan shroud, added to aid the cooling. It may have helped but the swinging arm adjustment probably caused the fan to strike the shroud after some wear, and rather than redesigning the fan belt tension system, the shroud was discontinued.

The engine sported a new crankcase with a wider front “snout.” This pan design continued until 1924 when a new “four-dip” pan replaced it. While the wider front made room for a larger pulley, the large pulley did not appear until May of 1920. This suggests that it had been planned much earlier.

The so-called “high”cylinder head appeared as a running change during early 1917 production. Of slightly lower compression ratio, it held considerably more water which aided in cooling the engine. Accompanying this new head were longer head bolts, now 3-1/4-inches long, as compared with 2-9/16-inches before this change.

A new, longer, water-outlet casting was used on the cylinder head to match the new radiator. The connecting rubber hose was the same as that used with the brass radiators.

The muffler was redesigned and while quite similar to the previous types, still using the cast-iron ends, the tail pipe was eliminated. An oblong hole in the rear casting exhausted the gases directly.

During 1916 production, Ford began to install front springs with non-tapered ends, as well as using the tapered type. Rear springs, according to the Ford Parts List, were tapered in all production until sometime in 1918. There is conflicting information as to whether square or tapered, or both, were used between 1916 and 1919. Seemingly original cars as early as 1917 have been seen with square-end springs front and/or rear, and the tapered rear springs into 1919. However, most cars of the 1917 period seem to have had tapered rear springs and non-tapered front springs.

The front axle assembly underwent a few minor modifications. The spring perches were now drilled to accept an oiler, eliminating the need for oilers on the shackles. New shackles accompanied this change. Initially they were the same “figure-eight” forgings used with the oiler types, but less the oilers. Later, but apparently during 1917, the “L” type shackles, in more than one design, appeared. Spindle bolts used the “trapdoor” type of oiler, similar to those used on the shackles, but larger, instead of the “manhole” style of 1915-1916. The rear spring perches were modified in a similar manner. Both front and rear main leaves were drilled and fitted with oilers.

The body styles of the 1917 cars continued in the pattern of 1915-16, except for the cowl section. This was the last year for the “convertible” Coupelet, and the Town Car; both types being dropped during early 1917 production apparently.

The Sedan had been redesigned during 1916, and now had the fuel tank under the driver’s seat. The body was now steel (over a wooden frame) and sat higher on the chassis, allowing the use of the standard rear fenders and splash aprons. While similar in appearance to the 1915 Sedan, this was an all-new design. “1916-style” sedans are extremely rare and the 1917 style is also rather rare. Just 1,859 Sedans were built in fiscal 1916, and 7,361 in fiscal 1917.

After the initial production of the carryover convertible Coupelet, a new Coupelet appeared for 1917. Similar in style to the convertible model, the new one had a solid top and removable door pillars, making it one of the first “hardtops.” The top was leather-covered above the waistline, therefore looking like a convertible but with a fixed top. This model apparently saw little production; few survive, and the 1918 type appeared before the end of the year.

1918 The 1917 cars evolved into the 1918 with little in the way of changes. Production of civilian passenger cars had been cut drastically because of the war. During 1917 production, and typical of the 1918’s, the top irons on the open cars changed from the oval cross-section type to the rectangular.

The Coupelet was superseded by a new Coupe (but still called a “Coupelet” in the Ford catalogs) which continued the removable posts between the door and rear quarter windows, as in the short-lived 1917 hardtops, but with a metal-covered top section. The standard round fuel tank was located in the rear turtle deck compartment on these models.

The Model TT truck appeared in the catalogs for the first time in 1918. The truck was not new this year, though. It had been built in 1917 but most, if not all, production went to the war effort. Ford supplied the truck as a chassis only, with a firewall, front fenders and a hood. Bodies were installed by dealers and owners, either home-made or made by one of the many body suppliers for the Ford aftermarket.

During 1918 the steering tie rod was modified. The yoke on the left side, which formerly had been threaded on and used for toe-in adjustment, was now integral with the tie rod. The right-hand yoke was modified to be adjustable and its position was locked in place by the same nut that secured the drag-link ball.

1919 World War I was over, and once again Ford was able to devote all its efforts to the production of the Model T. The new year continued with the 1918 style cars but the engine and running gear underwent major modifications.

The most significant change was the addition of electrical starting equipment, beginning in January 1919 on the closed cars as standard equipment. Open cars and the chassis (both car and truck) did not offer this equipment, even as an option, initially. However, by summer of 1919, production of the electrical components had increased so that it could be made available, as an option, on the open models. (Trucks, apparently, had to wait until about 1921 for this option.) This seemingly innocent change required major modifications of the engine.

