In the farthest corner of a basement gallery at the Victoria & Albert Museum is an object that may have changed the world more than any other in the museum’s vast collection.
A 1926 Ford Model-T Tourer is the starting point of an exhibition examining the impact of car design.
It’s there because it was transformative: for manufacturing, industry, travel, leisure, economies, cities and the environment.
The car ushered in the age of mass production and the democratisation of vehicle ownership and established Ford as an industrial giant, a position it retains to this day.
Its founder aimed the vehicle unashamedly at the American everyman.
“I will build a motor car for the great multitude,” Henry Ford promised.
“But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one – and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
He was as good as his word and in 19 years of production, 15 million Model T’s were made and sold around the world.
More than a century on however there is no question the age of the motor car has come at a price, with the climate the principal victim of Ford’s success.
Today the motor industry is finally grappling with the emissions crisis, and Ford has launched its first all-electric model, the Mustang Mach-E.
Tellingly this is not an ‘electric Model T’ aiming to repeat the universal affordability of the car that made the marque.
The name is a giveaway.
Mustang is Ford’s best-known brand, the badge on the noisy, thirsty sports coupe driven into Hollywood lore by Steve McQueen in Bullitt.
The Mach-E is not an electric version of a gas-guzzling US classic.
Instead the Mustang name is there to burnish the sporty credentials of an SUV designed to be sleek enough to catch the eye of petrolheads but with enough room in the back to make it a viable family car.
With a starting price of around £46,000 for the entry level model, rising to £56,000 and more for a battery with longer range, it is closer to the top end of the electric market created by Tesla than the mass market into which Ford sells its best seller, the Fiesta.
There are practical and economic reasons for the positioning.
The Mach-E’s battery costs around £10,000, which is a quick way of making a £15,000 Fiesta unaffordable.
And it is heavy, so an SUV makes it a good starting point for electrification.
Ford follows Jaguar, Audi and others in focusing on larger battery-powered vehicles.
Tesla has also demonstrated there is a market for electric vehicles at the upper end, one Ford hopes to reverse into with a more affordable offer.
But with the British government having imposed a 2035 deadline for a ban on new diesel and petrol cars, mass-producers like Ford need to bring electric technology into the reach of their founder’s “great multitudes”.
Ford’s European President Stuart Rowley acknowledges the challenge, but says governments and consumers, still wedded to our planet polluting cars, have to change too.
“We will be investing in lower-priced full battery electric vehicles as we move forward,” he told Sky News.
“Our first European-built battery electric vehicle will be coming to market in 2023, and as we gain scale the cost of the technology will reduce and it will become more accessible
“But you have got to remember today the charging infrastructure isn’t in there, so even if you can afford an expensive vehicle you wouldn’t necessarily be able to use it.
“So many people will want different solutions.
“We’ll have a mild, a full and a plug-in hybrid Cougar, and we’re electrifying our commercial vehicles – we have a plug-in Transit custom one tonne van and next year we’ll have a two tonne full-battery electric Transit.”
Like its counterparts Ford wants governments to do more to incentivise and support the market, building charging infrastructure and offering tax breaks to buyers.
It will push back on some targets however, with Rowley arguing there should still be a place for “clean diesel” in their Transit and other light goods vehicles.
But strikingly, he says he can see the day the Ford Motor Company no longer makes petrol and diesel cars.
“I’m sure that day will come, I don’t know what date that is and it will be different in different countries but the technology will evolve.
“I don’t know when, there will be many forces at play in that, but that’s the direction of travel we’re going in.
“That’s what governments want, it’s what society wants and we will be a part of that.”
They will have to be if the internal combustion engine is to join the Model T as a museum piece.