The Debunker: Did the Model T Ford Only Come in Black?

by Ken Jennings

It’s the most wonderful time of the year, and not just because of Christmas. Are you aware of how many great inventions we celebrate during December? December 3 was Telescope Day, to commemorate Galileo’s 1621 invention. December 21 is Crossword Puzzle Day, since that’s when the first one appeared in the New York World in 1913. The transistor, texting, the clip-on tie, Chiclets…all invented during this month. But much of what we know about the world’s most important inventions is “patently” false. We’ve asked Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings to use 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration in tracking down the truth.

The Debunker: Did the Model T Ford Only Come in Black?

Henry Ford wasn’t the inventor of the modern automobile. That would be German engineer Karl Benz. But the Model T, which first rolled out of Ford’s Detroit factory in the late summer of 1908, revolutionized transportation. The “Tin Lizzie” was the first affordable horseless carriage, the one that middle-class families could save up for.

The first Model T cost $850 (just over $21,000 in today’s currency) but, by the time it went off the market in 1927, Ford’s efficient assembly-line production had knocked the price down to $260. Over 15 million Model T Fords were sold, a record that stood until the Volkswagen Beetle finally passed it in the 1970s.

Part of the enduring myth of the Model T is that all of them were black. “Any customer can have a car painted any color that he wants,” Ford described his policy in his 1922 book My Life and Work, “so long as it is black.” It’s true that the Ford Motor Company turned black paint into a science, using 30 different types of black paint for different parts of the car’s exterior.

But when the Model T first came on the market, customers could get almost any common color… except for black! Blue, gray, green, and red were all available, but not black. The first black Model T didn’t roll off the assembly line until five years later. Towards the end of the Model T’s life, six new colors were introduced, from Royal Maroon to Phoenix Brown to Highland Green. In between, it’s true, there was over a decade of monochromatic Model T’s. Some have said that Henry Ford made the switch to black paint because it dried faster, but history suggests it was just an efficiency issue: black paint was cheap and durable, and turning out only one color of car cheaper still. Or maybe Henry Ford, despite a spotty personal record on bigotry, just decided that “black is beautiful” fifty years before it was trendy.

Quick Quiz: In what classic dystopian novel are all the years numbered “A.F”—After Ford, starting in 1908, with the production of the first Model T?

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings. Image of the 1908 Ford Model T taken from Wikipedia.