In addition to a new cylinder block casting, with a modified front section to accommodate the generator mounting, a new transmission cover had to be made with provision for the starter motor. The generator mounted on the right side of the timing gear case and was gear-driven from the large timing gear. The timing gears were now spiral-cut for quieter operation. The old straight-cut timing gears were discontinued; both gears had to be changed if an older engine needed a new gear.

The flywheel was modified to accept a replaceable ring gear for the starter. The magneto field coil was modified by adding a notch to clear the starter gear assembly. Interestingly, Ford experimented with a flywheel with an integral gear cut in its outer rim, but decided in favor of the separate ring gear.

A battery support bracket was bolted between the frame rails just to the rear of the gasoline tank. The starter switch was mounted near the driver’s left heel. Initial production of the starter cars had the generator cut-out mounted on the firewall, but by mid-1919 the cut-out was relocated to the standard location on the generator.

Accompanying the electrical equipment was a dashboard with an ammeter and a combination ignition/light switch. In early 1919 the switch handle was a casting but apparently changed to pressed-steel as production increased. These switch assemblies were bought from outside suppliers, and varied from manufacturer to manufacturer in detail, although they appeared alike to the casual observer. On the non-starter open cars, no dashboard was supplied, and the ignition switch remained on the coil box as in earlier cars. The light switch continued to be in combination with the horn button on non-starter cars until the 1922 models.

Now that the Ford had a battery, new headlights were supplied which had two bulbs; one for the regular “bright” running lights, and the other a two-candle­power (C.P.) bulb for the “dim” lights. Both bulbs were of the single-contact, six-volt type. Non-starter cars continued the double-contact bulbs, wired in series and powered by the magneto. The starter cars were also supplied with an electric tail light, using a six volt bulb. Non-starter cars continued with the oil tail lamp. Oil side lamps were discontinued on the starter cars, but were standard equipment on the non-starter models.

On those cars with the electrical equipment, an inside choke pull rod was installed. This rod operated by means of a bell crank on the firewall in the manner used in all starter-type Fords until 1926 models. Initially, the knob on this control rod was cold-rolled steel but the more common cast aluminum knob became standard early in 1919.

Initial production of the 1919 cars (those built in 1919) supplied without starters continued to use the old-style cylinder casting and transmission cover. The last of the non-starter cylinder castings was made on May 28, 1919, and from then on, all cars, starter or not, used the starter-type cylinder casting. Cars without electrical equipment had blanking plates over the holes in the transmission cover, and a different casting for the timing gear cover on the right front of the engine.

The front axle assembly was not spared in the sweeping changes. The radius rods were all new and now bolted to the front axle below the spring perches. The perches no longer had the hole where the earlier-design rods connected, and the mounting stud was made longer to accommodate the new radius rod assembly. The spindle arms were given a new “bend” to clear the radius rods, and the tie rod now was located above the radius rods. Timken roller bearings were now used on the closed cars and trucks, replacing the ball bearings used earlier. Roller bearings were used on the open cars later in 1919 when they were supplied with starters. Ball bearings continued on the front wheels on those open cars supplied with non-demountable wheels and no starter until 1926 production. The Timken bearings, being a bit thicker, made another modification of the front spindles necessary; the spindle axle was made a bit longer. The roller bearings could be used with the earlier spindles (and commonly were used as replacements for the ball bearings), but the slightly longer spindle axles made a better fit. The oiler on the spindle bolt was reduced in size and was now the same as the oiler used on the timer.

In 1919 demountable rims were offered as standard equipment on the closed cars, and as an option on the others after early production. These rims and wheels were manufactured by either Hayes or Kelsey, and used 30 by 3-1/2 tires all around. A spare rim and carrier was available for cars with the demountable wheels, but the tire for this rim was not standard equipment.

The rear axle assembly underwent some relatively minor modifications during 1919. The oil filler hole was relocated a bit lower on the center housing. This was done to prevent over filling the differential housing, reducing the leakage at the axle ends. The two center sections were milled to allow for a thin paper gasket between them, helping a small leakage problem at the center seam. A modification in the machining operation at the outer ends of the axle housing made it necessary to use a larger retaining cup for the felt axle seal at the wheel.

In June 1919, the muffler was modified so that the exhaust port was moved slightly to the side, directing the exhaust away from the spare tire.

The method of mounting the radiator was modified on the trucks to now include a thimble on either side of the mounting flange, and a spring to support the radiator assembly. Passenger cars continued the use of the old leather pad for some time, but eventually all cars came with the spring-mounted radiator. The new mounting method required a change in the radiator-mounting bracket; the hole in it was increased from about 1/2-inch to about one-inch diameter.

