As a young man in Sunnyside, Washington, in 1915, Roscoe Sheller rode for the first time in a Model T automobile, which had been introduced seven years earlier by Henry Ford. He subsequently joined the local dealership and made his living selling the cars to skeptical consumers wary about abandoning their horse-and-buggy habits. The Model T would go on to become the best-selling automobile in history (until 1972), with some 15 million produced between 1908 and 1927. In his 1965 memoir, “Me and the Model T: The Great Race Across the U.S.,” Sheller wrote of his personal experiences with the iconic “Tin Lizzie” and his role in its groundbreaking success.
“A Motor Car for the Great Multitude”
Before Henry Ford introduced the Model T on October 1, 1908, horseless carriages–otherwise known as automobiles–were a luxury item, available only to an elite few. For this reason, many people viewed the autos and their drivers with hostility, especially in small towns or rural areas where the horse and buggy still dominated.
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Ford, who founded his namesake auto company in 1903 after two previous efforts failed, became focused on the idea of producing an automobile that an ordinary American earning a decent salary could afford. Though they initially cost around $825 to begin (or $18,000 in today’s dollars), the price of the Model T later dropped due to Ford’s pioneering of mass production techniques. In the years just before World War I broke out in 1914, the moving assembly line had made it possible to produce thousands of cars every week, and the “Tin Lizzie” (as it was known) cost around $360.
Roscoe Sheller’s First Ride
In 1915, Bob Barnett, manager of the newly opened branch of Ford Motor Company in Sunnyside, Washington, took Roscoe A. Sheller out for his first drive in a Model T. Sheller soon joined the dealership in a low-level position and worked his way up selling Tin Lizzies to the initially skeptical local population. He later became the owner of a larger Ford sales and service outpost with around 25 employees.
In “Me and the Model T: The Great Race Across the U.S.,” Sheller wrote of the difficulties he faced in selling the automobile to those who relied on horses as their primary mode of transportation. Test drives in the Lizzie were a dangerous affair, as Sheller memorably described them, but he still managed to sell the cars: “I became convinced that it might be wiser to collect full payment for the car before attempting driving instructions. Then, in case of accident, crumpled fenders, smashed radiators and jackknifed axles it would be the instructee’s responsibility, not mine.”
The Model T’s Great Run
The popularity of the Model T brought millions of American drivers out onto the roads for the first time. Ford Motor Company produced some 15 million Model Ts, before changing tastes and an expanding market led Ford to call a halt to production in May 1927; it was replaced by the Model A. A fixture in popular culture by that time, the “Tin Lizzie” retained its title as the best-selling car in history until 1972, when it was surpassed by the Volkswagen Beetle.
Sheller, meanwhile, became known as “Mr. Sunnyside” for his role in shaping Sunnyside and the lower Yakima Valley region of Washington. Though illness caused him to curtail his automobile business in the early 1930s, he remained an active force in the community, chartering the local Rotary Club and serving as its president. In the late 1940s, he spearheaded a campaign that raised some $90,000 to improve the streets and sidewalks of Sunnyside. “Me and the Model T,” published in 1965, has been praised as a lively and humorous chronicle of Sheller’s life, as well as a great insight into the history of the iconic “Tin Lizzie,” Henry Ford and the dawn of the automobile age.