We surged down the gravel lane from the farm, wind rushing over my cap, in an automobile that had neither gas pedal nor gear shift. I could feel each bump as we swerved to miss potholes in a green & black 1921 Model T Touring car driven by Brad Marble.
This was my baptismal ride in a Model T which was produced - with very few changes - by Henry Ford between 1908 &1927. I had hosted eight Model T’s and one Model A, along with their fifteen drivers and passengers, at Miles Smith Farm in Loudon. As the automobiles lined up, it was a homecoming for my 1830's farm and Inn which I'm sure had accommodated its share of Model T's and Model A's over the years.
The Model T was a compelling upgrade from horse and buggy. To make it more driveable, the automobile had three pedals and no gear shift lever. One pedal was reverse which was often used as a brake to distribute wear over the “bands”; one pedal was the brake and the third controlled two gears - high & low. When the third pedal was pushed to the floor, the gear switched to “low” producing explosive acceleration …which we needed that day to climb up the hill to the farm. When this pedal was released, it put the automobile in “high” when speed, not power, was needed. This mechanism is similar to “hydrostatic” shifting (where no stick shift is involved) which many modern tractors have today. The old has become new …again.
The Model T had no gas pedal and, like today's tractors, a lever on the steering wheel was used to control the fuel supply to the engine. The early models had headlights powered by acetylene gas from a device mounted on the running board and were started with matches.
These autos were simple, but owners could enhance them with “Apps.” Sears Roebuck catalog had many pages of “add-ons.” For nine cents owners could buy a fan-belt guide to keep the belt from slipping off the pulley. Some bought special oil to prevent chattering, a clamp-on dash light, or a toolbox which could be bolted to the running board. Others bought flower vases, like the ones John Hanson mounted inside his closed-top Model T.
Ford spent his childhood on a Michigan farm and may have wanted to help struggling farmers find new markets by promoting agricultural products as fuel sources. In a NY TIMES article in 1925 he predicted that fuel could come from vegetation. Because the Model T engine was low-compression it could be powered by ethanol (AKA grain alcohol, or “moonshine”) and some owners may have distilled their own home-made fuel. This ended in 1920 when Prohibition was enacted, and back-yard stills were outlawed.
These automobiles were built to last - the 1921 Model T that I rode in was 98 years old and functioned flawlessly. My guess is the 1921 Model T will still be functional in 2100. Easy to maintain, easy to drive in mud (the roads in the early 1900's were mostly mud tracks), and faster than a horse and buggy; the Model T was a tireless workhorse….with tires! These first sustainable vehicles were more like tractors than today’s cars. Unlike today's cars, it's possible the elderly autos that gathered in my barnyard will be around for another 100 years. They sure don't make 'em like they used to…
Learn more about the Central NH Model T Club. To join, you need a keen interest in the Model T Ford as built (no hot rods). As a member, you will enjoy monthly meetings and tour in your Model T to destinations like the Miles Smith Farm.