The Myth of the Model T
They called it the "first affordable automobile."
In the Venn diagram of life, the automobile rests squarely between “walking is for suckers” and “a dollar ain’t what it used to be.”
Despite Ford’s folksy corporate narrative, when the Model T hit the market in 1908, it was decidedly a luxury commodity. At $850 for the touring edition (or $25 less for the base model), car ownership back then was a far cry from the one-in-every-garage future borne out by the moving assembly line.
But, like, how luxury was it?
In contemporary bills, that’d be around $23k, but the value of a dollar doesn’t tell us nearly as much as the number of those dollars Johnny Yesterday had access to. Because a car is not a loaf of bread, my friend, and because GDP per capita gives a way better relative view of fiscal pie slices than CPI al—
Know what? Let us worry about the math. In terms of relative luxury, here are the best rides you could get for a comparatively dear dime throughout the ensuing decades.
By now, that same touring edition Model T has hit an all-time price low of $290 — dirt cheap for a car by any adjustment. For something in your original Model T weight class, you’ll want to drop around two large on a Studebaker Big Six Duplex Phaeton, which is an incredibly long name for a mid-range luxury whip with banquette seats, carriage styling and a big clock on the dash for schooling fools as to the time.
1945: Chrysler Town & Country
There’s been a war on for a minute. Seeing as auto factories have been turning out nothing but military might for the past few years, when you return from the front to snag your gorgeous, wood-paneled Chrysler Town & Country this year, it’s actually a 1942 model. But never fear, the style’s what future style writers will deem “timeless.” You’ll want to hold off until next year if a ragtop’s more your speed.
Luxury at this moment in time is defined by how impossible it is to parallel park a yacht and how little you care. For around $8k, you can’t do better than the Cadillac Fleetwood 60 Special Brougham. Seriously, the name alone, right? The car, like its moniker, is insanely long and has a faux-leather vinyl top. This’ll look damn fine in front of your split-level ranch, hombre.
1985: Bitter SC 3.9 Coupe
With about $45k in ‘80s cheese at your disposal, you could go for a fully loaded DeLorean along with 6.5 oz of coke for your Armani-clad squad. But you’re not that guy, and we respect that about you. Snag yourself a Bitter SC 3.9 Coupe instead, Mr. Gekko. Limited numbers. Miami Vice lines. Cassette stereo. Thing’s powered by sex and neon thoroughbreds.
2005: Maserati Quattroporte
Two years before the release of the iPhone, the ride at the Model T luxury sweet spot is Maserati’s fifth-generation Quattroporte executive sedan. The only lame thing about it is the name. With Pininfarina at the design helm and some bizarro steering wheel-based assisted-manual shifting, it’ll certainly turn heads. On the real, though: for north of a hundred grand, we expect more in a name than “Four Doors.”
2015: Tesla Model S
Funny thing happens when the money gets current to today’s rates. For the same relative cost as the original Model T, you can nab a fully loaded Tesla S (P98D with literally every upgrade) with leftover cheese for an installed charger. That’s before tax incentives. When those checks are cashed, you’ll have enough to add a PowerWall and 4kW of solar.
In case you don’t believe our math:
1908 — $850
Adjusted for nominal GDP per capita:
1925 — $1,960
1945 — $4,040
1965 — $9,490
1985 — $45,200
2005 — $110,000
Now — $135,000
Words by Casey Childers