The Ford Model T: pioneer of the automotive generation
I have been reading a book of essays by E.B. White, long-time writer and editor with The New Yorker, contemporary of James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley and member of the famous Algonquin Round Table. He has a lovely style, easy to read, humorous, eloquent and thoughtful. Although most of these essays were originally published in the 1930s, they have a freshness that has outlasted the years.
My favourite of White’s essays (Endnote 1) is titled Farewell my Lovely! This is his tribute to the Model T Ford. Written in 1936, about ten years after Model T manufacture came to an end, White's story is subtitled "an aging male kisses an old flame goodbye". It is a very American story, but nevertheless will resonate with Australian readers, at least those of a “certain age”, like me, who actually remember this remarkable vehicle.
A note of nostalgia is set in White’s first paragraph:
I see by the new Sears Roebuck catalogue that it is still possible to buy an axle for a 1909 Model T Ford, but I am not deceived. Great days have faded, the end is in sight. Only one page in the current catalogue is devoted to parts and accessories for the Model T; yet everyone remembers spring times when the Ford gadget section was larger than men’s clothing, almost as large as household furnishings.
The last Model T was built in 1927. Thus by 1936, the car was disappearing from (as White puts it) what scholars call the American scene. On the contrary, to the millions of people who grew up with it, the old Ford practically was the American scene.
It was the miracle God had wrought. And it was patently the- sort of thing that could only happen once. Mechanically uncanny, it was like nothing that had ever come to the world before. Flourishing industries rose and fell with it. As a vehicle, it was hard-working, commonplace, heroic; and it often seemed to transmit those qualities to the persons who rode in it.
I never rode in a Model T, but I did get to know a Ford Model A, which was its successor. This was in the form of the van driven by our neighborhood grocer Mr. Willis, in which he delivered the weekly box of fruit and vegetables to our family home in Wattle Avenue. Mr. Willis would occasionally give me a ride in this superb old vehicle from our place down the street to his next delivery, allowing me to take in the mysteries of its operation.
A 1930s Ford Model A delivery van. The one Mr. Willis drove was not as beautifully presented as this one, but he loved it, and treated it like a thoroughbred racehorse.
I was too young at the time to know anything about driving a car, but I knew enough to realise that Mr. Willis’ operation of his van was complex and tricky … well, at least he made it look this way. I also loved the way he talked to the van, and petted it. Clearly to Mr. Willis his steed was more akin to a faithful old draught horse than an automobile. I am pretty sure it was still doing the rounds in the late 1940s, by which time far more modern vehicles would have been available if he had wanted one.
Back to EB White. He wrote:
The Model T was distinguished from all other makes of cars by the fact that its transmission was of a type known as planetary- which was half metaphysics, half sheer friction. Engineers accepted the word “planetary” in its epicyclic sense, but I was always conscious that it also meant “wandering”, “erratic.” Because of the peculiar nature of this planetary element, there was always, in Model T, a certain dull rapport between engine and wheels, and even when the car was in a state known as neutral, it trembled with a deep imperative and tended to inch forward. There was never a moment when the bands were not faintly egging the machine on. In this respect it was like a horse, rolling the bit on its tongue, and country people brought to it the same technique they used with draft animals.
I don't remember ever riding in a Model T, although there were still a number on the road when I was a boy. On the other hand I have watched videos of them on the internet. A striking feature was their speed and agility, and their capacity to handle bad roads, mud, snow and sand . The were extremely economical, which is probably the reason old Ts were brought out of storage in Australia during the War, when petrol was rationed.
The Model T also had a remarkable weight/power ratio. White has a special comment on acceleration, or what we used to call "pick-up":
Its most remarkable quality was its rate of acceleration. In its palmy days the Model T could take off faster than anything on the road. The reason was simple. To get under way, you simply hooked the third finger of the right hand around a lever on the column, pulled down hard, and shoved your left foot forcibly against the low-speed pedal. These were simple, positive motions; the car responded by lunging forward with a roar. After a few seconds of this turmoil, you took your toe off the pedal, eased up a mite on the throttle, and the car, possessed of only two forward speeds, catapulted directly into high with a series of ugly jerks and was off on its glorious errand. The abruptness of this departure was never equaled in other cars of the period.
One of the things I remember about Mr. Willis' Model A was that you didn't get into it, as one gets into a modern car. You mounted it, climbing onto the running board and then scrambling up onto the bench seat. White remembers:
… the driver of the old Model T was a man enthroned. The car, with top up, stood seven feet high. The driver sat on top of the gas tank, brooding it with his own body. When he wanted gasoline, he alighted, along with everything else in the front seat. The seat was pulled off, the metal cap unscrewed, and a wooden stick thrust down to sound the liquid in the well. There were always a couple of these sounding sticks kicking around in the ratty sub-cushion regions of a flivver. Refuelling was more a social function then, because the driver had to unbend, whether he wanted to or not. Directly in front of the driver was the wind-shield—high, uncompromisingly erect. Nobody talked air resistance, and the four cylinders pushed the car through the atmosphere with a simple disregard of physical law.
A nicely restored 1927 Model T, the last version before manufacture ceased. It stood over 2 m high.
These days when you buy a motor car, you expect it to have everything you need, although even in my lifetime it was not always that way. I can remember having to arrange specially to get a heater/demister installed in the first new car I ever bought in 1963, and I also remember what an extraordinary luxury this was – warm air on my feet or the windscreen at the touch of a button! This seems laughable today when every modern vehicle comes with a fully ducted reverse-cycle air-conditioner. On my most recent purchase, the only extra I needed was a tow-hitch. It was very different with the Model T:
There was this about a Model T: the purchaser never regarded his purchase as a complete, finished product. When you bought a Ford, you figured you had a start—a vibrant, spirited framework to which could be screwed an almost limitless, assortment of decorative and functional hardware. Driving away from the agency, hugging the new wheel between your knees, you were already full of creative worry. A Ford was born naked as a baby and a flourishing industry grew up out of correcting its rare deficiencies and combating its fascinating diseases. Those were the great days of lily-painting. I have been looking at some old Roebuck catalogues, and they bring everything back so clear.
