The Ford Model T is the auto world’s granddaddy big-kahuna megastar. This is the machine that liberated mankind from rural isolation and offered the masses their first taste of urban culture. It almost single-handedly revolutionized the automobile’s role from a plaything for the wealthy to a cherished member of the average household. During its 1908 to 1927 production run, more than 15 million Model Ts were built and sold around the world. No single innovation before or since has done more to burnish America’s reputation for ingenuity.
One more Ford Model T factoid: before this account, few at Automobile Magazine had driven one. To rectify that lapse and to toast the T on its one-hundredth birthday, we arranged a test drive in an unrestored 1920 Centerdoor sedan owned for twenty-five years by Matt Lee of Plymouth, Michigan.
Lee is our kind of enthusiast. Instead of fussing over his T’s sixty-year-old paint job or the fact that the doors no longer latch securely because the Fisher-built, wood-framed body has suffered old-age spread, he enjoys driving his car frequently, even in the dead of winter. For the past six years, this T has served as a tangible link to early engineering in the Evolution of the Automobile class Lee teaches at Washtenaw Community College in Ypsilanti, Michigan.
My test drive began with readiness checks. In lieu of a fuel gauge, a wooden ruler is used to measure the level of gasoline in the ten-gallon tank located beneath the driver’s seat. To check the oil level in the common engine/transmission sump, I reached under the T’s chassis with a long extension handle to momentarily twist open two brass petcocks. Drips from the top one indicate excess oil; as long as the bottom petcock dribbles lube, you’re good to go.
Even though his T is blessed with an electric starter (available factory equipment beginning in 1919), Lee taught me how to swing the hand crank poking out the front of the car. “Nearly all engines rotate clockwise, ” my professor explained, “because that arrangement best suited a right-handed man.” Making sure not to wrap my thumb around the handle in case of a backfire, I engaged the ratchet teeth and gave the crank a quick upward yank. The 20-hp, 2.9-liter four-banger fired instantly and settled into its familiar chuff-chuff-chuff idle. As you’d expect with heavy pistons stroking a full four inches and not a hint of counterweight on the spindly crankshaft, all Model Ts shake like North Pole sunbathers.
The soft suspension took a set when I climbed the two-step staircase to the driver’s seat. Because Ts paved the way for roads instead of vice versa, the running gear had to be elevated to clear stumps. One of several accessory upgrades fitted to this car is a Hassler “shock absorber” mounted inboard of each wheel. They’re actually coil springs that work in series with the transverse, semielliptic leaf springs to soften ride motions. That they do, but they also allow the body to totter around corners. Real shock absorbers (dampers) were not fitted to Fords until the Model A replaced the T in 1928.
Henry Ford’s gift to novice drivers-a pedal-shifted transmission-didn’t intimidate me, because I had studied its operation in advance. After releasing the parking brake, stepping assertively on the left pedal commences forward motion. Lifting off that pedal shifts the planetary transmission from low to high gear. You press the center pedal for reverse and the right pedal to slow down. The throttle is a small hand lever sprouting out the right side of the steering column.