Billy Cuddy enjoys nothing more than taking out one of his six Model T Fords — the flagship car for the motor company for 20 years — and driving them.
The 70-year old motoring enthusiast, who lives near Glounthaune, reckons there could be up to 20 of the models left in Cork and describes driving them as akin “to riding a pony”.
“The Model T is completely different to any other type of car I’ve ever driven. Most modern cars, even going back a while, have a conventional steer force, a big gear box and a clutch. The Model T works on two gears. You press the pedal down to the floor and you’re in first gear. You release the handbrake to its forward position and you’re in top gear, ” he added.
“When driving a Model T, you’re part of the experience of the car, ” he said.
Manufacture of the Model T began in 1908 and Henry Ford famously wrote in his autobiography in 1909 that he told management that in the future “any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black”. However, most Model Ts came in a range of colours.
Generally regarded as the first affordable automobile, in 1909 a Model T cost $825. By 1927, the cheapest model cost $300, which in today’s money is $4, 000, or €3, 700.
Affectionately known as the ‘Tin Lizzie’, it dominated the mass market for two decades and was named the most influential car of the 20th century.
The last one anywhere in the world rolled off the Cork production line in 1927. But the model has lived on, in garages of collectors, who admire its style, simplicity and the creativity of its design.
Ford said of his vision for the iconic vehicle: “I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family, but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials, by the best men to be hired, after the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise.
“But it will be so low in price that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one — and enjoy with his family the blessing of hours of pleasure in God’s great open spaces.”
In other words, Ford democratised car ownership thanks to the lower costs associated with assembly line production instead of individual hand crafting.
Tinkering with individual Model Ts has become a satisfying hobby for the likes of Cuddy, who has always been interested in mechanics and the outdoor life.
“I have an old Ford Ferguson tractor which I bought when I was 17 and I restored a 1947 Jeep which I have had for 50 years, ” he said.
“I sourced my six Model Ts from all over the place. They were all basket cases when I got them.
“The first one I got was a result of an advertisement in the Cork Examiner. It was a Model T van. An auctioneer in Clonmel had it. His firm was celebrating a business anniversary. The company got this Model T, did it up and put their colours on it. When they were finished with it, they advertised it. When I went to look at it, I knew it was for me.”
But not content to merely admire the vehicle, Cuddy “took it asunder”.
“It’s rather like a Meccano set, ” he explains. “The beauty of these cars is their simple engineering. The van was the first Model T that I got going. Once I had that under my belt, it was repetition after that. That’s what the success story of Henry Ford was. He reduced costs and increased production.”
Cuddy says it’s a time-consuming hobby. “If you’re dealing with a basket case, by the time you source your parts, put all the stuff together and get it road-worthy, it takes about two years. You have to allow for waiting for the parts and getting people to help you.”
On a regular basis, he takes out his Model Ts, which are all taxed and insured and not too heavy on petrol. “A Model T will go for between 20 to 30 miles per gallon. What makes the car so special to me is the Cork connection and the driving experience. It has no water pump, no fuel pump and no water. You just get the fluids right, put them into the car and I genuinely believe they can last indefinitely.”
Cuddy is honorary secretary of the Irish Model T Ford Club, which is registered in Midleton and has about 150 members. “The club takes in the 32 counties. We have about 200 working vehicles that can be taken out for a drive any time.”
The club started in 1990 with five members. “In the last few years it has really got going, ” says Cuddy. “In 2005, for Cork’s year of culture, we organised an international rally to coincide with it. We had 40 cars from abroad and another 40 pulled out of the woodwork. We did a grand tour of West Cork and were met by the Lord Mayor of Cork. That really got us going.”