The Competition 1920 – Model T Ford in the Marketplace

The year 1920 was extraordinary in many ways, yet we don’t seem to remember many things about it today. Ford production increased significantly from the prior year, but most automakers had results exactly the opposite of Ford. Many auto manufacturers went out of business. The depression of 1920 – 21 is hardly; if ever; mentioned today; but it was severe and profound for those who lived through the time. Much of the economic trouble was caused by the end of World War I (simply known as The Great War at that time). Returning soldiers came back to find there were no jobs available, exports to Europe fell due to strife and hardship in that part of the world. Meanwhile the Volstead Act went into effect on January 16, 1920 ushering in a shadow economy of smuggling, speakeasies, and liquor trade that was not taxed yet cost the government lots of money while trying to enforce the unpopular new law. President Wilson had been incapacitated since a major stroke October of 1919, never to recover. A flu epidemic had been sweeping the world since 1918. By December 1920 it had killed about four to five percent of the world’s population, as many as 100 million people. It was the worst epidemic in recorded human history.

A 1920 Model T Ford Coupe sold for $850. Ford sold more than 60,000 of them that year. This one is fitted with a custom salesman’s trunk and a spotlight, bumper and running board rack photographed in downtown Dallas TX.

Ford built about 941,000 cars and trucks in 1920 model year, easily holding first place in the industry. Model T body styles continued from the previous year, with the touring being easily the most popular body style, available either in the basic hand cranked version with magneto powered headlamps and kerosene tail and cowl lamps, or in the fancier and more expensive version with starter, battery, 6 volt headlamps and tail lamp, and demountable wheels including a spare rim (a spare tire was optional at extra cost). Prices for the Model T touring started at $575 for the basic crank started version, or $675 for the fancy Model T equipped with electrical starter. Ford continued to supply its cars with the two speed planetary transmission controlled by foot pedals. The rest of the industry sold cars with 3 or more speed manual transmissions. The Model T engine continued as before, with 20 advertised horsepower from four cylinders and 176 cubic inches.

A 1920 issue of Ford Times featured this lovely runabout photo. The car is somewhat unusual in that it is apparently equipped with starter and battery, yet the wheels are non – demountable. The runabout started at $550, or $650 with electrical equipment.

Chevrolet came in second with production of 146,000 cars and trucks. Most of these were the venerable Model 490, Chevrolet’s low cost competitor to the Model T. The 490 had 26 horsepower emitting from its overhead valve four cylinder engine, which displaced 171 cubic inches. All Chevrolets for 1920 were equipped with a three speed sliding gear transmission, electric starter and lighting with 6 volt battery, with touring prices starting at $795. Tires were the same size as Model T, 30 X 3 1/2″ on all four.

A 1920 Chevrolet touring with its characteristic twin small round rear windows on the top was for sale on an auction site in unrestored condition


 The Chevrolet 490 engine had overhead valves which needed to be oiled regularly using the oil can provided. Notice the exposed flywheel and starter ring gear.

About 25,000 of the cars built by Chevrolet in 1920 were the bigger, more costly Model FB, which was the latest version of the earlier Royal Mail (roadster) / Baby Grand (touring) with 37 horsepower from its 224 cubic inch OHV four cylinder engine. The Model FB touring started at $1295, a lot of money in those days. Tires were 33 X 5, appropriate for a medium sized car such as this. 

The model FB tourings came standard in dark green, but custom paint was optional. It is unlikely any of them came from the factory in this color scheme. Note that the rear windows are far larger than normal.
1920 Chevrolet FB engine has been beautifully restored.
Chevrolet Model FB touring top showing the correct round rear windows and the correct top material with light colored inside and black outside. 

Dodge was right behind Chevrolet at 141,000 vehicles. It was a tough year for the Dodge family, with both John and Horace Dodge dead by the end of 1920 from the influenza epidemic that was sweeping the world.

Dodge advertising boasted of the company not having model years. The 1920 Dodge Brothers car was a good example of this, looking much as a 1915 Dodge had looked. These were very well designed and well built cars. Unlike much of the competition, Dodge used Budd bodies built with very little wood structure. This made the Dodge easy to construct, light for its size, and long lasting compared to more traditional steel nailed to wood bodies being used by Ford and Chevrolet at the time. Dodge used a 12 volt charging system in 1920 which was revolutionary. Horsepower from the 212 cubic inch engine was rated at 24; actual horsepower was likely near 30. Like the rest of the industry Dodge used a three speed sliding gear transmission. This car sports non – original spot lamp, wind wings, and driving lamp.

Dodge roadster with optional winter top fitted. The roadster prices started at $935, with the “winter car” top optional at extra cost.
Dodge advertisement showing the 1920 touring with winter car top fitted.
1920 Dodge engine compartment. The fuel pump mounted on the firewall is vacuum operated as was common with many cars of the time, other than Ford.
Looks like a chilly day for top down driving in this four cylinder 1920 Buick touring.

Buick was at 115,176 cars sold. There were two sizes of Buick in 1920, either four cylinder or the big K45 six cylinder. A four cylinder roadster sold for $900, the big six cylinder sedans started at $1650. All Buicks had overhead valves, electric starting and lighting, and three speed manual sliding gear transmissions.