During 1919 production, a rain gutter was added to the firewall metal trim strip. This gutter directed water to the sides and therefore kept it away from the coil box terminals on the engine side. (Water could still seep between the firewall and the body, and Ford advised using a felt packing between the two pieces. Such packing, however, was never installed at the factory.)

Body styles for 1919 continued in the 1917-1918 pattern. Late in 1918, perhaps in what might be called 1919 models, the Coupelet no longer had the removable door posts but otherwise was quite similar in style. The square Sedan fuel tank was now used in the Coupelet, replacing the round type, but still located in the rear compartment.

With the introduction of starter equipment on the open cars, the windshield support brackets were made without the integral lamp brackets. From here on, if you wanted oil lamps on a starter car, you had to buy the brackets as well as the lamps. Non-starter cars continued to use the older bracket and the oil lamps for a time, then separate lamp brackets were used.

Body features varied in detail all through Model T production. For one thing, there was more than one supplier, and each had its own methods and parts. In addition, many minor detail changes were made which might make, say, a 1918 sedan differ from a 1919. Such details are beyond the scope of this coverage.

1920 The Ford of 1920 continued in the style of the 1919. Electrical equipment and demountable wheels were standard on all closed cars, and optional on the open models. Trucks apparently were not given the starter option until 1921.

A bracket was added to support the battery cable between the battery and the starter switch, apparently an oversight in 1919. During 1920 the oval gasoline tank appeared. The oval tank was raised to the proper height by means of special adaptor brackets under the tank-mounting straps.

The forged running board brackets and tie rods were dropped during the year and replaced with the channel-type brackets, a considerable improvement in the rigidity of the running boards.

The cast-steel steering wheel spider was replaced with a new one of pressed steel. In addition, the steering wheel diameter was increased to sixteen inches to give added leverage with the now-common 30 by 3-1/2 front tires (which were harder to turn than the 30 by 3’s).

The driveshaft underwent a few modifications. A new pinion bearing housing of forged steel replaced the casting used before. This new housing eliminated the need for the separate bearing sleeve which had been used inside the earlier casting. The new style is easily identified because its retaining bolts are exposed while on the earlier housing, studs were used which were enclosed within the casting. Accompanying this change, the driveshaft flange no longer had the raised area which fit into the older bearing housing. The new pinion bearing housing assembly could be used to replace the earlier type, but it was (is) necessary to grind off this raised area. In addition to the housing change, the pinion thrust bearing was simplified. Instead of the rather complex assembly used before, the new bearing consisted of two identical washers (bearing races) and a ball bearing ring assembly.

A cost-cutting modification was made by a redesign of the brake rods. Instead of the forged fork ends, the metal rod was now split to form the fork.

At last the fan and crankshaft pulleys were enlarged; a change that seemed to be forecast by the wider front pan introduced in 1917. The larger pulleys gave a better “grip” on the fan belt. Along with this change, the fan itself was greatly improved. Rather than the four blades riveted to the pulley, the new fan was made of two pieces, spot-welded together, which bolted to the pulley. A gasket was used between the pulley assembly and the fan blade which now served as an oil retainer for the fan shaft bearing. This new fan assembly was a great improvement since the earlier riveted types were known to “throw” blades from time to time.

During 1920, Ford introduced new light-weight pistons, and a lighter connecting rod, a great improvement in the engine’s performance and durability.

Overlooked in the past, or forced by legislation, irate Ford owners, or whatever, Ford added two brackets to the front motor mount/spring support assembly which could hold the license plate. Short lived, these brackets gave way to another design in 1921 when the new support with the integral clamping bolts appeared.

In its never-ending search for less expensive components, Ford discovered that money could be saved by making the muffler entirely of pressed steel. And so it was! The new muffler also required a new exhaust pipe. Another area of savings was in the method of securing the hood handles. Previously riveted in place, the handles now were made so that the metal of the handle itself formed the “rivet” and instead of seeing a rivet head on each end of the hood handle, one saw a “hole.”

In June 1920, the factory issued a letter announcing a new body for the open cars. This was followed by sample bodies being shipped to the assembly branches as examples. Then began a changeover beginning in November 1920 to the new style. These new bodies were similar in style to the 1917-20 types, but a great improvement in finish and comfort.

1920 ended with severe problems for Ford. His notes for the money he had borrowed to buy the company, would be due in early 1921, but the business recession of the early 1920’s created a shortage of cash with which to retire the notes. Ford was up to the situation, though. Late in 1920 he assembled everything he had in parts to make Fords, and shipped them, along with spare parts, to his dealers—C.O.D. He closed the plant in January 1921, cutting costs to the bone, and waited for the money to come in. The plan worked, although not without considerable pain to Ford dealers. By mid-1921 Ford was out of debt, and headed for his greatest era of profits.

© Bruce W. McCalley. Rev. July 1, 2000.