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October 6, 2008



As a teenager, my brother Lawton bought an antique automobile that had been sitting in the middle of a field for years. It was a Model T Ford that had been whitewashed.  It was being used as a chicken coop. He paid fifty dollars for it.

Lawton replaced battery, starter, and carburetor. He repaired the rotten floorboard with plywood, mounted rocking chairs where the seats had once been, and drove the classic car around Duncan Park for a year or more.

One day Lawton and our cousin Eddie were on their way to the old Community Cash Grocery Store at the end of our road.  Something zoomed past them on the right. It was the passenger side rear wheel of the Model T. It had come off the axle and raced ahead down the pavement.  That brought an end to the Tin Lizzie adventure.

The fifty-dollar Model T was not the least expensive one owned by a member of our family. When he was in high school, my Uncle Asbury worked for a fellow who operated a body shop on South Church Street. My uncle owned three Model T’s. He paid eight dollars for one and a five-dollar bill for the second.

The third was free. The man who owned it had crashed into my grandfather’s car. He couldn’t pay for the damage so he gave my grandfather the Model T. Uncle Bury took it to the body shop and restored it, pirating parts from the other two. On that refurbished Model T my dad learned to drive.   

In 1915, my grandfather and his brother-in-law operated a lumberyard in Greenville. They purchased a Model T Ford and took turns driving the car. When one drove it home for the night, the other rode the streetcar. It was the first automobile owned by anyone in my family.

This month marks the 100th anniversary of the Model T Ford. In October 1908, the first automobiles rolled off the assembly line in Detroit. When production ended in 1927, Ford Motor Company had produced 15 million of the vehicles.

The Model T was the first affordable, reliable automobile. As the car that put America on wheels, the Tin Lizzie ushered in a new industrial age.  By the 1920s, half of all cars in America were Model Ts.

Among Henry Ford’s innovations were assembly-line production and interchangeable parts. His concept of paying workers a fair wage provided a ready market for the car. For about four-month’s salary, a Ford employee could purchase a Model T.

To start a Model T required using the hand crank on the front of the car. If the engine kicked back, the rapid reverse motion of the crank could be violent. A lot of arms and thumbs were broken trying to get a Tin Lizzie going!

            The car’s 10-gallon fuel tank was mounted beneath the front seat. The Model T would run on gasoline, or it could run on ethyl alcohol made at home by the self-reliant farmer. Because fuel relied on gravity to flow forward from the tank to the carburetor, a Model T could not climb a steep hill when the fuel level was low. The solution was to drive up steep hills in reverse.

            My grandfather and his brother-in-law kept five-gallon cans of gasoline in a warehouse so they would always have a ready supply. One time my grandfather instructed a lumberyard worker, “Get one of those five-gallon cans, and fill up the car.”

            That night my grandfather drove the car home. The next morning, when he turned the crank, the car would not start. The worker didn’t know the difference between a can of gasoline and a can of turpentine. Henry Ford’s invention was not designed to run on yellow pine sap.

            The first Model T was sold for the price of $850. Over those early years of production, the price of the car dropped steadily. The 1925 touring car was built the year F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby. Calvin Coolidge was president. It cost about $260 at a time when the average annual income in America was $1,236.

Tin Lizzie drivers had to learn to coordinate the trio of foot pedals in the floor along with hand controls for the accelerator and the brake.

I spoke recently to an owner of one of the classic cars. He explained that his Model T is a four-cylinder, 20-horsepower machine with a top speed of 45 miles-per-hour. The 1,200-pound Lizzie gets 15–20 miles per gallon. He said the car comes equipped with Armstrong power steering.

            I was puzzled. “Armstrong power steering?”

            “That’s right,” he said grinning. “You have to have strong arms to steer it.”

                        Russ Grunewald is president of the National Model T Ford Club of America, an organization with 8,000 members. He is the proud owner of a meticulously restored, mint-condition Model T that has an estimated worth of about $20,000.

In July of this year, Grunewald, who lives in Fort Worth, Texas, loaded his antique car onto a trailer and drove to Richmond, Indiana. There Model T enthusiasts gathered to celebrate the car’s 100th birthday. The event drew 2,000 people and 900 Model Ts.

The Ford Model T had only one belt, no oil pump, no water pump, no catalytic converter, no reclining seats, no CD or DVD player, no keyless entry system, no climate control, or many of the other bells and whistles we expect in our chariots. Still, this simple machine was the most influential car of the twentieth century.

Back in the time of The Great Depression, my dad and one of his farmer uncles were bouncing across a field in a Model T. The car choked. Dad’s uncle moved to the front of the car to crank it. When the Lizzie would not start, he turned the air blue with profanity. Then he apologized, “I’m sorry, son. Sometimes this car is enough to make even a preacher cuss!”

Some things never change.


© Kirk H. Neely

October 2008




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