Model T Ford

Essay by
Wilfred R. Franson
October 1999

A good family car for an unbeatable price

You would have to be one of us old timers to be able to say you drove a Model T Ford back when they were the everyday cars of millions of people. The last brand new Model T left the assembly line in 1927. The people who preserve and restore Model T Fords are keeping a lot of them running, but we don't see thousands of old lizzies slowly rusting away in the back of barns, lost in the woods, or forgotten in old sheds, as we used to. But I am sure there are still a few out there.

The Model T stood about seven feet high and it was short, with a wheelbase of 100 inches, the same as the Volkswagen Beetle. The Ford four-cylinder engine could drive the car at a maximum speed of about 45 miles an hour on a level road.

When the Model T was announced in 1908, The Ford Motor Company was well known, with thousands of its cars on the road. Henry Ford knew he had a winner, so he and his advertising people really pushed the Model T concept of a good family car for an unbeatable price. Of course, the Model T was not the first cheap car, not the first good car, and not the first mass-produced car. But it summed up everything the people needed, and did so at exactly the right time.

Some of Ford's writers were a little poetic at times, and here is a quotation from an early ad:

"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 open spaces."

Engine and chassis

Fifteen million Model T Fords were built, all with the same basic chassis. The engine was a side valve four, plenty big for the job. The Ford was simple, but at the same time complicated in ways very different from most cars. The engine and transmission were bolted together in a unit; many cars of that day had their gearboxes back at the differential. There were two forward speeds, one very slow for starting and heavy pulling and the other for cruising along at 10 to 35 miles per hour. Three foot pedals controlled the shifting, and there was no way the gears could be made to clash. There was plenty of other noise, though. The gearbox was of the gears-within-gears kind, called planetary because some gears revolved around other gears, and shifting was accomplished by stopping some gears so others would turn. The Model T gears were never unobtrusive; there was always an internal uproar at low speeds.

The chassis was simple, based on triangles. The front and rear crosswise leaf springs were bolted to the frame cross members, and they formed triangles with the axles. The radius rods formed triangles with the axles also. The triangular suspension put less strain on the skinny frame and held the wheel alignment better than the lengthwise leaf springs used on most cars usually did. I would not say the Ford was an easy riding car, but for such a light car it did a good job on rough ground and could go where other cars could not.

Starting & cooling the engine

Ignition was by magneto, built into the flywheel. Oiling was by splash of the moving parts slinging oil where it was needed, usually. The flywheel helped to circulate the oil because the engine, magneto, flywheel, gearbox, brake, and clutch all swam in the same oil supply. So everything churned up the oil, helping to lubricate everything else.

Cooling was by water moving through a radiator up front, helped only by the urge of hot water to rise in the engine block and cooler water to drop down in the radiator. It worked most of the time.

Electric starters were available at extra cost in 1920, but it was possible to buy a Model T without a starter for several years after that; apparently some drivers did not mind swinging the crank.

Model T Ford trucks and kits

Ford did not make a truck until 1917, but that did not stop people from making trucks out of Ford cars. Kits to convert cars to trucks were sold by several companies. The package usually included extensions to the frame, heavy rear springs, and a truck-size rear axle assembly, sometimes driven from the original Ford rear axle by a chain on each side.

The Fords were fragile-looking but tough, and they were often overloaded. My father's favorite Ford story was about the load of ice he put on a Model T truck in 1919. He backed the truck to the ice house loading platform and stacked in a heavy weight of ice blocks. All loaded and ready to go, he cranked the Ford, got in, and started off. Apparently he started a little too fast; the slippery ice slid to the rear of the truck, broke the tailgate loose, and slid off. The unbalanced Ford reared up on its hind legs, its front wheels a foot off the ground. As most of the ice landed on the ground, breaking into irregular chunks, the front end of the Ford slammed back to earth unhurt, and the Chicago air was smoking with curses in Swedish and English.

A good deal of the credit for the success of the Model T should go to the metals used, probably the best available for any car. Old time mechanics used to make tools out of the discarded Ford parts. Those skinny chassis parts could take a pounding that would cripple some heavier cars.


© 1999 Wilfred R. Franson

Model T Fords still working for a living,
in the open air of Yosemite, California:
Model T-Tours
"Remember, most people had only driven a horse
when they bought their first Model T, it's easy."

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