A great deal has been published about the immortal Model-T Ford both during its currency and since its demise, but CAM Sellen writes one of the best accounts of this wonderful car that I have read. Apart altogether from the academic interest in the model which made Ford’s fortune—if only Mr. Butler will earn one piece of gratitude on his premature Budget Day by announcing a universal £10 tax the Model-T Ford could be a very suitable car for Veteran and Vintage competitions. In an old handbook about the Model-T Ford I read that its fuel consumption should be 30 mpg or better. This I thought optimistic for a 2.9-litre car, but last Christmas our contemporary the Motor hit upon the happy idea of road-testing a 1912 two-seater, and averaged 281/2 mpg. Moreover, at 30 mph which is about the pace one would drive such a car to and from a VCC fixture, the consumption improved to 32 mpg. Clearly, the small ports and high top-gear ratio of 3.64 to 1, coupled with an unladen weight of under 14 cwt, produce decided economy of running, so the Model-T could, if taxation of old cars were not entirely unjust, be an excellent veteran car in these hard times. The type persisted up to 1927, the very last of the series even having front-wheel brakes, before handing over to the Models A and B, the Anglia, Prefect and Pilot, and the present Consul and Zephyr Ford’s great reputation for reliability and longevity.—Ed.
CAM Sellen recalls the most universal car of all . . .
Watching a driver at work at a local RAF station, the distinctive blue-grey colour or his Ford lorry reminded me that the tenders used by his predecessors of thirty-five years ago were of exactly the same colour and of the same famous make.
Apart from the fact that the modern Ford bore the letters RAF instead of RNAS, there were, as may be imagined, other differences of a more radical nature, and for the sake of a new generation who never knew the Model-T Ford, as well as for the delectation of old hands who remember it with affection, I propose describing what must be one of the most outstanding cars ever turned out by any factory, a design which, among countless other claims to fame, was produced over twenty years to the tune of over fifteen million cars without any basic change. There has probably never been an easier car to drive. Anticipating, in this respect, our modern and very much more expensive cars fitted with self-change, fluid-flywheel and other devices for the hamhanded, the Model-T achieved this end by simpler means. Like them it was fitted with an epicyclic gearbox, but one of fascinating simplicity, and the controls were reduced to three pedals and a handbrake-cum-clutch lever well out of the way on the off side. There was no accelerator pedal, its place being taken by a hand throttle lever moving smoothly over a slightly notched quadrant and projecting well out from the underside of the steering wheel. The second and third fingers of the right hand were used for moving it up or down—closed or open, for small movements the hand remained stationary and for larger the hand slipped round the wheel rim. So delightful was this control and so great the relief from pedal cramp it afforded, I have often thought of fitting something similar to my 1937 car.
The left-hand pedal, for the first two inches of its movement, controlled a clutch, and the neutral provided when it was depressed to this extent could be held, without the need for keeping the foot on the pedal, by pulling the handbrake lever half way back. Pulling the lever still further back had no other effect on the clutch but applied the rear wheel brakes in drums which looked—I never measured them—about 31/2 in in diameter by 3/4 in wide. They were intended chiefly for use when parking. Further depression of the clutch pedal contracted a brake band on a drum in the gearbox and provided, with exceptions to be noted later, a gentle start in low gear. If in the meantime the hand-brake lever had been moved to its extreme forward position, the change into top was simply a matter of releasing the clutch pedal, taking care, of course, to close the throttle slightly as the pedal passed the neutral position. Farm boys and others without finer feelings often omitted this momentary throttling, but this may have been less from sheer carelessness than from a belief that the resulting forward jump helped acceleration.
The right-hand pedal actuated the powerful transmission brake, and drivers of these cars could safely disregard the red triangle signifying the existence of fwb on at least the earliest American cars so fitted. The brake, acting through the differential gear, was perfectly equalised, but another and less desirable effect was that violent braking caused whichever rear wheel had markedly less adhesion to spin rapidly backwards. This was a costly trait in days when four to five thousand miles was the usual fife of a tyre and, besides, although it did not affect the control of the car, it bewildered pedestrians.
The remaining centre, pedal was used for reversing which was accomplished by holding the clutch pedal in the neutral position and pressing the reverse-pedal with the tight foot. This was a source of joy to tradesmen’s boys, as it was unnecessary to stop the car before reversing and this, and an exceptionally good lock, made it possible to park quickly in a small space by rapid back and forth manoeuvring to the accompaniment of a treadmill action of the feet.
There were certain peculiarities which one learned in time to accept as part of the game. One of these was that the small rear-wheel brakes were, in cold weather, powerless to resist the forward motion (in high gear) brought about by oil congealing between the clutch plates, the separation of which alone provided neutral. Old stagers made light of this little trick and, when starting-up, became adept at stepping gracefully backwards and sideways out of the way and leaping into the driving seat when the car was under way—well, it wasn’t exactly in full sail, but it was moving. The unwary, and those accustomed to dull orthodoxy in their cars, were apt to become flustered by this odd behaviour and became (a) flattened against the garage wall or (b) astonished spectators of a driverless car gently wandering up the road and out of sight.
