Finally, I now know why cupholders were not standard equipment in 1908.
This is because I just drove a Ford Model T. To do so requires all your three hands, all your three feet, and a keen and constant appreciation of your mortality. At least until you get the hang of it.
The opportunity came from Ford Canada, who rounded up three Model Ts and their owners, as a sort of side dish for us auto scribes, who had come to its Oakville, Ont., headquarters for a Fiesta ride and drive event.
We had our pick of three different Model Ts and I chose Ken Gibson’s 1926 Touring model. Ken said he would drive first, to show me the ropes.
The thing that makes the Model T a driving experience like no other is its “planetary” type transmission, and Ford’s odd way of hooking it up to the motor. Net result: The Model T has three floor pedals, and not one of them is an accelerator.
During a short drive across the parking lot, Ken explained it all thoroughly, and even though I nodded at all the right intervals, I felt it slipping all away.
But I still wasn’t too worried when I slid over to the driver’s seat — it was a big parking lot with not too many obstructions. At the very worse, I could keep circling until I figured things out and/or we ran out of gas.
So here’s the drill…
Release the hand brake and push the left-most (clutch) pedal all the way down to the floor.
This immediately launches you into forward motion, in first gear. If you want to stay in first gear you have to keep that pedal pinned to the floor.
Releasing the pedal all the way throws you into the only other gear — high.
To stop, you need to get off the gas (via the throttle lever mounted on the steering column), push the clutch pedal more or less midway to find neutral, and then use the right-foremost pedal, apparently called the brake.
When I had planned to stop, I wasn’t quite stopping as planned, so Ken helped by shutting off the engine. He’s a good man, Ken.
The middle pedal? Reverse.
I didn’t try it, but here’s what one of my all-time favourite authors, E.B. White, thought of the Model T’s planetary reverse system.
“The Fords were obviously conceived in madness; any car which was capable of going from forward to reverse without any perceptible mechanical hiatus was bound to be a mightily challenging thing to the human imagination.”
And this is from his famous 1936 essay, Farwell, My Lovely, which is a wistful look back and affirmation of all things Model T.
In 1999, a panel of 132 experts in 32 countries judged the Ford Model T to be the most influential car of the 20th century.
So a hell of a car yes. Easy to drive not so much.
– Michael Goetz has been writing about cars and editing automotive publications for over 20 years. He lives in Toronto with his family and a neglected 1967 Jaguar E-type.