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The Model That Suited America's Auto Tastes to a T

May 31, 1987|MARY S. RAUCH | Rauch is a Poway, Calif. , writer

Sixty years ago this month, within the span of one week, one great era of transportation began and another ended.

On May 21, 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed in Paris after his astounding solo flight across the Atlantic.

Five days later--on May 26--Henry Ford watched the last of the automobiles that put America on wheels, the Model T, roll off his revolutionary moving assembly line. Sales were lagging, so it was time to move on to the Model A and eventually countless other designs. Yet no other automobile ever had the impact that the Model T had on life in a changing world.

Lindbergh's achievement that week certainly received more public acclaim, but it was Ford's genius that affected more people. "The Universal Car," as Henry Ford advertised his unusual vehicle, is prized by collectors for its place in history, its unique design and, increasingly, its scarcity and value.

But many just have a grand time tinkering with the antiques and zipping along country backroads, in a small way reliving the glory years of the vehicle that changed the course of automotive history.

The Model T was not the first automobile Ford designed: It came after Models A (not to be confused with the later Model A), B, D, F, K, N and R, all produced in very limited quantities. But Ford's primary ambition was to build a car that was durable, simple to operate and repair, dependable (many later thought Henry gave too little thought to that attribute), and cheap enough that most people could afford one.

After two years of development, his dream car--the Model T--went into production in 1908. It was a phenomenal overnight success.

By the time production was halted, 15 million Model T cars and trucks had been produced--a record for one model until Volkswagen surpassed it in 1974.

Such was the Model T mania that by the end of World War I, half of all the automobiles in the world were Model T Fords, even though there were hundreds of competing manufacturers.

The Model T was initially priced at $850 for the Touring Car, a fraction of the cost of other autos on the market. By the end of production, the lowest priced Model T--the Runabout--was only $260, a reduction made possible by Ford's wizardry in mass production. Many a young fellow of the era bought his Model T, often his first car, on a used car lot, however, for as little as $10.

Owners learned to cope with the Ford's peculiarities with humor, and a plethora of jokes and gags swept the country, which Henry Ford enjoyed immensely.

"I hear they are going to magnetize the rear axle of the Ford."

"How come?"

"So it will pick up the parts that drop off."

The Keystone Cops, funny men of silent films, frequently used a Model T that collapsed. And all of America laughed, knowingly.

For the first several years, the Model T was truly basic transportation. It was sold without headlights, windshield wipers, even doors or a top. And no gauges. The motorist carried a stick to measure the gas in the tank, located under the front seat.

Through all the years of production, with many different body designs and a gradual upgrading of comfort and safety and even gauges, the basic chassis remained virtually the same as the original design.

Perhaps the tin lizzie's greatest asset, other than its affordability, was its versatility. With its peppy 20-horsepower, four-cylinder engine, high wheelbase and buggy-like springs, it was a first-rate all-terrain vehicle, handling the mud, gravel and rutted roads of the early part of the century with relative ease.

Rural America especially embraced the Model T Ford. With the car's rear wheels jacked up, the engine provided a power source for all kinds of farm chores--from pumping water to churning butter.

Fitted with steel wheels it became a good tractor, and with skids or skis it became a snow vehicle. It seemed its use was limited only by the ingenuity of the owner. From delivery trucks to glass-partitioned landaulet taxis, the Model T was adaptable to every niche of life.

For a while Ford even sold a stripped-down basic chassis, and one could customize a vehicle from the floorboards up, choosing from all kinds of parts and accessories that were sold by a newly spawned industry.

Jack Chidgey of San Diego owns one of those customized models, a 1912 Speedster--gleaming white with glistening brass headlamps, gas tank and decorative trim.

When a spectator at a Model T Ford Club outing questioned him about the authenticity of his white paint job, he tried to set the record straight. Not all Model Ts were black, he said emphatically. It seems that Ford's famous quip about paint--that a customer could have any color he wanted as long as it was black--has gotten a bit muddled in the intervening years.

The first Model Ts were red and pearl gray; then all models were dark green for several years. In 1912 Ford ordered all vehicles painted black, to speed production. Basic black continued to be the only available factory color until 1926, when colors were reintroduced to the line as a way to spur sales.

About 100,000 Model T cars and trucks still exist. Many are part of museum collections, the most complete one at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich. But many thousands of antique auto buffs keep their own tin lizzies finely tuned and polished for occasional outings.

The sight of these vintage vehicles in parades or puttering along the backroads and byways of our country reminds us that Americans have been unabashedly in love with the automobile for a long, long time.

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