Posted by: Jerry Garrett | October 11, 2012

Did This Car Save Ford Motor Company?

This car, a 1903 Model A, was among the first three Henry Ford sold. (RM Auctions)

Did this car save Ford Motor Company?

“Without Herbert L. McNary’s $170 check,” says an RM Auctions spokesman of the car’s buyer, on July 13, 1903, “modern-day motorists might be driving Popes or Flanders or Maxwells, and might speak of Hartford or Tarrytown in the same way they speak of Detroit.”

The $170 check represented a deposit on the $880 asking price of the car. The base $850 Model A was powered by a 100-cubic-inch two-cylinder engine that produced eight horsepower. Built on a carriage-like body with a wheelbase of only 72 inches, it weighed roughly 1,250 pounds, depending upon the body fitted. Mr. McNary asked for a rear-entry tonneau body and $30 worth of options.

His check arrived the day Henry Ford began accepting public orders for his first horseless carriage. The car (pictured above) is one of three Model A’s sold that first day, and the only one of the trio known to survive. It is Chassis #30. It is the oldest Ford production vehicle known to exist, and occupies a special place in the history of the Ford Motor Company.


Those three buyers provided the fledgling company its first income.

“Ford filled his manufacturing pipeline with product in early-1903, making more than a few running changes in the Model A’s design along the way, a pattern that would be repeated many times,” the RM specialist said. “Yet, while cash was going out to pay vendors and employees, shipments hadn’t started and income wasn’t coming in to replenish the coffers. In early July of 1903, Ford’s cash balance was just $223.65 and it was doubtful if payroll could be fulfilled long enough to complete the existing works-in-progress. Henry Ford and James Couzens had bet the company on having product ready and customers signed up at exactly the moment the cash ran out.”

That day, July 13, the company’s coffers zeroed out – until the arrival of Mr. McNary’s $170 check, another $300 deposit from the Indiana Automobile Company, and a full payment from Dr. E. Pfennig.

“Those three buyers’ $1,320 kept the Ford Motor Company in business,” RM reiterated.

Ford Motor Company historians believe Henry Ford himself helped load the car up for delivery to Mr. McNary, a butter-maker at a creamery, in Britt, Iowa.

Why Chassis #30 was among the first three cars sold cannot be determined, exactly. The cars were not built in sequential order by chassis number. Cars were instead built in batches, in one large assembly room at Ford’s Mack Avenue plant. Parts were attached to the different chassis, and as they were finished in no particular order, the cars were test driven, and then fine-tuned. Henry Ford Museum Curator Bob Casey told RM there is no way of knowing precisely which of the three cars was completed, or went out the door, first.

What is known is that Dr. Pfennig got #11, Indiana Automobile got #9, and Mr. McNary got #30. Of those three, only chassis number 30 has survived, due in part to having only five owners in 109 years of existence. These details are documented in original Ford Motor Company ledgers, which are in the possession of the Ford museum.

“While McNary’s Ford is not necessarily the first Model A Ford completed, it is the oldest known existing car sold by the Ford Motor Company and, thus, arguably one of the most important cars in the commercial history of the automobile industry,” RM noted. “Without its buyer’s contribution to Ford’s bank account, the Ford Motor Company might very well not have seen August of 1903, except in the hands of receivers. It is no understatement then that Herbert McNary’s surviving 1903 Ford is the basis of the success and survival of the Ford Motor Company. It is of almost unimaginable serendipity that it survives today.”

RM’s connection to it is to auction it off at a sale in Hershey, Pennsylvania, Oct. 11. Although it had a pre-sale estimate of $300,000-$500,000, the historic Ford ended up selling for $264,000 to a telephone bidder who requested his name and whereabouts not be disclosed.

Jerry Garrett

October 11, 2012


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