Rediscovering the Joy of Motoring in a 1922 Ford Model T
I turned the key on a car that was built when Warren G. Harding was President, there were still only 48 states in the Union, broadcast radio was still a curiosity, and women had only just gained the right to vote.
I pressed the separate starter button and the flathead four cranked and sputtered to life yet again, as it had consistently for most of the last 91 years. I pulled the ignition advance lever located to the left of the steering wheel and the idle speed increased. Quickly, I turned the key from “battery” to “magneto” position, and after a slight hiccup as the source of electricity for the ignition system switched from the battery to the spinning generator attached to the engine, I was on my way to my first experience driving the car in which my father started his automotive adventures: A 1922 Ford Model T.
My father was a rather unique individual, just like the man providing the opportunity for me to retrace my father’s footsteps this sunny day in the late Winter in the Arizona of 2013. Joe Fellin is a former IBM engineer who worked in the semiconductor field for most of his long career. He’s the sort of terminally-curious guy who surrounds himself with the objects of his various fascinations, most of them mechanical. His mantle is crowded with old mining lamps, model aircraft engines, and various other immaculate mechanical things collected over the years, all perfectly arrayed. He’s a recent president of the national Model T club, And he shares his knowledge generously.
“When you let off that left pedal, you release a 105-pound spring that–through leverage–exerts 600 pounds of pressure on a clutch pack. That puts you in high gear.” he explained while pointing to the left pedal of the 3 on the floor before me. In form they looked familiar, though the assigned functions of most of them were entirely different from those in any car made in the last 80 years or so. So many things to understand differently in driving a T!
I tried to remind myself that for many of the original owners of the 15 million Model T’s made, it was not only the first car they owned, but the first one they had ridden in–or in some cases–even seen.
“It’s not hard to drive a T. They’re a hard car to break.” Joe reassured me. It was the perfect car for the time. When it debuted in 1908 there was a world-wide need for affordable, basic transportation that actually worked for most people. Before the T, cars were largely seen as luxuries for the landed gentry, many of whom kept paid drivers and/or mechanics.
Fussy, temperamental, less-than-robust and expensive: Those were most of the cars made before the T.
It took the pragmatism of a former farm-boy turned apprentice machinist and self-taught engineer to assemble all the right elements for a car that would come to define its age and change the world.
“Ok, now bring up the idle a bit. Give it some speed, and then we can go”. Joe pointed at the other unadorned steel lever, this one to the right side of the steering column. I remembered stories from my father about how my grandfather would provoke my grandmother on Sunday drives by pulling that hand-throttle back to an area where the paint hadn’t yet worn off. Without a speedometer, it was the only way to tell when one was speeding: The deeper the lever dipped into the still-painted part of the serrated metal arc providing friction beneath it, the more likely you were getting close to the almost-45 MPH terminal velocity of a stock Model T. And you were–quite honestly–probably pretty close to dying.
I looked down at the floorboards. I could see the ground beneath the car through the holes around the pedals linked to the brakes and transmission underneath. That’s how they were made.
Remembering the 105-pound clutch spring, I pressed the leftmost pedal to the floorboard, starting from the half-depressed position that constituted “neutral”. This was low gear, where the famous planetary gears did their jobs. I heard a distinctly mechanical growling sound as the car lurched forward and the idle dipped. “Go ahead and give it a little more gas.” I pulled the lever back, hoping there wasn’t something I had missed, and that the 20 horsepower figure for the 2.9 liter 4 wasn’t pessimistic. This car really should never have had more than 20 horsepower. It was definitely no more than necessary, and no more than was relatively safe.
And with that we were on our way, 78-year-old Joe in the back seat keeping my 6-year-old boy Henry company and narrating our voyage in a 91-year-old car.
Halfway down the block with Joe’s house gradually–very gradually–disappearing behind us, Joe said “Ok, now you can drop the throttle a bit and let the pedal up. Then you’re in high gear.” I did as he said and as I closed the throttle, the car seemed to almost come to a halt. I released the pedal and pulled back on the throttle lever. The engine surged. After a brief stumble, we were in high gear at something around 10 MPH. I looked back over my shoulder to see my son’s beaming eyes as he sprawled out on the rear seat, projecting some sense of majesty as he surveyed the passing desert from the tall vantage point the car provided.
And now, I had to remember how to stop. “Remember “ said Joe, “these aren’t power brakes.” I recalled that the pedal to the right activated them. I pressed, and at first — nothing. I pressed harder, and the sound of large eraser being rubbed on craft paper came through the cabin. The car slowed. I remembered to half-depress the left pedal again to put it in neutral. Our dramatic, glacial deceleration from about 15 MPH had completed without incident, and I hadn’t even killed the engine. Then the process started again as we continued our circumnavigation of the sparse desert neighborhood.
Through the rest of the drive, it occurred to me for the umpteenth time how relative the sense of speed really is.
With the T trundling over the undulating pavement, the split windshield open and the four-banger humming and perfuming the interior of the car with mild oil and exhaust fumes, we might as well have been in a BMW blasting along an unlimited section of the German Autobahn, racing to meet a LearJet at Hamburg. It was thrilling. I was blissfully aware of every mechanical action in the car as I operated it, every texture and vibration. I recalled scooting around my mountain place in Colorado on an old 125cc dirtbike, never going much faster than 20 MPH yet feeling like I was bending light.
In our little 2-mile jaunt I was able to open it up on a long straightaway and let the ponies run. With Joe’s encouragement I pulled the throttle back–if only for a few seconds–into the no-mans-land where paint still covered metal. The aftermarket speedometer (circa 1922 as well) had recently broken, but I’d estimate we came close to 40MPH in one section before Joe counseled that I’d best be closing the throttle and preparing to stop. “Cut the gas now and start slowing down. Wait until you’re about 100 yards from the stop sign and then put on the brakes, but make sure you have enough momentum to get to the stop. You don’t want to have to start again halfway up a hill.” I let the engine handle the braking until we were a football-field away, then applied the erasers to the craft paper again.
A few more blocks and we were back where we started. By that point I was getting to be a rather smooth T operator and didn’t even notice that I was controlling the engine speed with my hand, selecting one of two forward gears with my left foot (with neutral somewhere in the middle of the pedal’s travel), and somehow getting by without power brakes, power steering, shock absorbers, airbags, seatbelts, GPS, or electronics of any sort in a car old enough to be considered a national monument–one that also happened to be riding on rubber hoops that resembled bicycle tires.
After thanking Joe, my son and I were on the road again back to Phoenix in my 2012 Mazda 3. The intervening 90 model years had brought things undreamt-of in 1922: An engine smaller in displacement by a third that developed seven-and-half times the horsepower while using half as much gas; A body structure strong enough to protect its occupants in crashes at triple-digit speeds; air conditioning; enough digital computing power to run the entire space program circa 1969; digital computing power, itself. And yet: 80 MPH in the Mazda isn’t nearly as thrilling nor as spiritually rewarding as was 40 MPH in the Model T.
And something about the transition back to the Mazda also left me a bit wistful: Considering that only 66 years separated man’s first flight and his first steps on the moon, is this really all we have to show for 90 years of automotive development?
The following video of the actual event stars Ray Hodges as “Alphonse the Footman”, and Joe Fellin as “Mr. Big”. Many thanks to them both!