Friday, October 3, 2008

Henry Ford said, “My specifications for success is an automobile which is easy to operate and easy to repair, a machine which is low priced and durable.” Ford was describing the iconic Model T Ford. One hundred years later, the definition is still one that automobile manufacturers aspire to accomplish.

On Oct. 1, 1908 the first customer received the keys to a brand new 1909 Model T Ford. Who knew the car that ‘put the world on wheels’ would have a production run of 19 years and some 15 million vehicles before production ended on May 26, 1927?

In 1908, 90 percent of the people in the world never traveled more than 20 miles from home in their lifetime. The new Ford officially brought the world into the age of the ‘horseless carriage’ and unlimited affordable mobility.

In the first decade of the Model T, one out of every two cars sold was a T. By 1921 it accounted for almost 57 percent of the world’s automobile production. The introductory 1909 model sold for $825. By 1925 the sale price was reduced to only $260 due to the efficiency of scale realized by the mass production process of the moving automated assembly line that Henry Ford was renowned for refining. This efficient assembly process brought the build time of the Model T from 14 hours per car to just 1.5 hours.

This set the standard for manufacturing worldwide. Hundreds of innovations are credited to Henry Ford during the production run of his biggest success, the Model T.

Along with production of more than 1,000 cars per day, at its pinnacle, the first truly global car was built in 19 countries and had dealerships on six continents. It was no wonder the Model T became known as the Universal Car around the world.

In the early days of automobile production, the paint process took the most time. It was found that black paint dried the quickest and with unheard of production numbers, this was chosen as the only way a Model T could be ordered from 1914 to 1925. Thus, the often supposed statement by Henry Ford proclaimed, “You can have any color you want, as long as it is black.”

Almost 12 million of the 15 million total Model Ts were black. As competition dictated, many different colors were available in some years including blue, red, green and grey.

Recently, at the fairgrounds in Richmond, Ind., the official Model T Centennial celebration was held and included the appearance of approximately 1,000 Model T Fords of every description and from around the world.

The week-long celebration included many activities, from the traditional car show to the many tours through the countryside, to the competition that pitted various chapters of Model T club members against each other, showing their skills in how fast they could assemble a Model T piece by piece. The two major clubs, the Model T Ford Club of America and the Model T Ford Club International joined forces to organize the largest gathering of Model T Fords since they originally left the factory.

More than one Model T owner has joked that he’s not too worried about somebody stealing his old car. First, most people wouldn’t know how to start it and if they did they wouldn’t have a clue how to drive it. For such a simple car, it’s pretty complicated to drive.

The Model T does have three pedals on the floor, none of them, however, is an accelerator. From left to right, the pedals do the following: the clutch (for the two forward speeds), a pedal for reverse and finally on the right is the brake. There is no gear shift lever since the Model T has a planetary transmission operated by three fabric belts, thus the three pedals. The accelerator is the little lever on the right side of the steering column and the lever on the left, where the turn signals are on modern cars, is the spark advance.

In order to start the car, a particular sequence is required. It is essential the floor-mounted hand brake lever, located to the left of the driver, is pulled to its far rearward position and secured. The spark advance lever, located just behind the steering wheel on the left side of the steering column, needs to be pushed all the way up in full retarded position. A small downward adjustment of the accelerator lever is next. Remember, this lever is on the right of the steering column.

A knowledgeable tug on the crank, which is located in front of the car below the radiator, is necessary to turn the engine in order to start. A wire located near the crank lever and connected to the carburetor is a choke cable and may need to be pulled while cranking. If all this works, a quick move around the car to the accelerator lever and spark advance lever is necessary to make the proper adjustments to keep the engine running.

In order to drive away, the brake lever should be released while the left clutch pedal is pushed to the floor for low range and the accelerator lever is pulled downward to give the car enough gas as not to stall. Releasing the clutch allows a shift to high speed and you’re on your way.

Braking takes a good bit of concentration and coordination as several things need to happen in sequence in order to bring the car to a leisurely halt. Trying to concentrate on all of the required steps means ignoring much of what a modern driver knows about cars. You don’t want to stall the engine and start all over again to restart this antique. Right pedal is the brake, the left pedal must now be positioned halfway down between the low and high range to the neutral position while the accelerator lever is being pushed up to an idle.

After a little practice, I felt like a pro for not stalling the engine and actually driving away as if I knew what I was doing. We haven’t talked about backing up. The best advice is to plan ahead so you never have to back up.

The amazing thing to me was back in ‘the day’ men, women and children, especially on the farms, all knew how to drive these things. It takes skill, and more than a little coordination to successfully accomplish smooth operation.

After experiencing the Model T mania of such a large gathering of people that live and love these cars, one may have the tendency to forget all the idiosyncrasies related to this basic car. The 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine with a top speed of approximately 45 miles per hour, weighing in at just 1,200 pounds and getting between 13 and 21 miles per gallon of gasoline makes you wonder why people kept saying, “I want to buy one of these.”

Perhaps it is for the same reason that on December 18, 1999 a panel of more than 133 automotive journalists and experts named the Model T Ford, from a list of more than 700 candidates, as the “Car of the Century.”

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