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Pioneer Ford Owners Were Self-Sufficient

by Bob Hagin

October 22, 2001

When I'm in a philosophical mood, I sometimes reflect on how easy it is to be a motorist today and how difficult and challenging it was for our ancestors at the beginning of the 20th century. We remotely unlock the doors of our snug sedans, start their engines with a twist of a key, slip their gear selectors into Drive and we're on our way.

But it was much more difficult for our forbearers, those who pioneered "personal" transportation. Almost all of them got their start at the wheel of Henry Ford's crude but capable Model T, a car that for many years was available only as a black open-air four-seater "touring car," or an even more spartan roadster.

Getting a Model T on the road during the decades before and after World War I was usually an exercise in patience, skill and sheer muscle power. The steering column-mounted throttle and ignition spark control had to be set just right, the hand-crank that stuck out from the front of the simple four cylinder engine had to be positioned for an upward pull (this avoided a broken wrist in the event of a backfire) and hopefully the engine would cough into life after a couple of swings of the handle. The driver then had to dash to the cockpit, reposition the controls, select low gear via the appropriate foot pedal (there were three), and be underway.

But it didn't always work quite that easily. The rudimentary planetary transmission (it used the same basic mechanical technology as today's automatic) had an unnerving tendency to make the car "creep" forward until its oil was warm and, if the primitive parking brake system didn't hold, many drivers found themselves forced to literally restrain the car from forward motion until they were in the driver's seat.

If the weather was really cold, some drivers found it necessary to jack up one back wheel, which allowed it to spin by itself when the engine started. This necessitated a push-off to get underway.

As the car got older, mechanical "tricks" were sometimes required to fire up a Model T engine. Several aftermarket manufacturers produced spark plugs that had small built-in cups and petcocks through which the driver could pour a small amount of gasoline or benzine directly into the cylinders. Hopefully just the right amount was added which alleviated the possibility of cracked piston rings or pistons.

Even everyday driving situations that we take for granted often took skill and experience when driving those ancient Fords. While the Model T had exceptional climbing ability due to its good engine torque and light weight (approximately 1200 pounds), getting up steep hills often took considerable moxie on the part of the pilot. If the hill was short, there was no problem, but longer distances caused the engine to literally run out of gas even if the gas tank had fuel. The problem was the laws of gravity. The fuel tank on the Model T was located under the front seat and in order to keep the price of the vehicle as the lowest possible level, it had no fuel pump and gas was pushed into its carburetor by gravity. But if the hill was steep and the fuel level was low, the engine simply ran out of gas. Experienced Model T drivers overcame this handicap by simply driving backwards up the hill, which put the fuel tank above the carburetor.

Even checking the fuel level in the gas tank required an exertion of energy. Driver and passenger had to dismount and its level was measured by poking a calibrated "stick" into the filler hole and then the stick was visually checked.

Tires also represented a problem area on all autos of the day. The wood-spoke wheels of the Model T were semi-permanently attached to the axles and in the event of a flat tire (a very common occurrence), the tire and the inner tube were removed, the tube patched on the spot and the two were remounted on the wheel. The driver then inflated the tire with a hand-operated pump that was carried in the car.

Tire technology was in its infancy back then and a contemporary ad for high quality India Tires guaranteed them for at least 8000 miles before they wore out. To extend the life of "ordinary" tires, Ford owners were offered an array of boots, inserts and patches that could be installed by the home handyman.

But to me the most interesting part of Model T ownership was the hundreds of driving accessories, performance items, agricultural devices and cosmetic add-ons that were available to its owner. Our all-American hot-rod industry got its embryonic stimulus from owners who wanted their 50 MPH "Tin Lizzies" to go faster, handle better and look sharper than the original. Conversion kits were readily available that could make the versatile "T" into a tractor, saw mill, fire engine, race car and half a dozen other items that required mobile power.

Time and technology finally caught up with the Model T in 1927 after an evolutionary run of 19 years. In its early days, it literally put the average American on the road. In 1925, a basic new Model T roadster could be had for only $280.

Almost as importantly, it fostered a cultural panache among early American motorists that they could cope with mechanical adversities and keep on driving. I wonder how many of us today would endure the automotive hardships of our ancestors and still keep driving?