Ford's Model T Engine was the First Mass-Produced Automotive Engine

The engine that powered the Model T may not have been the first in the world, but it was arguably the most impactful.
Trevor English

Back in the early 20th century, automobiles or horseless carriages were expensive and out of reach for the common man. Cars were a luxury of the rich.

The first cars of the world were built in Germany by Karl Benz in 1885, and by 1893, Charles and Frank Duryea had created the first U.S.-based automotive. The problem was, for the most part, these machines were expensive prototypes and didn't solve the problem they were trying to – to provide better transportation to the world.

That is, until 1908, when Henry Ford came out with his first mass-produced car, the Model T.

Model T's development 

Henry Ford worked a day job as the chief engineer at the Edison Illuminating Company. During his off time, he would work on his designs, particularly one for a revolutionary gasoline engine. 

In December of 1893, Ford was able to successfully build his engine design and get it running for a short period of time, about 30 seconds.  This wasn't enough to prove useful in a machine, but it gave Ford confirmation that he was moving in the right direction.

After three more years of development, Ford had created his first self-propelled vehicle called the Quadricycle.

Ford's Model T Engine was the First Mass-Produced Automotive Engine
Ford Quadricycle by DougW of at The Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, MI. Source: DougW/Wikimedia Commons

Ford continued development on his automotive machines until in Summer of 1903; he founded the Ford Motor Company.

Model T's debut

In October 1908, the first Model Ts were released with a four-cylinder engine. Ford had used an alloy of steel that gave the cylinder block impressive strength with low weight compared to earlier automotive counterparts.

Ford's Model T Engine was the First Mass-Produced Automotive Engine
Model T Engine. Photographed at the Geelong Museum of Motoring and Industry, North Geelong, Victoria, Australia. Source: OSX/Wikimedia Commons

Initially priced at $850, roughly 23 thousand dollars today, the Model T was still slightly too pricy for the average worker. As production ramped up, however, Ford was able to bring costs down over time.

By 1914, the cost of a Model T had dropped to $440, roughly $11,000 in today's US dollars. The price continued to drop until in 1925 Ford was able to offer their lowest price ever for a Model T - $260 - equivalent to $3700 today.

Engine's statistics and engineering

The Model T engine has 2.9 liters of displacement with a compression ratio of 4.5:1. This all means the engine comes in at roughly 20 horsepower, ten times less than a Toyota Camry.

Part of the genius of the Model T engine is that it doesn’t have a lot of features, it’s mind-numbingly simple. There’s no oil pump or water pump or fuel pump. 

Ford's Model T Engine was the First Mass-Produced Automotive Engine
Source: Liftarn/Wikimedia

The oil gets into the engine by splashing the crank through the oil pan in the bottom of the engine. This results in the three bearings, cam, and lifters being dredged with oil.


Ford engineers realized in the design process that they could accomplish cooling of the engine through basic thermodynamic principles of water. Hot water rises, so they devised a cooling system that feeds cool water from the radiator into the bottom of the engine.

As the engine heats this water up, it is pushed up and out the top of the radiator through convection. This system worked, most of the time, and without any moving parts.

As for the process of getting fuel to the engine without a pump, the engineers behind the engine devised a gravity-fed tank under the seat of the passengers. This would feed gasoline through hoses with the help of gravity to a carburetor. The driver was able to adjust the carburetor settings from the driver's seat, and the choke was either at the front of the car operated by a crank or in the driver’s cockpit if the Model T was outfitted with electric start.

Ford's Model T Engine was the First Mass-Produced Automotive Engine
A drawing of the Model T engine design. Source: Victor Wilfred Pagé/Wikimedia

For throttle, the driver would operate a lever by the steering wheel. While that may sound weird, remember, these were the first mass-produced cars. There wasn’t a standard for placement of controls yet.

The ignition system of the engine also was designed so that little could go wrong. The driver could adjust when the spark plugs went off using a lever by the steering wheel. This meant that the driver could entirely control spark timing upon startup and ignition – something that isn’t exactly taught in modern driver’s ed.

The powerhouse of the Model T

All this simplicity also meant that the Model T engine could run on anything. Gasoline, kerosene, or grain alcohol was the preferred fuels. This ability to run multiple fuels was all part of the design, allowing drivers to choose what they had available to drive their car. 

The Model T engine remained unchanged throughout nearly the entire run of the original model T, from 1908 to 1927. This first mass-produced engine helped place the automobile at the center of the American and global economy. 

What came next

As the Model T reached its final production year in 1927, Ford had already begun developing their next model, the new Model A.

Released in late 1927, the Model A built upon the successes of the Model T and offered new trim levels and options for a wider array of buyers. The base model cost $385, and the car could be optioned up to $1400 for the luxury Town Car model. In today's money that ranges from 6000 USD to over $20,000

Ford continued to grow its automobile business, growing into the automotive powerhouse that we know today.


Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board