Some of the extras White remembers include a Ruby Safety Reflector to install on the rear of the car; a radiator ornament; a fan belt guide to stop slippage on the pulley; radiator goo to seal leaks; a tyre patching outfit; a tool box; a rear-view mirror; red (for petrol) and blue (for water) containers in a bolt-on rack; windscreen wipers; and a foot accelerator to replace the hand throttle.
Owners not only bought ready-made gadgets, they invented gadgets to meet special needs. I myself drove my car directly from the agency to the blacksmith’s, and had the smith affix two enormous iron brackets to the port running board to support an army trunk.
Among the many necessities a Model T driver had to have with him, and know how to use, were the puncture fixing kit and the starting handle. According to White:
[Tyres] were 30 X 3 1/2, cost about $12, and punctured readily. Everybody carried a Jiffy patching set, with a nutmeg grater to roughen the tube before the goo was spread on. Everybody was capable of putting on a patch, expected to have to, and did have to.
During my association with Model T’s, self-starters were not a prevalent accessory. They were expensive and under suspicion. Your car came equipped with a serviceable crank, and the first thing you learned was how to Get Results. It was a special trick and until you learned it (usually from another Ford owner, but sometimes by a period of appalling experimentation) you might as well have been winding up an awning. The trick was to leave the ignition switch off, proceed to the animal's head, pull the choke (which was a little wire protruding through the radiator) and give the crank two or three nonchalant upward lifts. Then, whistling as though thinking about something else, you would saunter back to the driver’s cabin, turn the ignition on, return to the crank, and this time, catching it on the down stroke, give it a quick spin with plenty of that. If this procedure was followed the engine almost always responded—first with a few scattered explosions, then with a tumultuous gunfire, which you checked by racing around to the driver’s seat and retarding the throttle. Often, if the emergency brake hadn’t been pulled all the way back the car advanced on you the instant the first explosion occurred, and you would hold it back by leaning your weight against it. I can still feel my old Ford nuzzling me at the curb, as though looking for an apple in my pocket.
I know about cranking. Some of the first forestry vehicles I drove were started by hand-cranking (not because they did not have self-starters but because the batteries were often flat), and I learned to be very wary about it. If the engine backfired and you were not quick enough, the crank handle could spin violently backwards and break your arm. The wonderful old forestry overseer at Dwellingup, Johnny Moore, who taught me to drive a truck back in the early 1960s, advised me always to crank with my left hand, at it would be “better”, he said, if my left arm was broken, as I was right-handed.
Cranking a Model T, by the prescribed method ... left-handed.
White explains that Model T Fords were reliable but idiosyncratic. Every owner had to get to know his own machine, learn its little ways, and care for it as an individual. Some owners believed that dropping a camphor ball into the fuel tank was an effective tonic for both man and machine. There were no gauges (the dashboard was totally bare, other than a slot for the ignition key), so the driver did not know whether the engine was running hot or the oil pressure was low. Speedometers, like windshield wipers were extras.
The Model T “dashboard” and controls
White notes that every Model T owner was perforce a mechanic. And there was also a touch of metaphysics to the whole affair:
One reason the Ford anatomy was never reduced to a science was that, having “fixed” it, the owner couldn’t honestly claim that the treatment had brought about the cure. There were too many authenticated cases of Fords fixing themselves - restored naturally to health after a short rest. Farmers soon discovered this, and it fitted nicely with their draft-horse philosophy “Let ’er cool off and she’ll snap into it again.”
White concludes his lovely reflection with a final lament for this extraordinary vehicle and his, and his generation's relationship with it:
Springtime in the heyday of the Model T was a delirious season. Owning a car was still a major excitement, roads were still wonderful and bad. The Fords were obviously conceived in madness: any car which was capable of going from forward into reverse without any perceptible mechanical hiatus was bound to be a mighty challenging thing to the human imagination. Boys would veer them off the highway into a level pasture and run wild with them, as though they were cutting up with a girl. Most everybody used the reverse pedal quite as much as the regular brake—it distributed the wear over the bands and wore them out evenly. That was the big trick, to wear all the bands evenly, so that the final chattering would be total and the whole unit scream for renewal.
The days were golden, the nights were dim and strange. I call with trembling those loud, nocturnal crises when you drew up to a signpost and raced the engine so the lights would be bright enough to read destinations by. I have never been really planetary since. I suppose it’s time to say good-bye. Farewell, my lovely!
At the Brookton Old-time Motor show last year, I came across a superbly-restored Model T and enjoyed a charming conversation with the owners and restorers – John and Lesley Smith. I was even allowed to sit behind the wheel … but was not trusted to take it for a spin. They have, John tells me, a collection of eight partly-restored Model Ts in their workshop at Mukinbudin, and I am dying to visit and explore them.
Model T van, restored by John and Lesley Smith
That is not all. One of my former school mates John Wood has a Model T, which he is in the process of restoring. I am hopeful that one day soon he will give me a ring and let me know that the time has come when he can take me for a run, or even let me have a go behind the wheel. I’ll let you know how that goes.
1. White E.B. (1999): Farewell My Lovely. Written in 1936, originally published in The New Yorker, republished in Essays of E.B.White. Harper Perennial. New York.
2. There is an exhilarating video of a Model T "off-roading" on YouTube at: