Sports & Classics of Monterey

12-14 August 2010


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Lot 116

1903 Ford Model A Rear Entry Tonneau

  • Chassis no. 30

$600,000 - $800,000

8 hp, 100 cu. in. two-cylinder engine, two-speed transmission, live axle suspension with full-elliptical leaf springs at the rear, mechanical brakes. Wheelbase: 72"

- From the estate of Mr. John M. O'Quinn

- The oldest surviving car sold by the Ford Motor Company

- Sold new to Herbert L. McNary with only five owners since 1903

- Documentation including original sales ledger in possession of Henry Ford Museum

- A lynchpin in the early survival of the Ford Motor Company

Henry Ford’s success was commercial: the creation of a gigantic and immensely profitable enterprise that, on the basis of a simple, reliable, inexpensive product, came to dominate its market.

Ford was one of the first auto industry magnates to recognize the importance of simplicity, economy and high volume; the Model A Ford, introduced in 1903, was the first Ford automobile to embody those principles.

The Model A was the first product of the Ford Motor Company. Its transition from Henry Ford’s concept to a finished product in the hands of customers was balanced on a knife’s edge of cash flow. In early July 1903, Ford’s cash balance was just $223.65. Ford’s credibility with investors was exhausted. There was work-in-process inventory in the Mack Avenue factory, but without income there would soon be nothing to pay employees to keep assembling automobiles.

Most successful business stories come down to one single event upon which the survival of the business turns. In the Ford Motor Company’s case, it occurred on July 13th, 1903 when three customers made the first payments to the company. Only one of those first three Model A Fords has survived, with only five owners since it left Detroit – the 1903 Ford Model A Tonneau no. 30 that was sold to Herbert L. McNary of Britt, Iowa on July 13th, 1903.

Ford Motor Company

It took several years and several false starts for Henry Ford’s vision of his automobile business to take shape. After a falling out with the investors in his first enterprise, he turned to match racing in a partnership with Tom Cooper. Ford and Cooper together built the famous 999 and Arrow racers in which the daring Barney Oldfield made the transition from bicycles to automobiles.

In mid-1902, Ford and Alexander Malcomson, a prosperous Detroit coal merchant, formed the Ford & Malcomson Company with the object of producing automobiles in quantity. In addition to capital, Malcomson contributed the services of an associate, James Couzens, to keep an eye on Ford’s business operations. More importantly, Couzens kept the mercurial Ford, who insisted upon tinkering with his automobile’s design and construction, directed toward the company’s goal and lent management credibility to the enterprise.

One of the lessons Henry Ford had learned in his earlier enterprises was that a company needed to be ready to deliver when it announced its new products. Having product ready to satisfy the earliest, most enthusiastic and least price-sensitive customers was essential. Ford and Couzens set about finding suppliers who would build the major components of Ford’s design. It was a formidable task. Reliable suppliers had plenty of potential customers, and Ford had the reputation of a gifted and creative technician but a difficult and erratic business associate.

Eventually Couzens and Ford managed to place orders for bodies with the C.R. Wilson Carriage Company ($68 each), for wheels with the W.K. Pruden Wheel Company ($26 per set) and for tires with the Hartford Rubber Company ($40 per set). Most importantly, they somehow convinced the Dodge brothers, among the elite of Detroit’s manufacturers, to sign on to supply Ford’s chassis and running gear ($250 each). Further investors joined Ford and Malcomson as the enterprise expanded, and their presence led to the formation of the Ford Motor Company on June 16th, 1903.

The Model A and its First Three Buyers

The first Ford Motor Company product was called, not surprisingly, the Model A. It was powered by an opposed two-cylinder engine that displaced 100 cubic inches and was stated to develop eight horsepower. Built on a wheelbase of only 72 inches, it weighed roughly 1,250 pounds depending upon the body fitted. Its light weight made the most of the engine’s eight horsepower, and, importantly, an ordinary man could cover more ground in a day with a Model A Ford than with a horse and buggy. More importantly, the Ford didn’t need to be fed on days it wasn’t being used or have its stall mucked out, either!

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, often as a result of the Dodges’ insistence. Yet while cash was going out to pay vendors and employees, shipments hadn’t started and no income was coming in to replenish the company’s coffers.

Even the deep pockets of Alexander Malcomson and the other investors couldn’t keep the Ford Motor Company’s head above water without sales of finished product. By mid-July, payments to suppliers and employees had whittled Ford’s bank balance to practically nothing. 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 was Monday, July 13th, 1903 when the first three orders were received by the Ford Motor Company for Model A Fords.

Dr. E. Pfennig sent his full payment of $850 ($750 for the Model A Ford and $100 for the tonneau body); Indiana Automobile Company sent a $300 deposit; and Herbert L. McNary sent a $170 deposit against an $880 order for a Model A with Tonneau and $30 of Ford options.

