Yoostabees: Driving a Model T Ford

Be thankful for the advance of the modern manual transmission. Getting behind the wheel of a 1921 Model T Touring proved no easy task

By Mike Davis

They say, "You can't teach an old dog new tricks." Well, in Yoostabees' case, you can't teach an old dog old tricks, either - as in learning how to drive a Model T Ford.

In preparation for a forthcoming report on the new automotive transmissions coming your way - six-speed automatics (6SAs) and continuously variable transmissions (CVTs) - Yoostabees decided to go back to the baseline. That would be the three-pedal planetary transmission used in the Model T Ford and its lettered predecessors.

Up to say, 1930, arguably more people in the world learned to drive in the Model T than any other vehicle. Indeed, according to former Henry Ford Museum transportation curator Randy Mason, most of the early pre-Model T motorcars, Ford or otherwise, also had planetary transmissions.

The T's peak year was 1923, according to Ford antiquarian Mike Skinner, when the Ford Model T captured 50 percent of the world market and 57 percent of the U.S. market for new cars. That's also the year my father, a 36-year-old WWI veteran, took driving lessons and bought a second-hand Model T for his first car. In 1917, my then-69-year-old maternal grandfather, a rural mail carrier and Union Army veteran, had replaced Old Dobbin with, not just a car, but "a Ford."

Flying Flivvers

Indeed, Ts were not known as Ts until after the design was discontinued. They were called Flivvers, Tin Lizzies, or - in Ford advertisements - The Universal Car.

Some 15,000,000 Model Ts were produced worldwide between 1908 and 1927, later surpassed by the VW Beetle and perhaps the Camry family of Toyotas and even Ford's own Falcon platform - but over years in which the global industry had become many times larger. Model T peak monthly production was 224,289 in January 1924. Peak annual production came to 2,055,309 in the Ford fiscal year of August 1, 1923, to July 31, 1924. The lowest factory price ever was $260 for a1925 Runabout (two-passenger roadster).

When Ford Motor Company introduced the "modern" Model A late in 1927 it was a tectonic change for its army of customers. Like most other cars in the market, the new A featured a "standard" (meaning "conventional") three-speed sliding-gear manual transmission, with H- pattern shifts accomplished by manipulation of clutch, accelerator, and floor-mounted shift lever, not much different - except for a need to double-clutch - from stick-shifters today.

But what a world of difference was - and is - the fabled Flivver. Noted author Philip Van Doren Stern, in his 1955 "Tin Lizzie," wrote, "Most of us who are over 40 had our first experience in automobiling when we drove a Model T Ford. Its controls may seem complicated to the young person who has been brought up with modern driving aids like automatic transmission, power steering, and power brakes, but compared to most cars of its day, the Model T was sublimely and absurdly simple."

Museum of Ts

To drive a T, Yoostabees turned to Skinner, whose home is a small- scale Ford museum and who also serves the "Birthplace of the Model T" T-Plex 1904 factory in Detroit and the 1915 Fairlane estate, the Henry Ford home in Dearborn. Skinner owns a black (naturally) 1921 Model T Touring, in which he was willing to give Yoostabees a top- down driving lesson.

Ha! Easier said than done. You have to understand, the last - and only - time Yoostabees learned to drive was sixty years ago, after wartime gasoline rationing was lifted, when he was 14 years old.

Pretty much teaching himself, Yoostabees learned to operate the clutch, as well as reverse and first, of a 1941 Plymouth, going back and forth in the family driveway. Then he snuck out onto subdivision streets - when there was no traffic - for "advanced" self-instruction.

In theory, driving a T should be a snap, because there is no clutch pedal that has to be coordinated with throttle and gears. But

Yoostabees found the T complicated and, indeed, counter-intuitive.

Matters weren't helped much by the fact a T's front seat is quite cramped. The leather seat is not adjustable in any direction, nor is the steering wheel/column, nor the pedals - all the niceties of Third Millennium cars we've grown accustomed to.