In the extremely cold weather experienced by American and Canadian owners the same trouble with glued-up clutch plates made it quite impossible to crank the car. The approved and successful method of starting the Model-T under these conditions was to jack up one rear wheel, chock the other, and release the handbrake. The engine could then be cranked, but with it, of course, the entire transmission. Once started and warm the plates soon become free. Inexperienced owners got over the trouble by using very light oil, but this was a snare and a delusion, as after twenty minutes’ running this became so hot and thin that the gear band’s grabbed and chattered, resulting in jerky starting and sometimes in trouble with the back axle. Another thing which amazed the uninitiated front-seat passenger was to see the driver suddenly give several vicious kicks to a black box fixed to the scuttle. This was not necessarily, as might naturally have been supposed, a display of unbridled temper, but a simple and effective method of curing misfiring. The box contained four spark-coils and the kick restored their contact with the rest of the ignition system—of which more anon.
Steering was not irreversible, but there must have been considerable castor action, for the car tended to hold a straight line over the most atrocious surfaces. High-geared, the steering required little effort and was so instantaneously responsive that one might have imagined it direct. There was, however, a reduction gear, also epicyclic, housed in a small brass box below the steering wheel. It was in order to clear this gearbox and bring the rim of the wheel close to the spark and throttle controls, that the four spokes of the wheel had a dainty curved shape, producing the characteristic raised centre complete with horn button..
On most of the cars I knew the connection between the horn button and the side of the steering column, where a conduit led to the horn, took the form of a piece of flex sufficiently long to allow it to wind round the column as it was caught by one of the spokes when the wheel was turned. Whether all or any of the cars were ever fitted with anything else I do not know, but at any rate, the flex was almost invariably there hanging in festoons with spots of insulating tape to prevent or repair chafing. The Model-Ts driving position was excellent and its kitchen-chair layout was not only quite as comfortable as some of the reclining poses forced upon us by modern coachwork, but it gave a view of the road to within four or five feet ahead of the radiator. I always felt rather aggrieved that, having achieved so much, the makers couldn’t have managed the little more necessary to bring the starting crank and front tyres into sight l
The instrument board, so called, carried a combined choke and mixture control, an ignition switch, lighting switch, and ammeter, but the two latter refinements did not appear until about 1917, when standard lighting and starting replaced the respectively, ingenious and primitive systems used up to that time. It is interesting to note that the starting and lighting system fitted was in every respect as good as any modern set and was manufactured by the Ford Company, who, like Rolls-Royce, produced their own design. On the road the cruising speed was about 35 mph, though it was possible to pull the throttle and spark levers to the bottom of their quadrants and tear along at anything up to 45 mph for considerable distances without noticeable ill effects, except that the exhaust pipe became red hot and sometimes frightened a nervous passenger, who could see it through chinks in the scuttle. Acceleration was very good, owing to the high power/weight ratio, and given a good running-start, it was possible to climb most hills in top gear. After baulking or really big boulders on the road had made it necessary to change-down to the only other gear available, there was nothing for it but to sit patiently while the engine boiled away very near its peak at, say 15 mph. For climbing mountains and cliffs from a standing start it was always possible to use reverse (14.6 to 1), and when the relining of the foot brake had been unduly postponed this gear could also be relied upon to provide a really terrific brake, unless it too happened to be in need of a new band lining.
New drivers of modern cars may not realise that it was quite easy to identify almost any early Model-T by its exhaust note—or rather, noise. With four-inch “pots” discharging into a smallish “muffler,” the Ford gave an impression of considerable power and in days when London buses were limited to 12 mph and no traffic moved faster than twenty, the spectacle of a RNAS tender dashing along at 35 mph with its characteristic bounding gait was reminiscent of Brooklands.
Every feature in the construction of the car was based on appreciation of a much later Ford designer’s dictum urging it as the duty of a good designer that he should “simplificate and add more lightness.” [This famous slogan was actually uttered by Bill Stout, of the Ford aeroplane division, about 1927—Ed] The car was certainly light, but the most amazing genius was displayed in methods to make the entire mechanism foolproof and reliable, and such that any farm boy not a moron could make a good job of any adjustment or repair with the aid of a couple of spanners. The engine, one of the first to employ monobloc construction of cylinders and upper half of crankcase, had four cylinders of 95.25 by 101.6 mm (2,884 cc), fitted with cast-iron pistons. By modern standards, the crankshaft looked spidery, but it was of course well up to its job, and in the rare, event of a breakage or after hundreds of thousands or miles it could be replaced—again with the simplest of tools—at a cost so low that one felt like the hold-up man as it was handed over the spares counter of the ubiquitous authorised dealer. The sale of parts was not confined to motor dealers, for although every town with the slightest claim to importance boasted a Ford agency, almost any drug store, and all Woolworth branches, carried most of the smaller parts, often of pirate manufacture—but they fitted and would get one home. The earlier models had an ingenious ignition and lighting system. Secured to the flywheel, which was little more than a plate, were sixteen permanent magnets, and their rotation before an equal number of coils bolted to the inside of the flywheel housing yielded a low-tension alternating-current varying with engine speed, so that at night the headlamps gave a dazzling light almost to the point of destroying the filaments as the car accelerated to say 12 mph (1,340 rpm) in low gear and then, as the engine took up the drive in high gear at the same speed (490 rpm) the lights sunk to a dull red glow. For ignition the current was led to a so-called commutator, really a make and break timer, driven off the front of the camshaft. Concerning the correct treatment of this fitment there were several schools of thought. A roller keyed to the camshaft contacted in turn four metal segments, and while it was essential to provide lubrication, it was easy to provide too much. Some owners advocated no lubrication at all, others plenty of oil with frequent cleaning, while yet another section of opinion averred that an occasional wallop with a large spanner was most salutary !
