- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2000

Steve Pieper, president of Heishman BMW Inc., in Arlington, Va., thoroughly enjoys being surrounded by the high-tech Audi, BMW and Porsche cars his dealership sells.

He has long been associated with high-performance cars and even set a land speed record of 358 mph in a BMW-powered streamliner on the salt at Bonneville in Utah.

But when it comes to old cars and hot rods, "I've always been a Ford buff," he said.

His affection for old Fords began while he was a student at Fort Hunt High School. While his classmates lusted after the latest muscle cars, he drove to school in his 1929 Model A Ford pickup.

In his free time he built a hot rod from a myriad of Ford parts and then discovered that in order to get the car registered a body was required. The smallest, lightest, cheapest body available at the time was a glass fiber replica of a Model T Ford, which is what he mounted on his car.

That was only his first encounter with a Model T Ford. Years later, during the late 1970s, while at the auto dealership in Alexandria, Va., he noticed a derelict Model T Ford on a neighboring dealer's lot.

After watching the old Ford slowly disintegrate over the months that it was exposed to the weather, Mr. Pieper inquired as to the status of the Model T. He was told the unrestored 1925 Model T Ford roadster had been purchased in Pennsylvania by a man from Georgia.

As the Ford was being trucked south the truck broke down. The cargo was left at the dealer next door to Mr. Pieper while the truck was repaired elsewhere.

When the truck was fixed the owner sent a driver up to retrieve it and the Model T. That was the plan but nobody told the driver about the Model T so the truck was driven back while the Model T stayed in Alexandria.

More months passed.

Mr. Pieper finally called the owner of the forgotten Model T. After some negotiating, the owner agreed to let Mr. Pieper take the Ford off his hands for $400, or $140 more than the car had sold for when new.

The seller told Mr. Pieper he also had four new tires he would toss into the deal at no cost.

Essentially Mr. Pieper purchased four new tires and got a car to go with them.

After Mr. Pieper had the car towed to his Oakton home, he discovered a previous owner had removed the rear of the car and substituted a dump truck bed.

Mr. Pieper disassembled the entire car, down to the last nut, bolt and washer. This was the least complex Model T and, as it turned out, the least expensive.

Henry Ford realized that if he sold his cars cheaper, more people would buy them, and by making more of them, he could sell them cheaper still. In 1925, Mr. Pieper said, 10,000 Model T Fords a day were being produced worldwide.

The rock-bottom price was $260 for a 1925 Model T roadster. In April 1925 Ford advertised a new roadster for a $12.50 down payment.

Mr. Pieper's 1925 Ford would have carried a higher price since it has a starter and a spare tire. The basic car had neither a starter nor a spare tire but it did have a spare tire holder. "It was pretty decked out," Mr. Pieper said of the Ford.

Each part of the car was blasted clean and the 2.9-liter, four-cylinder, 20-horsepower engine was rebuilt.

The car was painted black while in pieces in the basement and, after carefully moving the parts to the garage was assembled there.

Opening the stubby little engine hood with a half-dozen cooling vents on each side for air to circulate, the spaciousness of the engine compartment is apparent. With the hood closed an abundance of room is left between the hood and engine. About half that space is occupied by the big, a-a-a-o-o-o-g-ah horn.

Each wheel has a dozen wooden spokes. The Model T rolls on clincher-type wheels that can be taken apart for the repair of tire punctures.

On the sidewall of the tires is the legend, "4.40-4.50-4.75-5.00-5.25x 21-inch." "Whatever size you've got," laughs Mr. Pieper acknowledging that tolerances three-quarters of a century ago were not so critical.

Using the battery to start the car after adjusting the timing and throttle levers on the steering column, Mr. Pieper quickly switches to magneto.

The three foot pedals operate differently than foot pedals in modern cars. The right pedal is the brake, the middle pedal is the reverse gear and the left pedal, when pushed in, is first gear. Halfway out is neutral and all the way out is second gear. Acceleration is controlled by the hand throttle on the steering column. The entire operation is actually easier done than said. Remember, 15 million Model T Fords were built and virtually every adult motorist in the country knew how to drive one.

Typical of the era, the metal Model T body is just a skin tacked onto a wooden skeleton.

With the body parts restored Mr. Pieper reassembled the jigsaw puzzle in his garage. Placing the seat over the 10-gallon gas tank completed the interior.

Instrumentation is nonexistent. When oil doesn't flow from the bottom of two petcocks, it's time to add oil. When steam is escaping from the radiator, it's time to add water.

The center of the smooth dashboard is interrupted by the ignition switch and headlight/taillight switch. To the right of that is the ampere gauge and at the far right is the choke.

Mr. Pieper marvels at the collarlike apparatus just under the steering wheel. He points out that it is the gear-reduction unit usually found at the other end of the steering column in modern cars.

If it were down there on a Model T, it would have been in jeopardy of being hit by a rock or tree stump in day-to-day driving.

After about five years of off-and-on labor, the Model T roadster with the single door on the right side was completed in 1983.

Firing it up the first time was a thrill, Mr. Pieper said. "It certainly has a unique sound to itself," he said.

With no idea of how to operate a Model T other than what he had read, Mr. Pieper decided to take the freshly restored car for a spin around the neighborhood.

With the distinctive chugging of the engine and occasional blasts from the horn, Mr. Pieper cruised about the neighborhood. "I'm sure I impressed the neighbors tremendously," he said.

That is until he approached the garage and realized he didn't know how to stop the car. Mr. Pieper chose to stop the car by hitting the garage with the right running board and stalling the engine.

Having restored the Model T roadster to running condition, Mr. Pieper had accomplished what he had set out to do. He parked the Ford and went racing.

The car sat idle for years.

In recent years a friend also a Model T owner convinced Mr. Pieper to repair the bent running board and get his T back on the road. Of course that meant a few lessons on the proper handling of the car, including the use of the transmission brake.

After a little maintenance such as replacing the bands in the planetary transmission and the installation of a new gas tank under the seat, Mr. Pieper was ready to spring a big surprise.

He invited his parents, Wilfred and Lois Pieper, over for a visit and met them with his 1925 Model T Ford roadster, similar to a used one in which they had courted in the 1930s.

Mr. Pieper took each of his parents for a ride in the two-seat car. "Those rides flooded their memories," Mr. Pieper reports.

He hopes to rekindles some more memories this month and next at two separate Model T gatherings. The first gathering will be in Hagerstown June 18-23. For information call Connie Grimm at 301/739-0537. The second gathering will be in the Richmond area July 17-21. Call Alice Cameron at 804/798-8123 for information.

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