Model T owners gather to celebrate Henry's car

By Jim Meachen

RICHMOND, Ind. (July 2008) — More than 15 million Model T Fords were built worldwide from 1908 to 1927.  That’s an astounding number for a time when there were only a few million cars on the dusty roads of America and Europe. Even more astounding, by 1921 more than half of all the vehicles sold worldwide were Ford Model Ts.

And perhaps even more astounding yet, the assembly line process started by Henry Ford in 1913 brought the price of a new Model T down from $825 in 1908 to $260 in 1925.  Henry’s dream of making a new car affordable to every man with a job had been realized.  In the process the Ford Model T changed the face of America giving families from New York to North Dakota to California the freedom to travel anywhere they wanted to go and at any time. People were no longer dependent on the horse and the train.

As many as 160,000 Model Ts survive today in the form of touring cars, coupes, pickup trucks, race cars and a half dozen other configurations.  I discovered at the 100th anniversary celebration of the so-called Tin Lizzie at the fairgrounds here in July 2008 that Model T owners are part of a huge family involved in dozens of clubs around the country. Every summer owners take part in countless planned trips and events driving their beloved Fords in caravan style on what they call tours.

You really have to choose what fits your schedule, what you want to do, said Duane Wells of Lansing, Mich., who with his wife, Carolyn, drove their 1924 doctor’s coupe the 250 miles to Richmond.  They were just one of between 750 and 800 Model T owners from 45 states and eight countries who drove or trailered their cars to the massive week-long celebration. We left at 6:30 in the morning and got here about 4 in the afternoon, averaging about 30 miles per hour, Wells said. We’ve done as much as 310 miles in one day on other trips. Wells, a retired printing salesman, bought his Model T in 1991. He also owns a 1931 Model A.

Highland Park assembly plant building Model T Fords

Piquette Aveune plant

Scenes from the fairgrounds — Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas, speaks to members of the press at Model T gathering, at left; a Model T
station wagon
, center, and a Model T parked next to a 2008 Ford Flex. Below, various applications for the Model T through the years.

 Virtually all Model Ts are powered by a 2.9-liter 20-horsepower four-cylinder engine, which means driving a Model T is a leisurely experience. Top speed is said to be between 40 and 45 miles per hour, but most owners say they drive about 30 mph on flat land. I have found the sweet spot to be between 28 and 30, said Ken Hummel of Pittsburgh, who owns three cars and brought two of them to the celebration. You can do that speed all day long. Standing next to his 1912 Torpedo Roadster, Hummel said he gets driving and mechanical help from two friends, Dave Ross and Ed Smith. I rode about 18 miles in the back seat of Russ Grunewald’s 1926 touring car and discovered a new relationship with the cornfields and farmyards of eastern Indiana at 20-to-30 mph. I also discovered very effective 1920s air conditioning, a pleasant crosswind through the windowless car.

My wife loved to tour because she said she’d see things she never knew were there at 60 miles per hour, said Grunewald, who is president of the Model T Ford Club of America. The world looks a whole lot different at 25 mph in the open air, said Jay Klehfoth, one of the organizers of the celebration. Driving a Model T is not about the destination, but the trip. It’s about stopping and seeing things that you don’t see on the interstate at 70 mph. Everyone waves. There’s something about a Model T that makes everyone smile.

But not all is idyllic on road trips. Newell Atwood of New Hartford, Conn., recalled coming through the Rocky Mountains driving between 7 and 9 mph in low gear to make the grades. We had to do a lot of low-gear driving, he said. Atwood acquired his first Model T in 1988, a 1921 model, and now owns three cars. I was a Ford mechanic for 47 years and I’ve always been a car guy. When I got a chance to buy a Model T I jumped at it.

Long treks can be wearing on drivers and passengers, but you can be assured that the most aggressive Model T tour ever will have a full field of dedicated car owners and backup trucks and trailers loaded with spare parts next summer. Hummel said if you don’t sign up early you won’t get a spot on the nearly 3,000-mile tour from New York City to Seattle, Wash., from June 14 through July 12, 2009.

He and his two traveling companions are signed up and impatiently waiting for next June.  Model T owners often joke that the least of their worries is someone stealing their cars.  If you don’t own one, you probably
wouldn’t be able to drive one, said Mike Skinner, a Model T owner. I can vouch after a quick lesson. If you are used to driving a modern car the Model T is complicated.

It has three pedals on the floor, but none of them is an accelerator. From left, they are a clutch (for two forward gears), a pedal for reverse, and the brake. The accelerator is a little lever on the right side of the steering column, where the turn signals are located on a modern vehicle.  Another unique aspect of the Model T is the hand crank sticking out below the radiator, which is used to start the car. Most of the restored cars have automatic starters. But one man I talked to says when he draws a crowd, like at a restaurant, they want to see him crank the car. And he humors them. He says if the car is warm it usually just takes half a turn to fire it up.  Actually an electric starter was available starting with the 1919 model.

Henry Ford’s dream of making a new car affordable for the common man continues today if you are an aspiring car collector. From what I learned at the celebration, a running but perhaps unrestored Model T can still be purchased for as little as $5,000. For very little investment you would become a member of the largest antique automobile family in the world. And a first-time Model T owner would have access to a huge support group and an endless supply of replacement parts.

In addition to the assembly line, which cut production time from as much as 14 hours per car to 1.5 hours, the Model T was responsible for numerous other automotive innovations including the single-block motor with removable cylinder head, multiple uses for the same chassis such as a pickup truck and a four-door sedan, and a three-point suspension that isolated the frame and powertrain from road shock.

And lets dispel one of the most famous Model T myths that it comes in any color as long as its black. In fact, about 12 million of the 15 million Model Ts were indeed black. But in the early years and then in the later years of production, the car was produced in several colors including blue, red, green and gray.