Those three buyers’ $1,320 kept the Ford Motor Company in business. They were the core of a commercial snowball that began rolling that day. In the next fifteen months, 1,700 Model A Fords would roll out of the Mack Avenue plant. It was the start of the Ford success that would change the history of the automobile, and with it the history and makeup of our world, more comprehensively and quickly than any single invention before or since.

Ford Motor Company, no doubt with Henry Ford and James Couzens physically lending a hand, loaded up those three cars. There was, apparently, no sequence to the numbers of the cars on the Mack Avenue plant floor. Dr. Pfennig got #11, Indiana Automobile got #9 and Mr. McNary got #30.

Ford’s cars were built in batches in one large assembly room. Parts were attached to the different chassis, and as they were finished in no particular order, the cars were test driven before inevitably being brought in for improvements and fine-tuning. The cars were therefore not built in sequential order by chassis number but, for all intents and purposes, together. Based on this construction pattern, The Henry Ford Museum curator Bob Casey has confirmed that there is no way of knowing precisely which of the three cars was completed first.

The details are documented in the original Ford Motor Company ledger, which is still in the possession of The Henry Ford Museum and confirms the receipts of Mr. McNary’s payment. This was also endorsed in a December 28th, 1954 letter from Henry E. Edmunds, Manager of Ford’s Archive Department.

The other two Ford Model As shipped that day have been lost. Herbert L. McNary’s is the only survivor. So, while it is not necessarily the first Model A Ford completed, it is the oldest car sold by the Ford Motor Company known to exist. At the time of writing, no older car sold by Ford is known to exist.

It is arguably one of the most important cars in the commercial history of the automobile industry. Without its buyer’s contribution to Ford’s bank account, the real money that replenished the Ford Motor Company’s account when its cash balance was perilously low, the Ford Motor Company might very well not have seen August of 1903 except in the hands of receivers. There might never have been a Ford Model C, a Model K, a Model R or a Model T.

It is no understatement then that the 1903 Ford Model A that Herbert L. McNary bought on July 13th, 1903 is the basis of the success and survival of the Ford Motor Company. It is almost unimaginable serendipity that it survives today.

Roster of Keepers

Mr. Herbert L. McNary was a butter maker at a creamery in Britt, Iowa. He and his family owned this Ford for about fifty years until, after three years of negotiations, it was acquired by a pioneering auto collector, Harry E. Burd of Waterloo, Iowa, for the substantial sum of $400. Burd had it restored by Lloyd Sievers.

Burd knew he had one of the earliest Fords built, but it was sometime after he acquired the McNary Model A that he noticed an article in Life magazine’s May 25th, 1953 issue at the time of Ford’s Fiftieth Anniversary. The article showed a book of check stubs indicating the deposit of Herbert L. McNary and prompted Burd to inquire about the McNary car’s history to the Ford Motor Company. Their in-house archivist, Henry E. Edmunds, replied on December 28th, 1954, “you have every reason to be proud of owning one of the earliest Fords sold... it was the third one actually sold by the Company.”

In 1961, Burd sold McNary’s Ford Model A to a Swiss Ford dealer. It remained in Europe, displayed at Ford’s European headquarters in Cologne and in other locations, until the previous owner – only its fourth owner from new – acquired it in 2001. Since 2007, the car has been in the esteemed collection of the late Mr. John M. O’Quinn, wherein it has been treated to careful storage and maintenance.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the 1903 Ford Model A Tonneau no. 30. It is accompanied by extensive documentation, detailing its extraordinary history, and its condition is exemplary. It has performed flawlessly on numerous tours, including the world famous London to Brighton Veteran Car Run in 2003, the year of the car’s centenary, and it also received a special invitation to attend Ford UK’s official centenary celebrations that same year. The engine was the subject of a complete, professional rebuild prior to the car’s acquisition in 2007. The Ford also retains all of its original early features, including the extremely rare Kingston carburetor and the original coil box stamped with the car number 30.

No automobile manufacturer has had anywhere close to the impact of the Ford Motor Company. The 1903 Ford Model A Tonneau no. 30 is one of three Fords sold on the first day the Ford Motor Company recorded orders. It is the only survivor of the three, has had only four owners in the nearly 104 years since it was built, and has been carefully maintained and restored. Its history and provenance are impeccable.

Without Herbert L. McNary’s $170 check on July 13th, 1903 for this 1903 Ford Model A Tonneau #30, we might be driving Popes, or Flanders, or Maxwells; we might talk of “Hartford” or “Tarrytown” in the same way we now speak of “Detroit.”

It is not often that a truly seminal automobile is available to collectors. This is such an opportunity.

Please contact our exclusive automotive transportation partner, Reliable Carriers, for a shipping quote or any other information on the transport of this vehicle.

Alexander Weaver

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Alexander Weaver joined RM Sotheby’s in 2011 as a Car Specialist after graduating from Furman University in South Carolina. Born... read more

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Augustin Sabatié-Garat joined RM Europe in 2012 as a Car Specialist after more than a decade in the collector car hobby. Gradua... read more

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