Friday, September 12, 2014
The Ford Model T
The Model T: What a Car!
Whether the Model T or A, or subsequent models, Henry Ford’s cars did much to shape life in the twentieth century. For the farmer, county agents now made visits to even isolated farms and rendered scientific advice in an effort to improve crops and agrarian prosperity.81 The automobile was now used to distribute the mail to rural areas, thus vastly improving communications. Farm folk had access to hospitals and other medical facilities. Families no longer had to rely on crossroad stores, but could shop in towns, and even do comparison shopping. For city folk, the changes were no less dramatic. The city became reconfigured, with the rise of new suburbs, and in more recent times, exurbs. Retail trade moved from center city to suburbs, which witnessed the rise of shopping centers and supermarkets. A number of key industries burgeoned due to the demand for materials used in automobile production: steel, glass, textiles, electronics, and rubber. Relationships within tradition of family structures changed, as youth sought freedom behind the wheel.82 And with the Ford automobile, America became a nation on wheels. Family vacations, and trips to parks, now became far more commonplace.
The highway was now a place for adventure, for both men and women, as exemplified in the journals of Rose Wilder Lane and Helen Dore Boylston. The pair traveled from Paris to Albania in a Model T Ford during the mid-1920s and left a remarkable written account. As they would assert, the hero of the trip was neither one of the women, but the car itself, named Zenobia. The maroon Ford was described as “a wonder. She went up all those frightful curving mountain roads like a bird.”83 It was an eloquent appraisal of a mass produced car whose very name implied that it was a living thing.
Despite all of the critiques leveled at Ford, his company, and mass production, his machine was simply remarkable.69 Its dashboard had a gasoline gauge, speedometer, oil gauge (there was no dipstick) temperature indicator, and odometer. To start the car one put on the hand brake, got out of the car, reached below the radiator and turned the crank, and hopefully the engine would come to life after a cough and sputter. The car had two gears, high and low, and instead of a gear shift one had a foot pedal, which the driver pushed down for low and released for high. To go to neutral, one pushed the pedal halfway. To stop the car, one pushed the gear pedal halfway while at the same time pushing down on the brake. There was no accelerator pedal; rather, there was a lever on the steering column that when pushed, gave more gas. There was also a spark lever that often did little unless in the wrong position, which then caused a loud and embarrassing backfire. To engage reverse there was a third foot pedal. Depressed with either foot, you backed up. Steering was stiff, and the wheel itself abruptly snapped back to its original position when one released tension on it. One final note on the Model T: the four-door version actually had only three doors, with the driver’s side door not a door at all – it did not open. The contours of the door were merely stamped on the body at the factory. Entering the car from the left side required climbing over the fake door. In sum, with the Model T rural Americans no longer saw the car as a devil wagon, but rather as transportation technology that could meet and be modified for their varied needs.70
The Model T was also a machine that was unique to the individual who owned it, and thus a personal relationship invariably followed. John Steinbeck wrote this about a car that he did not name, but called “IT:”
I think I loved that car more than any I have ever had. It understood me. It had an intelligence not exactly malicious, but it did love a practical joke. . . . When I consider how much time it took to keep IT running, I wonder if there was time for anything else, and maybe there wasn’t. The Model T was not a car as we know them now – it was a person – crotchety and mean, frolicsome and full of jokes – just when you were ready to kill yourself, it would run five miles with no gasoline whatever. I understood IT, but as I have said before, IT understood me, too. It magnified some of my faults, corrected others. It worked on the sin of impatience; it destroyed the sin of vanity. And it helped to establish an almost Oriental philosophy of acceptance.71
Simple and sturdy, with a high ground clearance, the T was easily repaired by any mechanic-farmer possessing only a few hand tools. If the radiator sprung a leak, you added an egg to stop fluid loss. The Model T was a car one generation removed from America’s consumer society. At least in 1913, it was sold before there were many dealers with service repair facilities. Responsibility for maintenance and repairs fell to the owner, and in reviewing an early Model T owner’s manual, it is astonishing to note what one was expected to perform on these vehicles.72 For example, every 100 miles, the spindle bolt and steering ball should be oiled; at 200 miles, oil had to be applied to the front and rear spring hangers, the hub brake cam, and the commutator; other service had to be performed at 500 and 600 miles. The sophistication and difficulty of repairs is also a surprise to the modern automobile owner. Work described in the section “How to Run the Model T Ford,” included valve grinding, carburetor overhaul, clutch adjustment, the removal of cylinder head and transmission bands, the removal of front and rear axles, and the adjustment of connecting rod bearings. It is no surprise then, that the Model T was the responsible for a generation of do-it-yourself automobile mechanics. Also, it is quite a contrast to compare the 1913 manual to that of the Model A’s 1931 Instruction Book that opens with the statement “Let experienced mechanics make repairs or adjustments. Your car is too valuable a piece of machinery to place in unskilled hands.”73
The topic of many jokes, there was also a true admiration for this remarkable machine, early models of which had to be driven backwards over steep hills because of the gravity-fed fuel system. In 1915 the first of two volumes about the Model T, entitled Funny Stories About the Ford, was published.74 The following are a few excerpts:
The Formula in Poetry
A little spark, a little coil,
A little gas, a little oil,
A piece of tin, a two inch board –
Put them together and you have a Ford.
The Twenty-third Psalm
The Ford is my auto; I shall not want another.
It maketh me to lie down beneath it; it soureth my soul.
It leadeth me into the paths of ridicule for its namesake.
Yea though I rife through the valleys I am towed up the hill,
For I fear much evil. Thy rods and thy engines discomfort me;
I anoint my tires with patches; my radiator boileth over;
I repair blowouts in the presence of mine enemies.
Surely, if this thing followeth me all the days of my life,
I shall dwell in the bug-house forever.