Ford Motor Co. is marking the 100th anniversary of the Model T — the world's first low-priced car — at a time when Americans are cringing at the cost of filling their gas tanks and the U.S. auto industry is struggling with plant closings and layoffs.
But a weeklong celebration of the Model T promises to offer some nostalgic balm.
About 900 of the iconic vehicles are expected to be on display in what is being called the largest gathering of Model Ts since they left the factory. Edsel Ford II, great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford, addressed the crowd Monday night at an opening banquet.
"It is certainly one of the most historically significant cars of the 20th century and maybe the single most important American car," said John Heitmann, a history professor at the University of Dayton who has taught classes on automobile history and its impact on American life.
Henry Ford realized there was a big market for cars — and not just for the wealthy — and that people would keep buying them, Heitmann said.
"It was kind of the common car for the common person," Heitmann said.
A century later, Ford and other Detroit automakers are struggling to keep up with consumer demands. Buyers are shunning trucks and sport utility vehicles for more fuel-efficient models, and high gas prices and a sluggish economy are keeping sales low.
All major automakers but Honda Motor Co. reported steep sales declines for June. Ford's sales tumbled 27.9 percent from June 2007.
The Model T gathering in Richmond, home to the nearby Model T Ford Club of America, aims to be more than just an antique car show but a reminder of Ford's groundbreaking automobile.
The first production Model T Ford was assembled in Detroit on Oct. 1, 1908. With the development of the sturdy, low-priced car, Henry Ford made his company the biggest in the industry, according to the Henry Ford Museum.
In a span of 19 years, Ford would build 15 million cars with the Model T engine.
The Model T, nicknamed the "Tin Lizzie," was probably the most important vehicle in causing social change in America, Heitmann said. It helped transform the nation's cities, enabling residents to move farther away from the trolley lines and creating the first ring of suburbs, he said.
"The move out of the city began with the Model T and other vehicles, particularly after World War I," he said.
Heitmann said the Model T also was embraced by farmers and rural Americans.
"It had a very high ground clearance. It was easy to repair. It was so inexpensive that isolation on the American farm came to an end," he said.
Once rural Americans used the Model T to come to the cities to shop, crossroads stores in the country went out of business and centralized school systems replaced one-room schoolhouses, Heitmann said.
Henry Ford and the Model T also changed the face of the U.S. labor force.
Heitmann said Ford raised wages to attract and keep workers at his factories and employed immigrants and minorities.
"That was really important in kind of creating a class of well-to-do workers," he said.
The popularity of the Model T also found its way into poems, songs and movies.
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