Driving a Ford Model T

Four wheels, headlights and an internal combustion engine. The Ford Model T had a lot in common with today's cars, but just how difficult was it to drive?
By Brian Alexander

It’s probably safe to say we all take the convenience of driving for granted, at least to some extent. In the last century, driving has gone from a privilege relegated only to the affluent, to an everyday chore endured by the masses; and if you ask any historian what car brought driving to the common man, the invariable answer will be the Ford Model T, of which more than 15 million were produced. But just how easy was the first everyman’s car to live with?

Model T Pedals

We were recently given a chance to get up close and personal with ‘Tin Lizzie’ during a visit to the Ford Model T Centennial Celebration in Richmond, Indiana, cleverly titled the Model T Party. As attendees of what will go down as the largest Model T collection we’re likely to see in our lifetime, we were given the opportunity to learn to drive ‘the car that started it all’ by many an enthusiastic owner. And wow, was it strange.

“Driving a Model T reminds you of how the world used to be," says Dan Conder of Cicero, Indiana, a graphics design studio owner and graphics coordinator for Ford’s Model T Party. “Life used to be slower," continues Conder, “and driving a Model T can be a refreshing experience."

For a Model T newcomer, the word ‘refreshing’ might not be the best descriptor. Words like ‘foreign, counterintuitive and bizarre’ better portray the scenario, because while the controls of a Model T look similar to those of their contemporary counterparts, in reality they’re entirely different.

Like any modern car with a manual transmission, there are three pedals on the floorboard; but go ahead and mash them all you want, it’s not likely to get you anywhere. This is because the Model T’s gas pedal is actually a lever located on the right side of the steering wheel stalk. It works like that of a lawnmower or a powerboat, just select a throttle position and the engine holds the revs consistently.

Once you’ve selected a throttle position in neutral that’s suitable for acceleration, say 20 percent of the available range, it’s time to get moving. Of the three pedals, the left acts as both the clutch and gearshift. It’s pretty strange, but considering T’s only have two forward gears, a high and low, no modern H-pattern shifter was required.

When the left pedal is in the middle of its travel, the car is in neutral. Pressing forward on the left pedal and holding it in place engages the lower gear, used to get the car moving from a stop. Once up to speed (over about 15 mph), you release pedal pressure and let the pedal settle back past neutral and into the bottom of its travel, engaging the high gear.

Once in high gear, the throttle is modulated to control cruising speed. At this point the throttle works more or less like a cruise control system, and no pedal inputs are required to change engine speed. Pulling down on the throttle lever accelerates the engine, and most T’s are capable of achieving around 45 mph before they top out, returning a respectable fuel economy average of around 20 mpg.

The pedal to the far right, where we keep our gas pedal today, operates the brakes. They don’t work very well, even given the car’s minimalistic mass, so it’s important to look up the road when driving a Model T to ensure no surprise stops are needed. Before braking, the throttle is dropped to its lowest position to prevent acceleration under braking, which is actually quite easy to do since you don’t have to take your foot off the gas to brake, as is the case in a modern car.

The middle pedal engages the reverse gear, and we’re told it can be used to slow the car down as well, and while we suspect it would be effective, we didn’t try it with any of the Ts that were so generously loaned to us.

Compared to our standards today, the Model T is a quirky machine to drive, but it’s not boring by any means. In fact, once some give it a try they’re instantly hooked. “I’d been a street rodder all my life and I just got into T’s six or seven years ago."  Says T owner Nelson Jones of Kehukee, Illinois, “But now I use my T so much that I very seldom drive my street rod."

Driving a T made us appreciate how far cars have come. Today we have six, seven and eight-speed automatics, dual-clutch transmissions, adaptive cruise control, ABS and electronic stability control and more horsepower than anyone at the turn of the century would know what to do with. We owe all of the conveniences we enjoy today to the success of the Ford Model T, and while the experience of driving has changed immeasurably over the past century, it’s certainly only gotten better with time.

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