Last Reviewed: October 20, 2016
Classic Car Story Index
1916 Ford Model T

1916 Ford Model T

Henry Ford founded the Ford Motor Company in 1903 in Highland Park, Michigan. He started with the "Model A" and continued up the alphabet however many of the vehicles were prototypes that were never produced. The most popular of the early Fords, the Model T, was the ninth production car and was produced from October of 1908 to May of 1927. At that point Ford seemed to feel that the initial development of a reliable vehicle was over and started his lettering system from the beginning with an all new 1927 Model A.

The Model T Ford was designed by a team of at least seven men with varied backgrounds and underwent many changes over its lifetime. The official name never altered, but it was nicknamed the "Tin Lizzie". It was the first vehicle to be manufactured internationally, with plants in Canada and England, and was sold in ten other countries. It is said to be the first mass produced vehicle from an assembly line that used interchangeable parts, however other people used that process on a smaller scale before Ford in the United States and abroad. The Model T car came in five body styles: a seven passenger Town Car or Landaulet, a five passenger Touring Car and a two passenger Runabout or coupe. You could also have the body changed to a Depot hack, pickup truck, van, paddy wagon or special patrol car. Thirteen thousand employees built over 300,000 Model T Fords in 1914, at the rate of one every 93 minutes, and by 1918 they accounted for most of the cars in America. By 1927 more than 15 million had been built, in large part due to the foresight of Ford to dominate newspapers with advertising and establish dealerships in most major cities. The first cars sold for $850 and were offered in a variety of colors. In 1914, Ford insisted that everything - body and parts - be painted black to reduce costs and the following year the price was 50% less.

1922 Ford Model T

1922 Model T Ford Truck

Ford chose a 177 cubic inch four cylinder, four-stroke engine that produced about 20 horsepower at 1600 rpm and had a top speed of almost 45 miles an hour. It went somewhere between 13 and 20 miles on a gallon of gasoline (which at the time was two cents), depending on the conditions and how the driver set the ignition timing. It was a flathead "T" design engine made of cast iron with poppet valves in the cylinder block. It had a 3.75 inch bore and a four inch stroke with a 4.5:1 compression ratio to accommodate hand cranking and low octane gasoline. The first engines were cooled with a water pump and brass radiator but Ford soon decided he could save money by eliminating the water pump and rely on thermodynamics (causing hot water to rise to the top of the radiator and drop to the bottom as it cooled) to do the job. The cooling system was adequate, as long as you avoided hills on warm summer days!

1924 Ford Model T Coupe

1924 Model T Ford Coupe

A single barrel downdraft carburetor was used to combine the fuel with air and both the choke and throttle valve were manually operated by levers on the steering column. The carburetor did not have an accelerator pump and the fuel arrived by gravity from a tank under the front seat. If the fuel tank was too low the carburetor would often "starve" on steep hills; but that was easily remedied by turning around and climbing the hill in reverse.

The first Model Ts did not have an electrical system. The car was started with a hand crank and a small magneto on the flywheel which generated enough voltage to operate the "trembler" coils that fired the spark plugs. The system was crude but relatively inexpensive, and had the added advantage of being able to ignite gasoline as well as kerosene and ethanol, which was handy in rural locations. The trembler coil, as the name suggests, used a magnetic relay to rapidly switch an electric magnet on an off, producing a constant barrage of high voltage sparks. Each cylinder had its own coil and they were turned on and off by a rotating switch, similar to today's distributor, that revolved at half the crankshaft's speed. The spark was weak compared to today's ignition coils but the gasoline was relatively slow burning so the repeated sparks did the job. A timing switch could be rotated by the driver to manually advance or retard the spark as needed during warm up and full speed driving. Initially exterior lights were fueled by either acetylene gas or kerosene but then in 1915 the magneto was redesigned to power an electric horn and headlights. In 1919 an electric starting motor, battery and generator were added.

1926 Ford Model T Touring Car

1926 Model T Ford

Starting the early Model T Fords was a challenge that few women were willing to endure. The primary problem was the strength that it took to turn the crank fast enough for the magneto to energize the trembler coil and fire the spark plugs, and the danger of breaking a finger or even an arm if it kicked back unexpectedly, which it frequently did. Then there was the manual choke that had to be tweaked "just so" with the other hand from a nearby cable connected to the carburetor. And then there was the spark advance lever on the steering column that had to be set "just so" based on the engine's temperature.

The Model T Ford was a front engine rear drive vehicle and the drivetrain consisted of a two-speed forward, one-speed reverse transmission and a wet type clutch connected to a universal joint, driveshaft, differential and rear axles. The transmission featured fixed planetary gears that were selected by bands that were tighten or set free via foot pedals, as was the clutch. Mastering the transmission was almost as difficult as getting the engine started because while your hands had to be free for the throttle, choke and spark advance, not to mention the steering wheel, you also needed a hand for the clutch handle on the side of the driver's seat and your two legs had to operate three foot pedals; brake or change gears. The left pedal was used to select neutral and the forward gears, the middle pedal engaged reverse and the right pedal applied a band that was the vehicle's only brake. A two-speed differential was also offered for trucks.

1926 Ford Model T C-Cab Delivery Truck

1926 Ford Model T Delivery Truck

The suspension amounted to a very flexible steel beam-type front axle with transverse, semi-elliptical springs over each wheel. The vehicles had a 100 inch wheel base and weighed between 12 and 15 hundred pounds. The early models came with wood-spoked wheels but they were eventually replaced with steel. The original tires were mounted on clincher-type rims that required 60 pounds of air but were easy to remove to repair punctures, a common problem where horseshoe nails littered the road. Balloon tires, as we know them today, came about in 1925 and used an inner tube filled with about 35 pounds of air, which improved the suspension.

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While driving a Model T was a challenge the driving environment was equally so. Being among the first automobiles there was no infrastructure of paved roads to drive on, fuel to propel them, supplies to repair them or mechanics to do the work. That led to a new generation of "backyard mechanics" and "grease monkeys" who, as time went on, were quick to make modifications and find new uses for the readily available used components. Anything that could be driven by a belt, such as blowers, pumps and generators, was often powered by a hub bolted to the rear axle of a Model T Ford sitting on a tree stump or blocks of wood; and the engines were often cannibalized for homemade tractors, boats and airplanes.