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Ford's masterpiece to a T. Image by John Lambert.

Ford's masterpiece to a T
It was the first-ever mass produced car, but what is the Ford Model T like to drive in 2008?

 



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| First Drive | Essex, England | Ford Model T |

There are many ways a car can be great. The Volkswagen Type 1 (or Beetle) had an iconic shape; the Mini was a template for other cars to copy. What the Ford Model T achieved was to sell in vast numbers at a price within the reach of ordinary people.

In the Metal

Early model Ts had no doors and the windscreen was braced with leather straps. The 1915 model we drove has a single front door on the passenger side as the spare wheel is carried where the driver's door would be. The styling is formal and upright; typically for cars of this vintage the back seat is set over the rear axle, which allows plenty of leg room although there is no provision for carrying luggage.

Like an old house there are lots of charming details. Items such as the brass ignition switch or the wooden coil packs for the ignition (very up-to-date having one coil per cylinder) are just not seen on new cars.

What you get for your Money

In 1910 a Model T cost 220 and by 1919 the price had reduced to 170. Today prices depend on condition: restoration projects are about 5,000 while running cars can be had for about 10,000. With over sixteen million Model Ts made there are plenty of cars to choose from and there are still specialists to supply parts.

Whatever you pay you don't get much equipment: four wheels, an engine, rudimentary electrical equipment and basic weather protection is pretty much it, although leather seats and wood trim are standard. The brass tread plates on the running boards and even the speedometer on the car pictured are period accessories that would have cost extra when the car was new. In 1915 just having a car was enough.

Driving it

The best advice for a Model T novice is to forget everything you've learned about driving. The controls look deceptively conventional, with three pedals and a "hand brake" to the driver's right, while the steering column features two stalks. Despite all that, about the only thing that is vaguely normal is the brake pedal on the right, which is common for pre-war cars. The other two pedals control the two-speed and reverse transmission. The middle pedal selects reverse gear while the left pedal - in conjunction with the handbrake-like lever - selects neutral, low or high gear. The throttle is the left-hand stalk on the steering column and has no return spring; the right-hand control manages the ignition timing. The hand lever has three positions: fully back the transmission is in neutral and the rear wheel brakes are on. In the middle position the brakes are off and the transmission is in neutral. The forward position gives a choice of low or high gear - press down on the left pedal for low gear, release it for top gear.

Despite the unfamiliarity it is easy enough to get going: move the lever to the middle position, holding the car on the foot brake if necessary. Set the throttle, squeeze the left pedal and release the brake. The flywheel is heavy and the engagement of first gear is gentle making it difficult to stall. Once the Model T is moving the hand lever can be moved to the forward position. Build up a little speed, lift the left pedal until the revs start to rise, close the throttle a little and come completely off the left pedal. Get it right and the change will be smooth, get it wrong and there will be a lurch but it is a lot less demanding than a non-synchromesh gearbox.

Slowing down can be done mostly with engine braking - close the throttle and speed falls rapidly away. The effect is especially pronounced when changing down to low gear (just shove the left pedal to the floor). To come to a complete stop pull the handbrake fully back and release the pedal. It is worth mentioning that the brakes are not particularly effective.

In top gear the Model T bowls along at about 20-30mph. It is a little like driving with cruise control as your feet are off the pedals. At that speed the upright windscreen keeps the wind off and the exhaust passing close by the pedals keeps the driver's feet warm - which is just as well because there is no heater.

The steering is weighty and there is some kick-back over cats-eyes and broken surfaces. On the rutted, unmade roads it was designed for the Model T must have been quite a handful. The most impressive thing about the steering is the turning circle: you can swing round in the width of a normal road.

Worth Noting

Be careful with the starting handle! Don't hook your thumb over the grip as there is a good chance of breaking or dislocating the thumb if the engine backfires. Even if you cradle the starting handle in your fingers there is still the risk of the handle hitting you on the knuckles as a painful reminder that the ignition timing (right hand lever in the steering wheel, remember) was not set correctly.

Most important of all is the need to remember that the Model T was designed for a vastly different driving environment. Roads were little more than dirt tracks; there was much less traffic; there were no motor mechanics and driving was a new skill. Under those conditions you needed plenty of ground clearance, but you didn't need good brakes as you only stopped once you arrived at your destination. You also needed something that could be repaired by the local blacksmith and that didn't need lots of skill to drive. It is easy to see how the Model T fitted these requirements. It also means that you need to plan ahead to drive the Model T in contemporary traffic, as it won't dodge or stop like a modern car. At least the high driving position offers a good view and if you do hit anything the Model T is pretty solid...

Summary

The Ford Model T is full of character and provides a driving experience you simply cannot get anywhere else. Few cars can give such satisfaction just from considering the components. It is easy to understand how everything works. As transport it doesn't make sense but as a hobby it should give years of satisfaction.

John Lambert - 28 Jul 2008









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1915 Ford Model T specifications:
Price: 220 in 1908, 170 in 1919.
Top speed: 45mph
Full technical specifications

Ford Model T. Image by Ford.Ford Model T. Image by Ford.Ford Model T. Image by Richard Noble.Ford Model T. Image by Richard Noble.Ford Model T. Image by Richard Noble.

Ford Model T. Image by Richard Noble.Ford Model T. Image by Richard Noble.Ford Model T. Image by Richard Noble.Ford Model T. Image by Richard Noble.Ford Model T. Image by Richard Noble.



Ford Model T. Image by John Lambert.
 

Ford Model T. Image by John Lambert.
 

Ford Model T. Image by John Lambert.
 

Ford Model T. Image by John Lambert.
 

Ford Model T. Image by John Lambert.
 

Ford Model T. Image by John Lambert.
 

Ford Model T. Image by John Lambert.
 

Ford Model T. Image by John Lambert.
 






 

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