1908 Ford Model T vs. 2008 Ford Pick-Up

On October 1st, 2008, the Ford Model-T turned 100-years-old. Back in 1908, the year my grandmother was born, this “universal car” as Henry Ford called it, became the first mass-produced car and the symbol of low-cost reliable transportation. But more important than it’s centennial, the Model T got 13-21 MPG (max speed 45 MPH), and it was the first flexible-fuel vehicle, running on gas, ethanol or both.

According to Model T collector Stu Chaney of the Model T Ford Club of America who appeared on the The CBS Saturday Early Show, “It will run on moonshine, gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel– about anything you can put a match to. And, whatever it runs on, it would pass today’s very strict emission standards, because it burns the complete charge in the combustion.”

Call me crazy but why are we no better off 100 years later? According the the US Department of Energy’s website, FuelEconomy.gov, the 2008 Ford Ranger Pick-Up gets 15 MPG (highway, city combine). I drive a Acura MDX and hardly ever go above 45 MPH and I am only getting about 15 MPH, and neither of these cars are Flex-Fuel vehicles.

Are you kidding me? So the 100 year-old Model-T did better on fuel efficiency than cars made today and it’s a flex-fuel automobile.

Henry Ford knew there was a future in alternative fuel. In 1925 he told the New York Times that “The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumac out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.”

In the late 1920’s, Ford began to test crops for their industrial potential. He actually used soybeans in gearshift knobs and horn buttons. This process of creating industrial products from agricultural raw materials is called Chemurgy. Coined by the chemist William J. Hale, chemurgy in the 1930’s during the Great Depression, many farmers and others were advocating the link between farm and industry. In 1935, the Farm Chemurgic Council (later renamed the National Farm Chemurgic Council) was formed to encourage greater use of renewable raw materials in industry. This sounds like a good idea to me. If you’ve read some of my other blogs, you know that I feel strongly about the pervasive nature of petrochemicals in our everyday lives.

So tell me what happened in the past 100 years. Well, after Henry Ford began producing the Model-T oil-based gasoline emerged as the dominant fuel due to it availability, price, and of course lobbying from petroleum companies to maintain steep alcohol taxes. According to Hemp Car Transamerica (don’t laugh this is both legit and important): “Many bills proposing a National energy program that made use of Americas vast agricultural resources (for fuel production) were killed by smear campaigns launched by vested petroleum interests.” So big oil killed big agriculture’s bid for our gas tanks? We’re dependent upon foreign oil due to American big oil efforts.

Hemp Car Transamerica continues, “One noteworthy claim put forth by petrol companies was that the U.S. government’s plans ‘robbed taxpayers to make farmers rich’. Gasoline had many disadvantages as an automotive resource. The ‘new’ fuel had a lower octane rating than ethanol, was much more toxic (particularly when blended with tetra-ethyl lead and other compounds to enhance octane), generally more dangerous, and contained threatening air pollutants. Petroleum was more likely to explode and burn accidentally, gum would form on storage surfaces and carbon deposits would form in combustion chambers of engines.” So this fuel is less efficient, dirtier, and more dangerous. Great choice America.

Finally, Hemp Car Transamerica concludes, “Pipelines were needed for distribution from ‘area found’ to “area needed”. Petroleum was much more physically and chemically diverse than ethanol, necessitating complex refining procedures to ensure the manufacture of a consistent “gasoline” product. However, despite these environmental flaws, fuels made from petroleum have dominated automobile transportation for the past three-quarters of a century. There are two key reasons: First, cost per kilometer of travel has been virtually the sole selection criteria. Second, the large investments made by the oil and auto industries in physical capital, human skills and technology make the entry of a new cost-competitive industry difficult.”

Back in 1974, the EPA began the Miles Per Gallon rating system. In a 1999 press release announcing the 25th Anniversary of the rating system, the EPA Administrator Carol M. Browner stated, “Choosing the most fuel-efficient vehicle within a class can save drivers at least $1500 [in 1999] in fuel costs and avoid more than 15 tons of greenhouse gas pollution [in 1999] over the life of the vehicle as well as help reduce U.S. dependence on imported oil.”

Well only now in 2008, 100 years after the first Model T rolled off the manufacturing line, are Americans and our government, seeing the health, economic and environmental effects of not listening to Henry Ford’s original vision. Well I’m not sure about this? Are we leading the world, or or we lagging behind? Can you guess?

Currently one country in Asia has fuel efficiency standards of 43 MPG. Another has mandated 35.5 miles per gallon by 2010. Those crazy Europeans have mandated 47 MPG by 2012, and Australia is 34.4 by 2010. But the US is waiting until 2020 to require cars to go 35 MPG.

Guess who is at 43 MPG? THE CHINESE. Yes China, the land of coal fired power plants popping up like weeds is WAY ahead of us in this area.

Time to go vote. Let your Senator or Congressperson know how you feel about this. Now is the time. Think Green on November 2.

About Melissa Goldberg


  1. Excellent post! This is why Ford, GM and Chrysler are struggling – a total failure to move with the times, much less to lead. Let’s bring back good old American “can do”. With it, we can solve our problems. Without it, we are condemned to the dearth of ideas, corporate welfare road to ruin.

  2. On October 1st, 2008, the Ford Model-T turned 100-years-old. Back in 1908, the year my grandmother was born, this universal car as Henry Ford called it, became the first mass-produced car and the symbol of low-cost reliable transportation. But more important than it s centennial, the Model T got 13-21 MPG (max speed 45 MPH), and it was the first flexible-fuel vehicle, running on gas, ethanol or both.

  3. That is pretty cool but also sad that in today’s world we haven’t progressed any. 🙁

  4. To state the obvious, your comparison isn’t very well thought out.
    For a more realistic evaluation of the current situation, let’s compare the Model T of 1908 with the equivalent transportation for 2008. The Model T was the cheapest transportation for four passengers that was available in its day.

    What would be it’s equivalent today? Perhaps the Kia Rio? It that’s acceptable, let’s start the comparisons:

    1908 Model T
    MSRP when new in 1908: $825
    Inflation adjusted to 2008: $18,817
    MPG 13/21
    Available options: N/A
    Top Speed 45 MPH

    2008 Kia Rio

    MSRP when new in 2008: $10,890 – $14,715
    Inflation adjusted to 1908: $645 (=$14,715 )
    MPG (Automatic) 25/35
    Features not on the Model T
    AM/FM Stereo
    Multiple air bags
    Automatic Transmission
    Air conditioning
    Power windows, power locks
    Top Speed 119 MPH

    Enough said, I think.

  5. Lokki,
    Yes, but by 1928, the price for a new Model A roadster was $385, and was a substantially more capable car than the the T, with a top speed of 65 mph and having similar, or even a bit better, fuel economy than the T. Although my 2007 Honda Fit has a lot of very practical improvements over Mom’s 1928 Ford, the most substantial gains are in safety, acceleration, handling, and comfort, and maintenance requirements. The improvement in fuel economy between these, while very real, is relatively small in comparison to other metrics.

    I think the big issue here is not a engineering one. The Model A and the Fit are almost identical in size and weight, yet the A was a full size car and the Fit was sold as a subcompact. Ironically, the Fit has much more interior space. Americans need to learn to actually be satisfied with comfortable transport for four, and quit driving tanks.

  6. Well, I like my tank (Ford F150). But, I would like to see things, body parts, made of things like hemp plastic. We need to legalize hemp farming and see where it takes us.

    Maybe Prop 19 in CA will help us with that goal.

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