Thursday, June 3, 2010

Get It Right & Keep It The Same

For as long as I can remember my favorite car has always been the Ford Model T. As I kid I simply thought it looked cool, and I still do. I think I would have liked living back then and discovering the countryside from behind the wheel of one. It's funny to think there was a time when no American knew how to drive, but I bet it would have been fun to be one of the first to learn how.

Regarded as the first affordable automobile, the Ford Model T opened up travel for the common middle class American. Being one myself, and also a guy who likes road trips, that's something I can appreciate. I like that Ford paid his workers a wage proportionate to the cost of the cars they built for him so they could each have one themselves. With four months wages, a man could proudly drive home in a car he himself had helped build.

Ford said, "I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one—and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces."

Compared to today's standards, Ford's common sense is astounding. Notice his vision includes hiring "the best men," not the tired huddled masses of wretched refuse, as are the sort championed in Emma Lazarus' "famous" poem. There's nothing wrong with being tired or wretched (I've been there), but I don't think there's any virtue to specifically targeting that type of person to come to your country or work for your company. I'm pretty sure the two Hungarian immigrants who designed the Model T were of a fundamentally different character. Simple designs, good materials and affordability are concepts that make a lot more sense than slaving away to pay off a 5-year loan for an overpriced piece of complicated, foreign built high-tech crap that is purposely designed to be difficult to work on and obsolete by the time it's paid for.

One version of the Model T was run on ethyl alcohol, to be made at home by the self-reliant farmer. That same idea applied today might be to run cars on electricity made from solar panels at the homes of self-reliant city dwellers. My emphasis here isn't on the particular technical solution, but on the thinking behind it, because I believe it's that type of thinking that can help unfuck America. It's not that we go backward, it's that we move forward by taking the good ideas from the past with us. Cars just don't have to be cars. We can build them to do other things. Some of Ford's cars, for example, were put to work on the farm, jacked up and used to power other belt-driven equipment. Certainly this same concept can be updated for the cars and the needs of the modern driver today.

A friend of mine once told me, "You don't like change." I started to argue the point and then thought about it, realizing that in a way he was right. I don't like changing simple, reliable things that work simply to create more complicated crap that doesn't. I also don't like being charged more for it when the older, more affordable stuff worked just fine. There's no need for it. The only thing that is served by building junk is the greed of unprincipled people who screw the working class instead of helping them improve their individual lives to make the country better.

Ford's ideology was "get it right and keep it the same." He did, and it worked -- so well that he didn't need to buy (waste money on) any advertising between 1917 and 1923 because his stuff was good enough to speak for itself. By 1925 his cars were just under $2700 in today's money. That's a fair price -- certainly better than a 2010 Hyundai Accent which costs $8000 more.

I'm not sure what the answers are, but I know where to look for the spirit that gives rise to them. It's a certain attitude and sense of life mixed with competent, sensible craftsmanship. Ford's cars were so durable that many of them and their parts were still in running order nearly a century later. Reading about the man who built them puts me in contact with a force I don't really have words for, but it gives me a proud feeling, one that feels like a path to a vision of what we could be. America is our vehicle. We should think of it as a Model T, where T stands for truth, and build a country that lasts.