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No. 1157:
Marketing Model A

Today, we sell Model A's and Windows 95. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

The pre-release hype for Windows 95 had to be the most spectacular merchandising blitz ever for a new technology. Or was it? Before we answer that question, consider the choreography.

Microsoft gave its new product a name and a logo. Everyone in America who'd used earlier versions of Windows knew a major change was coming. Microsoft advertised Windows 95 heavily and delayed delivery. Bugs had to be found before it could be sold. Selected users across America test-drove Windows 95 on their computers and reported trouble back to Microsoft. Tension built as the program was fine-tuned. Finally, delivery day! Sales flew off the charts.

Now let's move back 68 years -- to 1927. Henry Ford has been making Model T's since 1908 with no major changes. The Model T has changed the face of America. It has been the standard of cheap effective transportation. Other auto makers are finally gaining on it -- improving on it -- but the Model T is still king.

It's time for Henry Ford to pull a new rabbit out his hat if he wants to keep on being king. So he announces a new car. He doesn't name it the Model U to follow T. Rather he goes back to the front of the alphabet and calls it: Model A. This will be a wholly new beginning in automobile making.

Author Michael Lamm tells what happened next. In May, 1927, the 15 millionth Model T came off Ford's production line and Ford abruptly ended its production. That was a brilliant public relations ploy and one that took huge confidence and courage. Suddenly Ford's assembly lines simply stopped. Dealers all over America had no cars to sell. Not even Microsoft did anything that audacious.

America waited. Ford said information about the new Model A would follow in a few weeks. June passed; silence from Ford! The media printed would-be pictures of the new car. Some said it would have a six-cylinder engine; some said eight. The ancient Model T planetary gear transmission would surely be replaced by something with a modern gear-shift. Beyond that we knew nothing.

Meanwhile dealers with no cars to sell held on. Only a few defected to Chevrolet. America waited. Finally, in November, Ford announced the Model A would hit the market on Dec. 2nd.

The first 125,000 Model A's were sold sight unseen. When the car finally went on display in Madison Square Garden, over a million people came to see it on the first day. Three quarters of a million orders had been placed within the first six weeks and Ford stayed backlogged until 1928.

And so, Lamm tells us, what we recently saw with Windows 95 was only a pale ghost of a strategy that has never been imitated with anything to match the panache that Ford showed us in 1927.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Lamm, M., Model Marketing. Audacity, Vol. 5, No. 1, Fall 1996, pp. 32-37. (I am grateful to Roger Eichhorn, UH College of Engineering, for providing the Lamm article.)

Note added on August 16, 2009: Ray Hinnant writes to point out that the Ford Motor Company didn't use the terminology "Model A", at least in their advertising. They simply called it the "New Ford" car. He suggests that elements of the public, not Ford himself, introduced the name.


The 1928 Model A Ford business coupe
Image courtesy of the Ford archives