The commutator distributed the current in the correct firing order to four trembler spark-coils located on the driver’s side of the scuttle. These were of simple design, with flush brass contacts to corresponding studs in the back of the coil box. The vibrator points were certainly not of platinum as was the fashion in the early days, for they could be replaced for a few cents. The high tension terminals of porcelain projected through the scuttle and carried the usual leads to the plugs. Later models fitted with orthodox lighting and starting retained the original ignition system and the switch was now labelled “BAT” and “MAG” and by arranging one piston just past tdc on compression it was only necessary to switch to “BAT” and a continuous spark at the plug blew the piston forcefully downwards and the engine came to life. This was merely a stunt, the starter being used in the ordinary way for normal starting. Faced with the necessity of providing an oil pump the designer seems to have reflected that, after all, magnets, in merely exerting their personality on the coils, were not pulling their weight, and he therefore arranged for them to scoop oil from the bottom of the flywheel gearbox housing to a gallery, whence it was led to the main bearings and camshaft drive by gravity. The connecting-rods dipped scoops into troughs formed in the pressed steel pan, below which was the open road since a sump had already been provided.
As on all subsequent Fords, the valves did not need adjustment over very long periods and so non-adjustable tappets were used, and the valves themselves were of composite construction and of small diameter. This and the small ports probably contributed to the long life of the engine, by restricting its speed. I believe it peaked at 1,000 rpm, and it certainly did most of its running at less than 1,000 rpm. The carburetter, fed from a gravity tank under the front seat, contained a work float and a single jet with a needle-valve controlled from the dash. Turning this control clockwise weakened the mixture and pulling out the same button actuated a choke. Cars were sometimes seen climbing quite gentle slopes in reverse, not from lack of power, but because the position of the tank, later altered, starved the carburetter when the Level of the fuel became low.
No dipstick was provided, but in its place there were two villainously inaccessible stop-cocks between which, the owner was advised, the oil level should be maintained. As it was impossible to determine the exact level of oil between these limits except by a shrewd guess based on the speed of flow from the lower tap, many people used the top tap only and thus spared themselves distressing doubts when they had to turn up the wick.
The top of the combined flywheel and gear housing was fitted with an inspection cover giving access for adjustment of the gear and brake bands, and it was only a very green amateur who attempted to do this without first tying all his spanners and anything else in the vicinity together with stout cord, for if anything fell to the bottom of the gearbox, its recovery involved a major operation. From this point rearwards everything was fairly orthodox except that the axle shafts carried the weight of the car on roller bearings, ie, the axle was not of the floating type. The silencer on the earlier models had a short pipe at the rear, but some bright lad must have discovered that this needlessly increased the cost of the car, for later its place was taken by a spout pressed into the rear cover and, as this was directed downwards, it blew up clouds of dust out of all proportion to the speed of the car, which thus advertised its presence at immense distances. The number of cubic yards of American side roads blown away by this means would provide an interest subject for speculation ! At close range the Ford was easily distinguished by an airy and not-of-this-world appearance brought about by its small but adequate mudguards, giving a clear view of the axles and running gear, by the exceptionally good ground clearance, and by the large wheels and thin, high pressure 30 in by 31/2 in tyres— the general impression was of a large spider bounding over the landscape. In the matter of accessibility there is no doubt that this and other early cars were far superior to modern designs, and I for one would welcome the return of mudguards a little less all-embracing—and less expensive.
Finally, a word about the Instruction Manual. As distinctive as the car itself, it contained detailed descriptions of every part and the appropriate maintenance operations, nearly all in words of one syllable. Its writer erred on the right side by acting on the assumption that every car was to be used in Central Africa, though even there it is probable that an agency was, and is, not for away. Typical of the 148 paragraph headings in my 1928 edition are “What about valve tithing ?” “When there is dirt in the carburetter, what ?” “How is the spark controlled ?” and so on. Armed with this little volume, a spares list and a spanner, a trip round the world could present no difficulties. The reader may have concluded by this time that I have an exaggerated interest in this obsolete car, and I certainly plead to an affectionate memory of using the Model-T when motoring was still an adventure and when reliability of the sort it provided was exceedingly rare. There are one or two of the old cars and trucks still to be seen running in London, and I feel sure that I shall one day succumb to the temptation I have often felt to stop the driver and ask him to allow me once more to experience the fascination of driving his universal car.