In April 1931, a shiny, new Model A Ford rolled off the assembly line and into history. The stylish black Town Sedan was the twenty millionth automobile produced by Ford Motor Company, and they did not let the milestone pass without ceremony. Henry Ford, himself, stamped the serial number on the engine block and drove the car out of the plant as it embarked on a nationwide tour with Ford’s familiar blue oval logo and the words “The Twenty Millionth” emblazoned in large block letters down the sides and across the top.
The Model A was joined by other vehicles in the Ford fleet as the promotional caravan rolled across the country, making scheduled stops at national monuments, scenic parks, statehouses, and countless small town Ford dealerships. The car was the star attraction at every stop; movie stars, politicians and other dignitaries clamored to pose with the vehicle or take it for a test drive at the invitation of tour organizers. Eleanor Roosevelt and Douglas Fairbanks among dozens of other celebrities were photographed behind the wheel at various ports of call.
Police motorcades escorted the celebrity Model A into towns where brass bands heralded its arrival, and locals turned out by the thousands to see the spectacle. States issued one of a kind license plates numbered 20,000,000 to mark the occasion, presenting them to Ford representatives with great pomp and pride. The car even made a few laps and took the checkered flag at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and became the first private vehicle to descend to the bottom of Hoover Dam for a photo op. It was a welcome season of levity; a brief respite for a nation in the throes of the Great Depression. With automobile sales slumping and Americans in desperate need of a morale boost, Ford could hardly have planned a better public relations campaign.
Back in Detroit, the car remained a novelty item for a short time, but the world soon moved on. For many years, the original twenty millionth Model A was presumed to have been destroyed in a fire, along with the registry book logging the tour stops, commemorative state plates, and other souvenirs picked up along the way. But in the 1990s the car was almost miraculously rediscovered in storage, still owned by the family who purchased it from Ford in 1940. The deteriorating sedan underwent a total restoration in the early 2000s to bring it back to pristine, original condition in honor of Ford’s 2003 centennial celebration. The company then leased it for ten years to be displayed at their world headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.
Though the log book and commemorative plates from the national tour have never been found, hundreds of photos documenting the famous Model A’s triumphant, cross-country journey have resurfaced to document that moment in time. Imagine my surprise when one such photograph turned up while I was researching the history of Latta Ford in Selmer.
The photo shows a group of McNairy County dignitaries gathered around the Twenty Millionth Ford outside the local dealership. It was taken shortly before Earl Latta purchased the business and broke ground on a new location, 205 West Court Avenue, at what is now the McNairy County Visitor’s and Cultural Center. When the photo was taken, the local dealership, Bolton Ford, was in the 100 block of West Court Avenue, where present day China King is located.
This image came to light more than a decade ago, thanks to Nancy Kennedy at the McNairy County Archives. As a young woman, Nancy worked for Earl Latta, so she was always keen to preserve anything related to the history of his successful business ventures. The photo appears to be copied from newsprint with a 1932 date, supplied by an unknown archivist. In all likelihood, that date is one year off, given that the tour concluded in December 1931, and can be documented in Middle and East Tennessee, as early as June of the same year.
Inaccurate date or not, it’s a wonderfully evocative photo tying local people to a an historic event of national significance. Part two of this essay will detail how Henry Ford may have inspired a young Earl Latta to indulge his interest in old-time music while refining his sales pitch for Ford motorcars.
The four part series, Fords & Fiddles, appears as a guest column by Shawn Pitts in the March 2023 issues of The McNairy County News and on Pitts's blog, Broomcorn with additional links and photos.