Seventy-five years ago the Weekly Argus of Brighton, Mich., scooped all the nation’s big-city dailies. It ran a photo that exposed Henry Ford’s newest prodigy. America got its first glimpse of the Model A.
The diamond anniversary of the Model A is December 2, 1927, the date it was officially unveiled. But earlier than that an alert photographer spotted a test-run Model A on rural roads outside Detroit and snapped the portrait that made the Weekly Argus famous.
The Model A replaced Ford’s venerable Model T, the automobile that had put masses of Americans on wheels. After 75 years these two vehicles still provide valuable lessons for today. One of those lessons applies to public education. Another lesson deals with ingenious marketing.
The Ford people orchestrated a masterful campaign to heighten suspense. Any rumor was enough to crank up another front-page story about the new car. The Weekly Argus photo did not diminish the public hunger to view a Model A in person. On the showoff date, December 2, an estimated one million people saw it in New York. One hundred thousand milled through the Ford showroom in Detroit. The crowds in Cleveland had to be controlled by mounted police.
Henry Ford’s gamble to bring out the Model A appears awesome in hindsight. Ford had to scrap all the outmoded plant infrastructure used in nearly two decades of Model T production. He closed his plant in the spring of 1927 to retool from scratch and did not sell his first Model A until nearly 1928. For the greater part of a year he experienced all outgo and no income.
But Ford couldn’t afford not to take the gamble. Modernity had been passing him by. Consumers in the 1920s wanted more than a basic utility vehicle that author Frederick Lewis Allen described as high, hideous, but efficient. Most new cars were enclosed and more comfortable, not open to the elements like the Model T. And they were stylish and peppy whereas the always-black Model T still lumbered along without even a modern transmission box.
Allen noted in his book Only Yesterday that the time had come when people were no longer content with ugliness and a maximum speed of forty or forty-five miles an hour; no longer content, either, to roar slowly uphill with a weary left foot jammed against the low-speed pedal while robin’s-egg blue Chevrolets swept past in second.
Ford had been regressive too long while Chevy had seized the opportunity and surged ahead of him. Although the Model A made a dent in the market for its sound engineering that kept many of the vehicles on the road 20 years or more, it too soon became dated. Ford reinvented his product again with his 1934 models, introducing softer styling and the newfangled V-8 engine. But he spent the rest of his life lagging Chevy in sales. The former No. 1 automaker closed out his career as No. 2.
Henry Ford’s experience demonstrates that the capitalist system under which he rose and fell is inherently liberal. It liberates by unleashing innovation. Those who conservatively devote themselves to the status quo find themselves tasting the dust kicked up by those who do not.
The public sector tends, by contrast, to put a premium on conservatism. Bureaucratic organization seeks self-perpetuation. Bureaucracies rarely relinquish status through their own volition.
During Henry Ford’s transitional period in the 1920s when he was struggling to stay competitive, public schools were also undergoing change. The movement toward consolidation into larger districts under the factory principle of economies of scale was under way. This principle has been in force since the time when Model As were still common on the streets.
Virtually nothing substantive has modified this schooling structure over the years. Educational fads and fancies come and go, but they are imposed on an educational model that remains stuck in the past. While Henry Ford’s Model A has become just an artifact, public education after all this time continues to operate on a Model A chassis.
Competition is both liberal and liberating. But when the public education establishment is confronted by it, it responds with the clarion caterwaul of the conservative: We resist change!
Henry Ford finally chose to change. Government schools cling to their own Model T mentality like a security blanket.
The unveiling of the Model A 75 years ago taught us what an invigorating force competition is. We’re way overdue to apply it to public education.
Daniel Hager is an adjunct scholar for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He has published numerous articles and essays on economic history and free-market economics.