For drivers in 2008, most of whom were weaned on slick automatic transmissions, power steering and brakes, and effortless starting, however, getting behind the wheel of a T and easing it out into traffic might be a counterintuitive, daunting experience. (Driving any vehicle of the T’s era in modern traffic generally demands more attention to controls and operation than today’s cars and trucks.)
Pull yourself up onto the Model T driver’s perch and you’ll be sitting at approximately the same height as in a modern 4×4 pickup truck. Slipping across the thickly padded seat, you will immediately reach for a track adjuster to give more legroom. But the seat position and backrest are fixed, which has made getting comfortable in a Model T a perennial challenge for many taller drivers.
But not for Steven Rossi. The 6-foot-4-inch antique-vehicle hobbyist is plenty comfy while romping his 1924 Coupe over hill and dale of rural Connecticut on a close-to-daily basis.
“One reason I bought a Model T rather than the larger, more modern Model A is I can’t fit in an A!” he said. “Its gearshift lever is literally underneath my right kneecap. I find the T’s cockpit is much more open and roomy than a Model A’s.”
When Ford finally offered an electric starter in 1919, the $70 option was worth nearly three weeks’ pay for a Highland Park factory worker. But the “electric arm” made living with a T much easier, and it helped expand Ford sales, particularly with women. Some customers did not trust the newfangled starter, however. They preferred the familiar, proven hand crank located near the base of the car’s radiator.
Cranking a Model T “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, ” noted authors E. B. White and Richard L. Strout in “Farewell, My Lovely, ” their famous collaborative tribute to the Model T published in The New Yorker in 1936. White knew the T intimately, having traveled across the United States in one as a college graduate in 1922.
John Steinbeck, who witnessed the T’s role in the great westward migration of the 1930s during his reporting for The Grapes of Wrath, claimed that the Model T sensed exactly the number of crank turns he would tolerate before he wanted to smash the car’s radiator in frustration.
The starting process is simple (see sidebar), but as when kick-starting some motorcycles, there are precautions to guard against getting hurt. When cranking a T, you should not wrap your thumb around the crank handle because a backfire can cause the handle to abruptly kick back in the opposite direction, potentially breaking your thumb or spraining your wrist or elbow, as more than a few T owners can attest.
“You’ve got to approach hand-cranking with a certain degree of caution and respect, ” said antique Ford enthusiast John Forster, whose red 1909 Touring graces this book’s cover.
In the depths of winter, hand-cranking a T was no mean feat. With thickened oil in the sump, there were various recommended solutions for starting, including cranking the engine with one rear wheel jacked up off the ground, or building a small fire underneath the pan to warm up the oil.
Electrically heated intake manifolds were available, as were manifold covers incorporating cups into which a small quantity of gasoline or alcohol would be poured. When a flame was applied under the cups, the manifold warmed up sufficiently so the engine cranked easily—in theory. But as legendary Model T technical maven Murray Fahnestock cautioned in 1923, “care should be taken not to flood the carburetor or attempt to start the engine until the flame is completely burned out. Otherwise there is more or less risk in setting the engine on fire.”
Also, if the emergency brake isn’t fully deployed during starting, the car has an odd habit of creeping forward.
“There was never a moment when the [transmission] bands were not faintly egging the machine on, ” noted White and Strout. Early owners would liken this to being nuzzled by a horse, and if the car was on level ground, it could be prevented from moving simply by leaning against the radiator.
Slower Traffic Keep Right
When it was introduced in late 1908, the Model T was perhaps the sprightliest car of its class in the world, thanks to its torquey engine and downright feathery curb weight. Owners found that the original powertrain handled almost any road or load thrown its way, including serving in the TT truck chassis (see Chapter 5). Even the car’s marginal transmission-band brake was remarkably up to the job of stopping the car in the light road traffic of the time (the first traffic lights didn’t appear in major cities until 1914).
But by the 1930s, the Ford powertrain was outclassed by improved roads, heavier traffic, and a generally faster pace. Still, the Model T soldiered on for many thousands of loyal owners whose main concern was basic transportation—and for those who couldn’t afford a better car.