How to start and operate a Ford Model T
June 30, 2009 12:52 AM   Subscribe

Neat. I didn't know that the model T had a hand throttle and no accelarator on the floor.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:09 AM on June 30, 2009

Or an accelerator, even.
posted by BitterOldPunk at 1:10 AM on June 30, 2009

Very interesting! I like that center pedal for going backwards, but I shudder to think of the extra accidents there'd be if modern cars had that feature.
posted by amyms at 1:18 AM on June 30, 2009

To make sure there is enough oil in the engine, we use this tool which reaches down and catches a couple of petcocks [small faucet valves] under the car. We open each of those to see if oil drips out onto the ground, if it does that shows that the oil level is proper.

Or at least it was proper, before we just dumped out some of the oil.
posted by StickyCarpet at 2:09 AM on June 30, 2009

That is one cool guy.
posted by scrowdid at 2:19 AM on June 30, 2009

Farewell, My Lovely:
Its most remarkable quality was its rate of acceleration. In its palmy days the Model T could take off faster than anything on the road. The reason was simple. To get under way, you simply hooked the third finger of the right hand around a lever on the steering column, pulled down hard, and shoved your left foot forcibly against the low-speed pedal. These were simple, positive motions the car responded by lunging forward with a roar. After a few seconds of this turmoil, you took your toe off the pedal, eased up a mite on the throttle, and the car, possessed of only two forward speeds, catapulted directly into high with a series of ugly jerks and was off on its glorious errand.
posted by pracowity at 2:28 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Jeremy Clarkson and James May drive a Model T and several other older cars. Model T starts at about 5:45.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 4:48 AM on June 30, 2009

I think that hand throttles were pretty standard back than but the weird two pedal planetary gear transmission was a model-T only feature.
posted by octothorpe at 4:53 AM on June 30, 2009

You notice that the hand starter was replaced by an electrical motor. I've always felt that Charles Kettering, the inventor of the electric starter was an unsung feminist, as up until the time of his invention starting cars by hand kept many women from driving.

I suspect, however, that any American one dollar coin bearing his likeness would also fail...
posted by Tube at 6:28 AM on June 30, 2009

I love stuff like that!
(short rant follows)

There is always this idea used in all kinds of time-travel stories or RPG settings that a modern human would instantly be capable of grasping any older, "lower tech" concept just by looking at it. Don't know how to sail a schooner? Why, it's primitive technology, can't be too hard! We have only rocks at our disposal? We'll flint-knap ourselves some knives, should be easy!

And then you get a car (a car!) that you probably can't even move because you don't know how to open the fuel valve, or even know that it's there. There are familiar levers on the steering column, but none of them do what you expect. There's pedals, but they're completely counter-intuitive to someone used to modern automobiles. Oh, and even if you know about the hand-crank, you probably wouldn't guess that it could break your freaking wrist if you go about it wrong...

Fascinating information that will probably never ever be useful again but nevertheless shows what people once considered "normal".
posted by PontifexPrimus at 6:38 AM on June 30, 2009 [3 favorites]

Can we be sure it is a Model T and not a Decepticon? Because those basically drive themselves.
posted by Astro Zombie at 6:52 AM on June 30, 2009

When I was little my dad would take me to all kinds of swap meets, car shows, and car club meetings. His car club was the Pioneer Auto Club. It still exists today, but it's different, mostly full of guys who buy bolt-on repro-parts and pay other people to install them. Guys with heated shop floors. I shouldn't talk shit, though, I haven't built a car in years.

Anyway one of my fondest memories of swap meets, aside from selling found hubcaps with my brother, was this shit that the Pioneer Auto Club would pull with Model T parts. They had this rusty-ass junker of a trailer with a Model T frame, a cowl, some axles, an engine. All with that mottled-black handpainted-over-rust look... probably the whole thing was done with One-Shot. The fame of the Pioneer Auto Club was from making this pile of parts go.

My dad's buddies all had nicknames. Sullivision was one of them that I remember, most were plays on the sound of their last names. But my dad had a special name, Crank, because he was a tough bastard with huge arms from throwing bales and kids into the air. My dad and his buddies would bolt that piece of shit together from parts and start it. In five minutes.

As you can see now, starting these things is pretty crazy. You jam a huge crank in a hole in the front of the car, and then with nothing but meat-force you spin the engine around, pistons pumping, plugs sparking and frame shaking until the damn thing sputters to life... and your partners in awe drive it off the lot.

Swap meets just weren't swap meets without it.

It's a crying shame that my dad isn't in this video -- where the new Pioneers practice for getting the world record in T-Assembly. They got it the next day. But I can tell you, they'd have got it the first fuckin' time if my dad were cranking it. Flooded, my ass. You just forgot Crank, that's all.

