Ford Model T
This is the cheap, cheerful chugger that changed the world. So is it a big 'thank you' from David Wilkins and our panel?
Saturday 26 July 2008
And now for something completely different. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Ford Model T, so when Ford offered to let us try one, I thought we'd give it a go.
Model: Ford Model T
Price: £220 (1908), £170 (1919); the fall in price was the result of economies of scale and improving techniques. Even today, the T is inexpensive because so many of them were built.
Engine: four-cylinder 2.9-litre side valve
Transmission: two-speed epicyclic
Total production: more than 15 million
Colours: contrary to myth, shades other than black were available, especially outside the USA
Ford didn't invent the motor car – that distinction is usually accorded to what later became Mercedes – but with the T, the American company did more than any other to get the man in the street off the pavement, the bicycle or the motorbike and behind the wheel of his own car, which was perhaps as great an achievement.
Thanks to Henry Ford, mass motoring changed the face of our cities and countryside for ever. It provided ordinary people with the freedom and flexibility of travel that had previously been the preserve only of the rich. We now know, of course, that there is a price to be paid for that freedom; the mass-market car could kill our planet unless we radically rethink how we make it and use it.
But such fears were far in the future when our test car, a 1915 Tourer, was assembled at Trafford Park in Manchester, Ford's main British site before its vast Dagenham complex opened in 1931. It belongs to the company's UK Heritage Collection, maintained by Ivan Bartholomeusz and other dedicated Ford staff.
The T is a remarkably docile machine and a doddle to drive, once you grasp its bizarre pedal arrangement. The left pedal is lowered to engage first gear and raised to select second; neutral lies in between. The centre pedal selects reverse and the right-hand pedal brakes the car. The throttle is operated via a lever mounted on the steering wheel – an arrangement that works so well that it seems a shame that it was abandoned.
The T also has a fair turn of speed, although the impression of rapid progress is probably heightened by the open bodywork and the absence of safety belts. Ride comfort is surprisingly good, given the primitive nature of the suspension.
What finally brought an end to the Model T's days as a bestseller in the UK were new motoring taxes that penalised cars with large engines. Then, as now, American designs used big, unstressed power units instead of the smaller, more highly tuned engines favoured by the European manufacturers, and they suffered accordingly.
One result was that, rather than all building the same American designs, as they had with the T, Ford's national subsidiaries developed their own models adapted to local conditions and taxation. That gave us decades of British Anglias, Corsairs, Cortinas, Zephyrs and Zodiacs, while the Germans, for example, had their Taunus models.
But the pressure to achieve economies of scale was too great and the wheel turned full circle; first, Ford's European model ranges were consolidated, and then, from 1980, variants of what was vaguely the same car were built around the world as the Ford Escort. There was a new piece of jargon to describe this development – the world car – but Ford had done it all before with the T.
Finally, in case you're wondering what relevance this old car has to Save & Spend, a section of the paper devoted to investments and hedonistic consumption, ponder this. Henry Ford paid his workers enough money to buy the car they were building; unlike their parents, they could afford to put a bit by, or allow themselves the odd indulgence, rather than just struggling to exist. They were probably, as far ordinary folk are concerned, the original savers and spenders.
Graham Mullender, 49
Civil servant, Benfleet; sons Kyle, 23, and Luke, 20
Usual cars: BMW Cabriolet, Sunbeam Alpine, VW Kombi (Graham), BMW Z3 (Kyle), VW Polo, Lambretta (Luke)
We arrived early and had time to chat with Ivan, the man who maintains Ford's collection, and had a good look over the car. This 1915 Ford Model T, although it looked fairly basic, required some dexterity to operate its now unconventional layout. A quick lesson in the basics allowed for a surprisingly smooth ride, light and precise steering and a turning circle that would embarrass a modern city car. A good turn of pace from the silky four-cylinder, which pulls well from very low revs. A huge amount of fun is to be had from this 93-year-old automobile and we left with big grins on our faces; a petrolhead's delight.
Rosalind Poller, 44
Occupational therapy student, London
Usual car: Nissan Almera SRI
I had no idea what to expect, and arrived to find a gleaming, much more substantial vehicle than I'd imagined, with polished metalwork and beautiful wooden wheels. It is much higher than modern cars, with leather seats and a fold-down hood. Some of the features I'd anticipated were there, like the starting handle. It started first time and gave a much smoother ride than I had expected. The controls took some getting used to; the handbrake seemed to have three positions, the throttle was on the steering wheel and gears were controlled through a pedal. It was a lovely day, and I'd have liked to carry on driving to try to master the controls.
John Lambert, 32
IT consultant, Wellesbourne
Usual car: Citroen BX
Once you are used to it, the Model T is very easy to drive. The big four-cylinder engine has lots of torque and pulls from almost no revs. In top gear it trundles along nicely, the throttle (a lever on the steering wheel) does a nice job controlling the speed, the steering is weighty but accurate – but don't expect marvels from the brakes. Pulling away is easy, too; just squeeze the leftmost pedal and away you go – a novice driver would probably find it easier than balancing throttle and clutch. Changing from low to top gear is tricky but easier, I'd imagine, than mastering a non-synchromesh gearbox of the kind fitted to other cars of the time. Driving the Model T was great fun, although I'm not sure I'd want to do it in heavy traffic.
If you would like to take part in The Verdict, email firstname.lastname@example.org or write to The Verdict, Save & Spend, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS, giving your address, phone number and details of the car, if any, you drive. For most cars, participants must be over 26 and have a clean licence.
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