Ford's revolutionary car is 100 this year. Ryan Levitt pulls on his flat cap and driving gloves and gets behind the wheel

An American dream was born 100 years ago when the first of Henry J Ford's Model Ts rolled off the assembly lines in Detroit. The Model T, while no better in design than previous "horseless carriages" introduced to the world, was the first affordable option that allowed the middle classes the opportunity to own a taste of the future - and the middle classes liked what they saw. Within months, the first cross-country journey by automobile had been completed from San Francisco to New York and the Wild West was seen as just a little bit less wild.

An American dream was born 100 years ago when the first of Henry J Ford's Model Ts rolled off the assembly lines in Detroit. The Model T, while no better in design than previous "horseless carriages" introduced to the world, was the first affordable option that allowed the middle classes the opportunity to own a taste of the future - and the middle classes liked what they saw. Within months, the first cross-country journey by automobile had been completed from San Francisco to New York and the Wild West was seen as just a little bit less wild.

Today, the Wild West of California is no longer the impenetrable land of deserts and forests it once was. If anything, it was the automobile that conquered this great state, lacing its environmental features with epic freeways and miles of concrete.

While SUVs have replaced Model Ts on America's roads, they have not replaced them in America's hearts. The image of the Model T puttering down the byways of the nation, while a quaint one, still brings a smile to the faces of all who see it. I should know, considering the number of mouths I saw break into wide grins at the sight of me behind the wheel of my 1915 Model T Runabout, organised for me by driveamodelT.com.

I am far from being a good driver, and was slightly nervous when I first got behind the wheel of my convertible two-seater. I have never been good at doing two things at once, but I quickly forced myself to get the hang of it while weaving through Yosemite National Park. It is hard to know which experience to focus on - the historic driving or the majestic surroundings.

Before embarking on the trip, I was sent an instructional video outlining the way to drive a Model T. People tend to forget that most motorists had only ever driven a horse before getting behind the wheel of a car during that period. The only tricky thing is the hand-crank. It requires a lot more energy than you might think. To avoid this hassle, you can request a model from the driveamodelT's stock of classics. Simply make sure you choose an automobile built after 1919, when Ford introduced the electric starter.

Tours take place throughout the year to one of two locations - Yosemite or down the California coast along Highway One past the historic Hearst castle. Up to 12 couples per tour are accommodated and you may travel individually or in conjunction with the rest of the party, depending on your wishes. Tours last six days and include a number of stops to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. And if your Model T breaks down (a rare event), it will be replaced automatically with only a slight delay.

My advice is to don a flat cap and pair of riding gloves (or in the case of my driving partner, a vintage Hermès head-scarf) for a truly luxurious adventure. Not only will you look the height of period chic, you will also be safe from the burning California sun.

If the open road appeals but the idea of getting behind the wheel of a car leaves you cold, there are plenty of other options for exploring California's naked streets. One of the best is Take My Mother Please, a tour experience designed by LA-resident and expert Anne Block. A former actress, she has been touring Tinseltown in her silver Cadillac since 1994. Flame-haired and sharp-tongued, this over-50 firecracker moved to Los Angeles with the intention of becoming a star. Little did she know that she would be touring the stars - and their mothers - instead.

From Marilyn Monroe's former home to the corner where Hugh Grant met Divine Brown, Block will show you anything and everything you desire. She was once hired by a Parisian banker whose 16-year-old daughter was "interested in seeing the Getty Museum", says Block. "And the Baywatch film locations."

A tour of LA with Block lasts eight hours - and she does not scrimp on time. On the day I was picked up by her, I was taken out for a spin until well into the early hours of the evening. Her knowledge of local legend and lore is exhaustive. And even if you think "19 suburbs in search of a city" will not be to your liking, she will make sure your mind is changed. "When I give tours, not only am I showing where I live," says Block, "but at the end of the day, my visitors have a feeling for the real LA and not just the fantasy. Of course, along the way, I'm pointing out every dive I've ever eaten a taco in."

My tour with Block packed in a visit to Watts Towers, a garden dedicated to The Wizard of Oz, an authentic Mexican lunch and a visit to the Hollywood sign.

While car hire or insurance is not necessary for either tour, you will need both if you plan on any independent exploration. Save money by buying your car hire insurance before starting on your travels. A new annual policy launched by Insurance 4 Car Hire can reduce your additional expenses by offering comprehensive car rental insurance that will not require you to take out costly daily premiums or additional cover.

The Facts

Getting there

Ryan Levitt went to California with the help of LA Inc (The Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau), The Avalon Hotel, DriveamodelT.com and United Airlines.

United Airlines

(0845-8444 777; www.unitedairlines.co.uk) is offering return fares to Los Angeles from London Heathrow from £339 return (including tax for departures) until 18 December, with a maximum stay of one month.

Being there

The Avalon Hotel

(001 310 277 5221; www.avalonbeverlyhills.com) is a revitalised 1950s apartment block turned hotel which was once home to Marilyn Monroe. Double rooms start from $190 (£126) per room per night.

Further Information

T-Tours (001 866 488 6877; driveamodelT.com) offers a number of itineraries in Yosemite and the Californian coast. Car rentals start from $400 (£267) per couple including petrol.

Tours with Take My Mother Please (001 323 737 2200; www.takemymotherplease.com) hosted by Anne Block, cost $300 (£200) for a half-day for three people.

For a brochure about Los Angeles, contact LA Inc (020-7318 9555; www.visitLAnow.com).

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