On this day in 1903, the newly-minted Ford Motor Company takes its first order from Chicago dentist Ernst Pfenning: an $850 two-cylinder Model A (original) automobile with a tonneau, or backseat. Produced largely by hand at Ford’s plant on Mack Avenue in Detroit, the car was delivered to Dr. Pfenning just over a week later.
Henry Ford built his first automobile, which he called a quadricycle, in a shed behind his home in Detroit in 1896; he was working as the chief engineer for the main plant of the Edison Illuminating Company at the time. The location of “the birth,” Bagley at Grand River, has been redeveloped, and the shed has been reconstructed at Greenfield Village.
Ford had two unsuccessful attempts to start a company to create and produce automobiles before 1903; after a falling-out with investors, he had escaped the second incarnation with only his name and $900. Ford then gathered a group of 12 stockholders, including himself, his clerk James Couzens, the Dodge Brothers, Horace Rackham and others, to sign the papers necessary to form the Ford Motor Company in mid-June 1903. Fellow stockholder Albert Strelow, owned a wooden factory building on Mack Avenue that he then rented to Ford Motor; in an assembly room measuring 250 by 50 feet, the first Ford Model A went into production that summer.
Designed primarily by Ford’s assistant C. Harold Wills, the Model A could accommodate two people side-by-side on a bench, had no top, and was painted red. The car’s biggest selling point was its engine, which at two cylinders and eight-horsepower was the most powerful to be found in a passenger car. With relatively simple controls, including two forward gears that the driver operated with a foot pedal, it could reach speeds of up to 30 miles per hour, comparable to the car’s biggest competition at the time, the famous curved-dash Oldsmobile.
Dr. Pfenning’s order turned out to be the first of many from around the nation, launching Ford on its way to profitability. Within two months, the company had sold 215 Fords, and by the end of its first year the Mack Avenue plant had turned out some 1,000 cars. Though the company grew quickly in the next several years, it was the launch of the Model T in 1908 that catapulted Ford to the top of the automobile industry. The Lizzie’s tremendous popularity kept Ford far ahead of the pack until dwindling sales led to the end of its production in 1927. That same year, Ford released the second Model A amid great fanfare; it enjoyed similar success.
Ford Motor Company would go on to become one of the largest and most profitable companies in the world, as well as being one of the few to survive the Great Depression. The largest family-controlled company on earth, Ford Motor has been in continuous family control for over 110 years; as of year-end 2017, Ford held nearly $116 billion in assets, employed 202,000 workers, moved 6.6 million units and boasted gross revenues of nearly $157 billion.