'A' stands for anticipation

Now popular in VSCC trials, the Model A Ford was one of the most eagerly-awaited cars

Although the Austin 7 once predominated as the most popular car for VSCC trials, recently the A and B Fords have come into prominence in these events. I think the best ploy is to find a decent 2033cc Model B and install in it a 3285cc Model A engine, but I must ask Tom Threlfall about this. The smaller engine was introduced because the licence fee in this country was high for the Model A, rated at 24.02hp; the smaller power unit reduced this to 14.9hp, with a corresponding drop in tax.

The Model T Ford with its 2896cc four-cylinder engine, flywheel ignition system, transverse road springs and simple pedal-operated transmission, used an epicyclic gearbox because at the time of the T’s introduction in 1908 Henry thought that most drivers were unable to master changes of gear with sliding-pinion gearboxes. The immortal ‘Tin Lizzy’ became the universal car, with 15 million sold by 1926. (Henry Ford claimed that if every one had been used for an average distance, the total for the entire fleet would be over 1,185,000,000 miles!) When the T cost £125 in Britain, the Austin 7 cost £135 and Morris Cowley £198 10/-.

Model T sales peaked at 700,000 per year (more than all the other makes combined), but as more advanced rivals appeared sales began to drop. By 1925 the score had fallen by 350,000, and by 1926, the last year of full production, sales represented only a third of the industry total. Steps taken to meet Henry’s insistence on keeping the T ahead had been fairly minor, such as abandoning the “any colour as long as it’s black” policy of 1913-26, and in the last year optional balloon tyres and wire wheels were available, together with revised, smarter styling.

There had been sports and racing versions of the T by outside companies, with doorless, bolster-tank bodies to ape the lines of the Stutz Bearcat, and special OHV engines for racing Ford Ts. In 1912 Brooklands held two races for Ts, and Alfred Moss, Sir Stirling’s father, had used his at Indianapolis, and won at Brooklands in 1925 (best lap 85.13mph) in his Ford Frontenac Speedsport (described in my Brooklands books). In 1928 Model As competed in the arduous Ards TT with full equipment including bumpers, driven by A S Wright and G E Masterton, and another entered the following year.

The main Ford plant was closed by early June 1927 while a replacement car was prepared, Henry’s son Edsel trying with some difficulty to influence his father’s outdated ideas. The forging for the new Model A cost $205,000. I wonder how many of today’s owners of Model A Fords realise what a sensation the prospect of the new model caused. The T’s replacement was not announced until December 27, 1927, and until then there were widespread speculative, but very uninformed, opinions. All manner of theories were rife including would it be called the Edsel, would it have four, six or eight cylinders, and so on.

I remember, aged 14, when The Autocar was to divulge the solution. I found it very exciting – until I read that the specification may be stated “with confidence” as: hp –, cylinders –, engine size –, (– cc), clutch –, gearbox –, transmission –, final drive –, springs –, tyres on – wheels, wheelbase –, brakes –, price –.

It ended with a joke about possible recommendations for a black finish! Yes, really. All of which made the day when all would be revealed a very intense occasion.

In keeping with today, information from advertising agencies was leaked to the New York News. Day after day, photographers snapped anything that left the Dearborn factory (only two shots were actually of the new Model A) and these photographs appeared in the leading newspapers. On the actual release day in December 1927 people began lining up outside the New York Ford showroom, and in Detroit 75 policemen controlled similar crowds. It was estimated that 10 per cent of America’s population viewed the new A in that first day. Every newspaper had the story on its front pages. Ford’s advertising fees to their ad agent N W Ayer & Son were $1,300,000.

Edsel had some difficulty in persuading his father what the new Model A should be like. Henry wanted to retain the epicyclic gearbox, saying that sliding gears were apt to quickly wear out, which was astonishing, but not so astonishing as that while he was making the low-priced car, Ford was also making the luxury 5.8-litre V8 Lincoln. In the end a three-speed conventional gearbox was used, based partly on that of the Lincoln’s box. Henry insisted that the transverse road springs be carried over, and the Houdaille double-action shock absorbers.

Edsel produced a neat scuttle containing the petrol tank with an external filler, replacing the T’s inconvenient underfloor petrol tank. A nice touch was that the Tudor and Fordor titles were retained for the two-door and four-door models.

By 1929 nearly two million As had been sold, leaving Chevrolet, Ford’s only competitor, some 600,000 cars behind. They responded with their overhead valve ‘Stove Bolt Six’, but by 1933 Ford had introduced its £230 3.6-litre V8.

Think ye, those who are now driving some of the few A/B Fords left, and rejoice in their dramatic history.