Many of the old Pioneers that I remember are gone now -- car-covered farms burned down, some of 'em dead of heart problems, some, who knows. A few of the old guard still kick tires, including my dad, who just two days ago jacked my car up on a tractor to help me replace the axle.
posted by fake at 7:20 AM on June 30, 2009 [10 favorites]

Ed sounds like Bill Burroughs.
posted by namagomi at 7:23 AM on June 30, 2009

"I didn't know that the model T had a hand throttle and no accelarator on the floor."

This is basically standard on cars of this vintage. Driving something with a trottle is quite a different experience to driving with an accelerator.

The reverse pedal thing was very handy because the brake (a single drum) on a Model T left a lot to be desired and light pressure on the reverse band was more effective at slowing you down.
posted by Mitheral at 7:56 AM on June 30, 2009

I've always felt that Charles Kettering, the inventor of the electric starter was an unsung feminist

In fact, he was motivated to develop the starter after a close friend of Henry Leland (director of Cadillac) was killed on a Michigan bridge trying to crank start a woman's car which had stalled.
posted by CynicalKnight at 8:08 AM on June 30, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ford is re-introducing the Model T so thanks for the info!
posted by BozoBurgerBonanza at 8:15 AM on June 30, 2009

My twin uncles had a model T when they were teenagers that they shared and "owned" on alternating days. They tell a story about the fuel switch seen at @1:20 in that video. After picking up a date they would run through the starting check list, but would turn the fuel switch off. That gave the car about 15 minutes of fuel in the fuel lines before the engine would die. That gave them sufficiant distance to get their date out into the country roads until the car would have "sudden engine trouble." Try as they might, that darn engine just wouldn't start back up, so there they would be, young, alone, and vulnerable teenagers out in the dark night. Whatever would they do until a car came along?
posted by Pollomacho at 8:17 AM on June 30, 2009

This is really cool, the video and the thread, thanks everybody.
posted by Divine_Wino at 10:17 AM on June 30, 2009

Yeah, Model Ts are crazy, and they still turn up in the most surprising places.

A while back Peter Egan wrote a story about driving from Wisconsin to L.A. with a friend in a Model T. They snapped an axle shaft in Texas, and were sitting by the side of the road, trying to figure out what to do when a farmer drove by, took them back to his farm where he had not one, but two running Ts and a bunch of spare parts.

I remember Egan saying something along the lines of "having the impression that there was an even distribution of Model T parts across the whole Midwest".
posted by Relay at 10:54 AM on June 30, 2009

I was a little concerned when he was turning the engine crank. A bigger danger than the crank spinning backwards to break your wrist on a backfire was breaking your thumb if you held it like the gentleman was. You should always have your thumb on the same side of the crank handle as your fingers. Otherwise, you will get pretty badly hurt if the car does backfire. But I'm certain he knows that, I just wish he had shown proper form.

Thanks for the video!
posted by maxwelton at 12:27 PM on June 30, 2009

I have a vivid childhood memory my grandmother telling the tale of a model T (of course, in our neck of the planet, it was a "T-model") breaking her arm back in the 20's when she tried to hand-crank it. Buried somewhere in my dad's garage is a contraption he called "the shock stick", otherwise known as a cattle prod for getting our cattle into the trailer, that used as its generator of electrical spark an ignition coil from a model T.
posted by rhythim at 5:21 PM on June 30, 2009

Ohhhh man oh man I got excited when I saw this posted.

For three summers, I drove Model Ts at Greenfield Village, the outdoor living history museum that Henry Ford opened in Dearborn, MI. I drove authentic Model Ts (lots of people ask if the cars are on a track, like the "Classic Cars" available at Six Flags and the like; not so!) that were built from 1914-1927 (and a couple built in 2002, but that's another derail,) immaculately maintained, and left in the hands of chatty college kids, school teachers, and retirees. Our job was to give an ~8 minute presentation on the history and significance of the T, while puttering along amongst centuries-old buildings.

Driving the T is an inimitable experience. For one thing, the driver is incredibly high off the ground, which is important for two reasons: First, the car had a high clearance so it wouldn't bottom out on the rutted dirt roads of the time (hence the thin tires; they would not get mired in mud as easily as a wider one.) Secondly, the car had a gravity-fed fuel system. So the fuel tank is located under the seat, which is situated higher than the engine, which puts your head 7 or 8 feet off the ground. (I can't confirm this, but I believe the Model T is taller than a Hummer H2.)

Also, the planetary drive system is unlike anything else on the road. It may look complicated ("shift with your feet and gas with your hands!?") but it's a pretty simple & elegant system, especially compared to early cars that relied on hand levers for operation. Just pull the throttle down and jam the clutch to the floor, and you're crawling forward in something that sounds like a coffee grinder. Let the clutch pop into high gear, and suddenly you're cruising in a surprisingly silent automobile.

