Jeep 2020 Dec

1919 Ford Model T - It's 101 and still good fun


The Model T is often rated as the most influential car of all time. Its day has long passed but its charm remains. Here we detail a 1919 station wagon.

Words: Kyle Cassidy   |   Photos Tom Gasnier
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Whenever you see a Model T, you’re amazed that such a simple machine made a man so very wealthy. Introduced to the world in 1908, the T was affordable, easy to drive and reliable compared with most vehicles of the day. Ford’s ninth production model, it was one of the first mass-produced vehicles and helped mobilise the masses. During the 1920s, half the cars in the world were Model Ts. ‘‘You see them everywhere you go, and they go everywhere you see them,” was the slogan of the day, a reference to both the T’s popularity and reliability. Mechanical simplicity was one of the secrets behind the T’s success. As the brochure said, “the Ford is the acme of simplicity and mechanical simplicity is the fundamental safeguard against trouble”.

While Ford didn’t invent the assembly line, he certainly mastered it, using its efficiency to reduce production times and costs. Ford passed these savings on to the customer in the form of reduced pricing, helping him sell more Model Ts in order to dominate the market. While it started at $850 in 1908, it could be had for as little as $260 in 1927. Ford made 15,007,003 of them, a number that wasn’t beaten until 1972 by the VW Beetle.

Some of the T’s innovations included the engine block and crankcase being cast as one while its removable cylinder head made for easier maintenance. Ford used vanadium steel in its manufacture, a lightweight but strong alloy that brought a certain robustness to the car.

The 177-cube (2.9-litre) four cylinder made 20hp (15kW) at 1600rpm with 112Nm, giving a top speed (on a good day) of 45mph, while consumption was around 11L/100km. It was low on tech, or high on simplicity as Ford might say. It has no fuel pump, with a gravity-fed carburettor, no water pump either, and a thermosiphon effect (passive heat exchange based on convection) cycles the cooling water. The engine and trans use the same oil.

There were many body styles offered, including the option of not having one at all. And that’s how this T began its life. It’s a 1919 Ford Chassis, which came with the hood, fenders, running boards, two side lights, two headlights and a tail light, horn and a set of tools. Yanks refer to them as depot hacks. Once purchased from Ford, you took the chassis to an aftermarket coachbuilder to fit the body that suited your purpose.

The unique appearance helps this Model T draw plenty of attention.

The owner of this example, Stuart Crawford, refers to his as a station wagon. According to The Henry Ford, the term refers to a wagon used by a resort or hotel to collect guests and their luggage from the train station, hence a station wagon.

While he originally purchased this in the eighties, Stuart finally got the hurry up to get the T back on the road only a few years ago. “My daughter said to me; ‘I’m getting married in a year’s time, and I want the Model T done’. So two weeks before the big event it got its warrant and registration again.”

Stuart confesses that with time running thin to get it registered for the wedding, it wasn’t running quite right on the big day. “It has manually adjusted advance and retard on the spark and I had it back to front! During the rebuild, I put most things together two or three times before getting it right.” He says it was a labour of love with many nights and weekends spent working on it to get it finished on time, with help from quite a few people along the way.

“It was worth all the effort. We had my daughter and her six bridesmaids in the back, though there wasn’t room for the flowergirl,” he laments.

That was back in 2014, but the ownership stretches back to 1982, when it was bought as a chassis with its running gear, wheels and running boards for $1400. The rest Stuart had to source.

The wooden body was made by Allen Gibbs, a member of Stuart’s extended family, back in the mid-90s. The wood was milled from a log of kauri from a friend’s farm and all Gibbs had to go on was a few photographs. It’s a wonder of work given the lack of any real plans, especially as Stuart says woodworking was more of a hobby for Gibbs, who didn’t have a workshop full of machines at his disposal.

The unique appearance helps this Model T draw plenty of attention. One of the many people who stopped for a chat during our photoshoot wanted to know where the Model T’s gearstick was. There isn’t one of course, only three pedals and a hand lever which are used to operate a two-speed planetary transmission. There’s the clutch pedal, which is used to engage the low and high gear, the middle pedal is reverse and the pedal on the right is the brake. The clutch is held in neutral (half way in) by pulling the handbrake half on. Pushing the pedal all the way down engages low to get you rolling and letting it all the way out selects top. There’s a hand throttle on the wheel while the brake pedal activates a band inside the transmission acting on the driveshaft. The mind boggles. And yet it was deemed easy to operate in its day compared with a manual box of non-synchronized cogs that required careful rev matching and double de-clutching.