You mount into a T - it stands high - somewhat like climbing up into a large SUV, via a step on the running board. There was no left-hand driver door in the 1921 Touring T, so you enter on the right and slide across the leather. Starting this particular T was made easier by the fact it had an electric starter system, a $70 option beginning in 1919; otherwise, the procedure would have involved turning the crank at the bottom of the radiator. To do this, one is cautioned not to wrap a thumb around the handle, as a backfire could break it.

Operating a T without the crank, then, is supposed to work this way:

  • Turn on the fuel line, a petcock on the right floor of the front compartment, allowing gasoline to gravity-flow from the ten-gallon tank mounted under the front seat to the carburetor.
  • Engage the hand brake by pulling the lever floor-mounted on the left side of the driver's seat to the rear, an arc of about 45 degrees, which also puts the planetary gears in neutral.
  • Turn on the ignition key on the dashboard.
  • Prime the carburetor to a rich startup mixture by pulling out the choke, a knob on the dashboard.
  • Move the throttle lever on the right side of the steering column down about four or five notches.
  • Raise the spark lever on the left of the column to the top to retard the spark.
  • With your right heel, press the electric starter button in the center of the floorboard close to the seat base.
  • With the engine running smoothly, advance the spark by pulling it down two or three notches.
  • Push the brake lever halfway forward to prepare to go either forward or reverse.
  • To go forward, push the brake lever all the way toward the front of the car while pressing the left pedal all the way in, engaging low, and advance the throttle another few notches.
  • With the car moving forward at least 10 mph in low, release the left pedal to shift into high. Adjust throttle as required for desired road speed.
  • To back up, instead of the left pedal, push the center pedal in, engaging reverse.
  • For highway travel, which for a T means 35-40 mph - definitely not expressway traffic - advance (pull down) both spark and throttle.

The joke my mother used to tell on my father was that on their first road trip, a 140-mile ordeal over gravel roads to visit relatives, my father got the T up to 20 mph and proclaimed that was about as fast as one should travel in a motorcar. But ten years later, he was able to do an honest 75 in his new Ford V-8.

The hang of it

Yoostabees supposes that one can rather quickly get the hang of this, especially the coordination of throttle and forward gear position.

But he didn't, partly because of the limited clear road space available for the lesson, a dead-end street that should have had no traffic, but did. In any event, Yoostabees' natural three-on-the-tree reaction when everything wasn't going exactly right was to "disengage" the non-existent clutch by pushing in the left pedal (!) thus putting it in "low," or by moving the non-existent shift lever (read "throttle") up to "neutral." Engine stall! Big time Tilt!

Another issue was braking. In theory, pushing on the right pedal while simultaneously pushing the left pedal to mid-point neutral should slow things down. But Mike Skinner's "bands were loose," so one had quickly to decide on the two back-up options of pulling up on the hand brake - a long reach - and/or pushing on the center pedal to engage reverse!

And steering? That takes some muscles. Best to get it moving a bit before trying to turn.

Thanks a lot, Henry, but I think I'll buy the new Model A rather than the used T.

By the way, the Model T had a couple of dimensions close to a contemporary Ford Focus, a 100-inch wheelbase versus 103 in the new model and a 56-inch tread versus 59. But the base 121-cubic-inch, 136-hp Focus four-banger is a mite stronger than the 177-cid, 20-hp T. And parked side-by-side, the top of a Focus barely rises over the T's side sill.

Actually, Yoostabees and Mike Skinner had a pleasant, open-air, late- fall ride of about five miles up and down a principal artery, amidst the waves of bystanders. What a thrill! In the spring, Yoostabees'll give it another try. Wish there was a nice old dirt road in open country close by to learn driving a T the old fashioned way. Skinner also remarked later that every Model T owner today seems to have a slightly different technique for getting it going, part of the T's lovable personality, no doubt.

In the meantime, Yoostabees is mighty glad for the advances in transmission technology over the decades.

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