The owner of this big 1920 Buick K45 six cylinder touring chose to restore it in clown car garb. Originally these cars were elegant and dark green in color.
1920 French color catalogue shows the touring in its original green color with cream painted wood wheels.
Overland pricing was quite aggressive in 1920, with both roadster and tourings selling for $495.
The Overland four had 27 horsepower. The fuel tank was mounted on the forward side of the firewall to allow gravity feed to the carburetor.

Willys Overland was responsible for selling 105,000 cars in 1920. Two main lines of cars were built, the low priced four cylinder Overland, and the high priced sleeve valve 4 cylinder Willys Knight car. All cars were equipped with electric starter and lighting equipment. Wire wheels were a popular option, with wood wheels being standard. All cars were equipped with three speed sliding gear manual transmissions.

Model 20 Willys Knight touring was a good looking car. Sleeve valve engines boasted of quiet operation and “no need for valve adjustment…ever!” Optional wire wheels are installed on this sporty touring. The four cylinder engine was rated at 48 horsepower and displaced 186 cubic inches. The Willys Knight touring started at $1000, equipped with wood wheels. 

The top of the line for Willys Overland was the four door sedan.
The 1920 Overland touring was a lot of car for $495.
48 horsepower 4 cylinder engine in the 1920 Willys Knight. The engine was used for several years afterwards with few changes. Later models were rated at 40 horsepower.

Studebaker was well behind the leaders, selling just about 49,000 cars and trucks in 1920. By 1920 all Studebakers were powered by six cylinder engines. The $1450 Light Six touring powered by a 288 cubic inch engine was rated at 40 horsepower, the  Special Six touring at 50 horsepower cost $1675,  and the Big Six, with 354 cubic inches had a whopping 60 horsepower and cost $2352. The Big Six was only available as a touring.


The bulk of Studebaker production in 1920 was the Special Six, available in touring, two different roadsters, coupe, or sedan body styles.
Many police departments chose the Studebaker Big Six, including the majority of counties in Arizona.
The Studebaker Big Six engine rated at 60 horsepower.
The Essex, introduced in 1919, had a four cylinder F head engine rated at 50 horsepower coming from 179 cubic inches. Prices ranged from $1395 – $1795. They were stylish cars with a lot of power for their weight.

Hudson was nearly the same as Studebaker with 46,000 cars produced. Hudson for 1920 had two basic products, the four cylinder Essex and the Super Six Hudson. The Essex could be considered a medium priced car, while the Hudson was in near luxury class.

High style was part of the deal when you owned a new 1920 Essex Coupe.
Top of the Hudson line was the Super Six Sedan at $2145.
Not many of the 1920 Hudson Super Six speedsters were built.
Stylish 1920 Hudson Super Six sedan seen in San Francisco. Photo credit: Shorpy.
The 1920 Maxwell was available in several body styles including coupe, sedan, roadster, and even a town car, but most buyers went for the touring.

Maxwell Chalmers, in eighth place in the industry that year, built 36,000 cars in 1920. Remarkably they were unable to sell 26,000 of them! Maxwell was still building the Model 25 which had been introduced in 1913 as a 1914 model. Maxwell was known for its notoriously weak / fragile rear axle, and the economic downturn happened at the same time as Maxwell ramped up production. The company was placed in receivership and auctioned to the highest bidder. As a result, a group of investors became owners of the assets, including the 26,000 unsold cars. Walter Chrysler was hired at the then unheard of pay rate for the time of $100,000 per year for five years.

The 1920 Maxwell was introduced in the fall of 1919. Tourings started at $985.

One of the first things that Walter Chrysler did upon taking control of the company was to have an engineering committee examine all the known faults of the design, and to recommend fixes for each fault. One of the interesting things that they found at fault was the culture of the engineering department. It seems that once a design was finalized the drawings were never revised, even though parts were not being built the way the drawings directed. This was causing tremendous chaos over time, because if a supplier changed, the new part supplier might be making parts that would not fit or work properly.

The Maxwell engine was rated at 25 horsepower. Standard equipment included starter and generator with full electric lighting. A Stewart vacuum fuel pump was mounted to the firewall, with the fuel tank located at the rear of the car between the frame rails as was common to most cars of the day, other than Ford.
Maxwell advertising focused on the light weight, good fuel economy, and low cost. Car buyers stayed away because stories of broken rear axles were, unfortunately, all too true.
The little Maxwell town cars were used mostly as taxis in large cities. Wood trim on the body, and the wheels, would have been painted originally.
Like Ford, Maxwell used inexpensive clincher tires which were white on the inner and outer side walls, with only the tread area being black. All white tires were cheaper, but the black treaded tires proved to be twice as durable, so they became the norm as time went on.

To summarize the competition of 1920, Ford held the reputation of making a very sturdy, very high quality car that could be depended on. Only Overland was competitive on both price and features. The Overland of 1920 was a very well made car, but unfortunately did not have the dealer network or manufacturing capacity to equal Ford. If this author had been a new car potential buyer in 1920, and the choice was offered, it would be the Overland going home to my garage.

About 1.4 million new cars were registered in the United states between December 31, 1918 and December 31, 1919. The majority of those cars were Model T Fords. The same was true in 1920, and it would continue to be true until the end of 1926 as the Model T Ford dominated world automobile production.