(One thing the video didn't mention: The clutch [far left] can be left in an in-between position where neither low nor high gear is engaged; that's your neutral. This is obviously important if you want to stop the car without stalling, or put it in reverse without killing the gears. Leaving the parking brake in a halfway position locks that clutch in neutral without actually engaging the brake. You'll have to trust me when I say it's simple, because it does not read smoothly.)

In the Village, we kept speeds under 10-15 because hordes of kids run around the grounds and visitors mingle about in the street, unaware of the presence of antique cars. When an oblivious visitor was in the road, I would see how close I could get before they heard me and started to turn around. At that moment, I would lay on the oogah horn and watch their reaction: It was a mix of surprise, amusement, and occasional, baffling indifference, as if a 90 year-old automobile honked at them on a daily basis. This was my favorite game. (Yes, I'm kind of a jerk, but most passengers & pedestrians enjoyed this sport.)

Sometimes though, we would have to take the cars on the back road to "blow them out," so to speak. Basically, running an old car with a primitive radiator at 10 mph in 90-degree heat causes overheating. So, we would use this back road to get the car up to speed and thus force more air into the engine to cool it off.

I never got the car to its top speed of 45 (I think; no speedometer,) but driving a Model T at 30-35 mph is still quite an experience. The wind moving through the open windshield is enough to make you tear up, and every curve feels like an opportunity to put a top-heavy, thin-tired automobile on its roof. It's alternately thrilling and terrifying, and I can't imagine doing so on roads with foot-deep potholes (I once hit a pothole at 10 mph, and it nearly ejected me through the canvas roof. Naturally, I giggled like a madman and did it again.)

And maxwelton is right: The gentleman should not have his thumb wrapped around the crank like that. A lot of people broke their arms in the 10s and 20s because of this; I've heard it was called the "Ford arm," but, again, I cannot confirm this.

(Also unmentioned in the video: You have to push the crank inwards to get it to catch in the motor, and then you only have to turn it from a 9 o'clock to 12 o'clock position before it will release and hopefully start [not bloody likely on the first or second tries.] The popular image of grabbing the crank and winding it like a clock will just make you look like a fool.)

Even though it was only three years ago, this video took me back and made me remember how much I loved that job, and how much I love telling stories about the job and the car.

If you're ever in Southeast Michigan, I recommend spending a day at Greenfield Village. I'm not trying to shill for the place, but I genuinely enjoy the history they present, and my summers there ignited a passion for the T that I would not have developed otherwise. Also, most people will never get a chance to ride in a Model T, so that's rare.

Bonus Model T fun fact: If one were to stage a drag race between a Model T and a pennyfarthing (high-wheel) bicycle, the T would win. Also, for participating in such an event, you may be suspended from Model T driving for a week, but hold pride in your 1-0 record in historical racing. *cough*
posted by Turkey Glue at 5:53 PM on June 30, 2009 [6 favorites]

"You should always have your thumb on the same side of the crank handle as your fingers. Otherwise, you will get pretty badly hurt if the car does backfire. But I'm certain he knows that, I just wish he had shown proper form."

I noticed that too maxwelton.

That was the way that I was taught to start a Model T, and my dad was very insistent about doing it only that way.

My brother in law is into Citroens (yeah, I know), and as a back up, they've got crank starters. One time, while trying to crank it over, it caught wrong, backfired, spun backwards and broke both bones in his forearm.

The Dr. he went to was an old guy, and the first thing he said when look at the xrays was, "This looks like a crank fracture - I haven't seen one of these in years!"

It used to be so common that Dr.s actually had a colloquialism for it.
posted by Relay at 7:50 PM on June 30, 2009

My grandfather collected many, many antique cars over the years, but his favorite was always his Model T. It was a shame my grandmother sold it when he died. I will always have fond memories of him taking us for rides in it as a child. This post brought back a lot of those memories, thanks.
posted by MaryDellamorte at 8:28 PM on June 30, 2009

The thumb-on-the-same-side rule is a fine one, but if you always remember to retard the spark advance first, it's not as important. I'm really surprised that he didn't mention it, because my grandfather made sure I understood when teaching me how to start his crank-start cars and tractors.

It was good practice for hand-propping airplanes later.
posted by Hello Dad, I'm in Jail at 5:25 AM on July 2, 2009

One other bit of "T-trivia" that is a vast difference from modern automobiles, is that the T had no oil pump; the engine relied on the "splash" lubrication from the piston push rods and spinning crankshaft for most of its lubrication. The upshot was that you needed to be mindful of this on long grades, or if idling the car on a grade for any length of time, as you could burn out the front or rear main bearings from lack of oil, if you kept the car running on such an incline for more than a couple minutes. On long hills, or mountains, it was pretty typical to see Model T cars being driven uphill for a mile or so, then being turned around and backed up the next half mile, turn around again and driven forward uphill another half mile, and so on. And of course, the same limitations applied going down steep hills, using engine braking, which was vital due to the T's skimpy drum brake.

Driving a T only seems simple...
posted by paulsc at 9:23 PM on July 11, 2009

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