Stuart’s Model T affiliation stretches back to his younger years. “My brother worked for Ford in Cambridge and one weekend he was asked to drive the boss’s Model T at the St Peter’s school fair and he decided he would like a Model T. We went all over Dannevirke and Woodville looking at cars and we ended up gathering a lot of parts too.”

Later, Stuart would end up living in Australia for a few years and while away, another of his brothers decided that their workshop had too much stuff in it, and sold most of his T parts. “I had to start again, it took years to gather up those parts and a lot of the bits I’ve never been able to find again.” Amongst the lost treasures was a genuine Ruckstell axle. This two-speed rear end (low and high) effectively gave the Model T four forward gears. But rather than being an overdrive system, it was underdriven. If the Model T was in its low gear and you engaged the Ruckstell’s high gear, it provided an intermediate ratio to help the Model T climb hills at a faster rate. It was reportedly the only aftermarket accessory approved by Henry Ford.

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Hills were the Model T’s nemesis. A steep-ish climb needed to be tackled in low gear, but this severely limited the speed to around 5-10mph, so the Ruckstell helped in this regard. And there was the fueling problem. With its gravity-fed carb, the engine could be starved of gas. The solution was to reverse up steep hills.

Stuart has resisted modernising his T. The lamps are still kerosene burners. He quickly disassembles one, showing us the lamp inside which he found in a second hand shop in Warkworth many years ago. “I paid a dollar for it. I walked out of the shop very happy.” The 1919 model was the first to gain electric start, saving the hassle, and potential broken thumbs of having to hand crank it. Stuart has added only a few minor modifications to his machine. To help with fueling, he has raised the gas tank (which lives under the front seat) so it drains down to the carb easier, and there are roller bearings in the diff. He says you can get adapter kits to change the coils to a distributor type electrical system. But his coils still work fine. “There’s a contact on the back of the coil and when I was trying to get the engine going, I discovered if I pushed on the coils, all four cylinders worked.” His makeshift solution was to wedge a few nails in to make for a better contact and easier starting.

When Stuart pulled the original engine down he discovered one of the bores was badly scored, so a replacement motor was found in order to get the T back running for the daughter-imposed deadline. He’d like to sort its original engine, one day, and fit it with a balanced crankshaft as he says the engine vibrates quite badly at speed. And he’ll get around to sorting those coils.

“People who can do these things are dropping out of the business, so finding those who know their way around the cars is getting harder,” he says. And how much maintenance does it require? Stuart laughs; “Well if you read the manual, the first thing you do when you get home is to immediately prepare it for the next trip out, greasing the joints and the rest. I probably spend as much time working on it as I do driving it. It’s high maintenance.”

One Ford-produced booklet we found online stated; “Know your car intimately, thoroughly, devote the first week or longer if need be, to a careful painstaking study of its entire mechanism. It is not enough to be able to start it, stop it and back it. Learn the purpose of each part and its relation to the others. If you keep them all properly cleaned, oiled and adjusted (a quick, simple job if done regularly) you will have prevented the possibility of 99 per cent of breakdowns.”

He says it has a few oil leaks, but we wonder how good our fluid retention will be when we reach 100. “If you’re on too steep of a hill, the oil will come out of the flange joint of the driveshaft.” He also recalls it being towed once after having blown a tyre. Without a spare, a friend came to rescue him, but the angle of the tow truck deck led to it pouring oil over his mate’s truck.

Stuart uses the T to take the grandkids out and about, and for the simple pleasure of ‘just going for a drive’. “I find it a pleasant way to spend some time. It’s just a lot of fun.”

And fun is set to continue for the Crawfords. “My sons have never really wanted to drive it, I’ve never pushed them either but finally one of them said ‘you need to teach me to drive it’. A good thing as I’m not getting any younger”. Let’s hope the T is still motoring around for a few more generations yet.

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