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Yosemite suited to a Model T

Explore the valley behind the wheel of an American classic -- a 1929 Model A or a 1916 Model T. Just don't be surprised if paparazzi follow.

June 21, 2009|Paul Whitefield

YOSEMITE — With all due respect to H.G. Wells, there are no time machines.

Except for the ones we rented recently on a trip back in time to Yosemite National Park.

In authentic Model Ts or Model As, visitors can experience Yosemite as their grandparents or great-grandparents did, bouncing along rutted, one-lane dirt roads, splashing through streams or waking up the echoes as you pull up to the historic Wawona or Ahwahnee hotels.

Few places are more glorious than Yosemite Valley on a sunny June day. Driving a classic American convertible heightens the experience as you move at the leisurely pace of yesteryear, Bridalveil and Yosemite falls roaring above you, the Merced River rushing through wooded glens.

But be warned. You may be aboard a historic machine, but you'll also be rewarded with that Holy Grail of 21st century life: You'll be a celebrity. We knew we'd have fun. What we weren't expecting was to be so . . . recognized. People smiled. They waved. They took our picture. They asked questions.

And some, like William Sea of Salem, Ore., told us stories. On the overlook at the entrance to the valley, he recalled fondly the 1930 Model A he owned in his youth, how it burned oil and overheated, how he bought it for $250 and then, when he entered the military a few years later in 1943, sold it -- for $250.

During our three-day, two-night stay at David and Sheran Woodworth's gracious, Victorian-style Tin Lizzie Inn in Fish Camp, my wife, two teenage sons and I saw the sights in both a 1929 Model A, complete with rumble seat, and a 1916 Model T. The Woodworths keep several Model Ts and Model As at their elegant two-suite bed-and-breakfast, available as a package for guests or for day rentals. They'll also arrange multi-car, multi-day tours of Yosemite and other historic areas of California, including the Gold Country and San Simeon.

To today's driver, the Model A is easily the most familiar of the two Fords. In fact, driving it, I was immediately reminded of my dad's 1964 Ford pickup: the yard-long shift lever and the three-speed gearbox, which makes that satisfying crunch as gears mesh imperfectly with each shift.

Of course, things were simpler 80 years ago. Take the key, for instance. Forget the multifunction fobs of today; this car's key looked exactly like the one I use to lock my file cabinet. And that stalk on the left of the steering column? Nope, not a turn signal (it has none), but the spark advance. There's also the tiny (and only) rearview mirror -- or, as they were called in the day, the "hind-view reflector" -- which is of little use. And if it rains? Well, there's a top, but no wipers -- or, as they were originally known, "rain rubbers."

We made several circuits of the valley floor, about 34 miles from the inn. We stopped at Bridalveil Fall, then near the Ahwahnee Hotel to check out some climbers, followed by another stop for a picnic lunch. Each time my wife exited the rumble seat, she marveled at yesteryear's women: "How in the world could you do this in a dress?"

We made our way up to Glacier Point and then back to Mariposa Grove and its giant sequoias. The boys vetoed the hike, staying with the car -- only to be set upon by Danish tourists who peppered them with questions about the Model A. Finally, as we stopped to show our permit on exiting the park, we were rewarded with a broad smile from the park ranger, who exclaimed: "I remember you guys!" Ah, the life of a celebrity.

The next morning, fueled by another of Sheran's delicious breakfasts, it was time for the Model T. First, the boys, using an original gasoline cart, took turns hand-cranking gas into the tank, which is located -- gulp -- under the front seat. Wrench in hand, David crawled under the car and did a quick tightening of the transmission.

The automobile of today is something of a necessary evil. It is expensive. It pollutes the air. It bedevils our foreign policy with its thirst for oil.

But the Model T is of a different era. Remember the thrill of your first driver's license? Imagine an entire country gripped by that fever. The Model T is the missing link between the horse and buggy and the automobile. Built on the world's first moving assembly line to help drive down costs -- introduced at a price of $850, it eventually sold for as little as $290 -- more than 15 million were produced from 1909 to 1927.

As I climbed behind the wheel, it became apparent that driving the Model T would require some adjustments. There are three pedals on the floorboard, but none is a clutch or accelerator. The far-left pedal functions as the gearshift: halfway up is neutral, all the way to the floor is first gear, all the way up is second. The middle pedal is reverse, which can be engaged at any time. And the far-right pedal is the brake, although the car actually doesn't have brakes.

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