Curbside Classic: 1926 Ford Model T Touring Car – Part II, “A Jalopy Load of Feminity”

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

In Part I, we were introduced to Darlene Dorgan and her 1926 Ford Model T Touring Car, in which she and four other girls had traveled during the summer of 1934 to Devil’s Lake, WI on an auto camping trip, then diverted through Madison, WI and Chicago, IL before returning home, full of happy memories of their travels.

1935 – White Pines Forest State Park

The 1935 approximate route.

From the sketchy details available, it seems that Darlene and a few friends only ventured as far as White Pines Forest State Park in Illinois during the summer of 1935, a distance of about 90 miles one-way.

1936 – Devils Lake, WI

One of the worst heat waves on record would hit the Midwest in the summer of 1936. Darlene may already have been planning another camping trip to Devil’s Lake, but the heat and her sense of adventure led her to change up the route a little.

Reproduced with permission of the Ruth Gustafson Johnson family.

Devils Lake, WI was again the destination, but the girls would take a more circuitous route to get there. Heading Northeast from Bradford, they would stop for several nights on the Eastern shores of Lake Michigan, enjoying the opportunity to swim and enjoy the cool breeze off the lake. After a night in Muskegon, they caught the ferry across to Milwaukee.

Reproduced with permission of the Ruth Gustafson Johnson family.

If you study this photo closely, you’ll notice there are six girls seated with the ferry Captain. The Model T only seated five, but the girls went for it anyway! Something had to give, however, and in fact, they had to stop at one of the girl’s homes on the way out of Bradford to offload some of their luggage, and again at a friend’s near Buda, IL, as they couldn’t climb the shallow hills in that area. Note that this difficulty was due to being overloaded, not due to the Model T’s fuel tank location, which many of you will remember required owners to have to go up hills backwards due to the gravity-fed tank being located under the seat. In fact, the tank had been moved to the cowl for 1926 from its previous location, alleviating the fuel starvation issue.

An additional challenge the girls faced was that Darlene’s T was equipped with the thinner three-tube-core radiator Ford introduced in 1926, as a replacement for the previous five-tube design (there was no water pump, the system worked on the principle that warm water rises). While Ford’s engineers insisted the new offset-tube design was just as efficient at cooling, customers in the real world disagreed. “Miles per gallon” quickly came to refer to water instead of gasoline, and the new design, lacking a crossbar support, also tended to pull itself apart on bad roads. Ford would first use a thick spacer to locate the fan closer to the radiator, and eventually would offer a thicker four-tube unit for cars sold in warmer climates.

Reproduced with permission of the Ruth Gustafson Johnson family.

While spending some time at Devils Lake, WI, the girls would hike to see Balanced Rock and Devil’s Doorway in addition to enjoying refreshing swims in the lake. They also met a group of six boys, also fellow campers, and the Tin Lizzie was even called on to push-start the boy’s car once. Darlene at this time added a new rule for her travelers: “No dates!” It was also on this trip that the car began to be referred to as “The Silver Streak,” and once home, the trip was deemed newsworthy enough to make the Peoria paper, even if the trip mileage was a bit exaggerated (the T had no odometer). Full of happy memories, Darlene settled back into her beauty shop work and began planning her next trip.

The 1936 approximate route.

1937 – Callandar, Ontario

One of the big news sensations going on in 1937 were the Dionne Quintuplets born in Callander, Ontario in 1934. The babies had been taken from their parents a few months after birth and put into a guardianship by the government, “to ensure their survival.” The government recognized the massive public interest in the girls and quickly built a tourism industry around them.

Reproduced with permission of the Ruby McDonald Nutter Estate.

Darlene set her mind on a trip to visit the Quints, which would be of much longer duration than her previous vacations – over 2,600 miles. While it was still considered unusual for young women to travel on their own in this manner, social mores were beginning to change with women like Wallis Simpson, Amelia Earhart and Margaret Mitchell all making the headlines.

Reproduced with permission of the Ruby McDonald Nutter Estate.

Five girls would again join Darlene, including her younger sister Margie. Hoping to possibly see Henry Ford in person, they would pass thru Detroit on the way (he was not there when they arrived, to their disappointment). After crossing over the Ambassador Bridge into Ontario, they would make their way to Niagara Falls, and eventually arrived in Callander, where they were able to see the babies. After the “show” closed, the young women decided they wanted to meet Dr. DaFoe, who had delivered the Dionne babies. Dr. DaFoe was a very private man, but he himself answered the door when one of the girls (likely Darlene) knocked, and invited them to see him at his practice the next day. They were welcomed in and given an autographed photo of the Doctor, plus some advice to “attend to those sunburns!”

Reproduced with permission of the Ruby McDonald Nutter Estate.

Darlene headed the Silver Streak back home on a different route, and the girls spent the last few days of their trip camping at Devils Lake, WI again. Another article would make the Peoria paper, and Darlene would return to her quiet shop for the Winter.

The 1937 approximate route.

1938 – Dearborn, MI

Reproduced with permission of Winnie Swearingen Hays.

Returning to familiar haunting grounds, Darlene and four of her friends set out in late July, 1938 for Devils Lake, but without having fully decided what other points to visit in the area while on their two-week’s vacation. They had no more than set up camp when a group of boys camping nearby pointed out that Henry Ford had invented their Model T, and was having his 75th birthday in a couple days. That decided things for Darlene, so the girls packed all their gear the next morning and headed for Dearborn, Michigan.

Reproduced with permission of Winnie Swearingen Hays.

Upon arrival, the girls camped in a park, and the next morning decided they’d simply drive up to the gate and ask to meet Mr. Ford. After driving around a bit, they pulled up to an unattended locked gate. While trying to decide what to do next, Henry Ford’s right-hand-man Ray Dahlinger drove up and asked if they needed help. When told why the girls were there, he said “Follow me,” unlocked the gate, and they drove right in! The girls ended up having lunch with Mr. Ford, who asked where they were staying. Upon hearing they were camping in the park, he insisted they spend the rest of their time in the empty farmhouse by the Cannery in the Village. The next day, the girls had tintypes made of themselves in the old studio – the witty photographer, noting the girl’s sunburned arms, wrote “The Peeling of the Belles” across one folder containing the prints. After returning home, several of the girls wrote follow-up letters to Mr. Ford, and Darlene would begin thinking about the possibility of attending the 1939 New York World’s Fair and the Ford exhibit in particular.

The 1938 approximate route.

1939 – New York World’s Fair

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

The Silver Streak was now thirteen years old, and showed no signs of stopping. World events, on the other hand, were not looking good, but the policy of appeasement still held sway. In America, the effects of The Great Depression were still somewhat in evidence (The Grapes of Wrath was published this year) and Amelia Earhart would officially be declared dead after her disappearance in 1937. Batman would make his first comic book appearance this year, and another societally-changing 20th Century invention would move into the spotlight when RCA televised the opening of the World’s Fair, including a speech by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the first president to appear on television.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

Unlike the 1938 trip, Darlene meticulously planned the six-week-long trip to the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Five girls would join Darlene, who had written in advance to ensure they would arrive at the Fair when Mr. Ford would be present. The girls first stopped in Dearborn on the chance of seeing Mr. Ford there, but he was unavailable. The Silver Streak was recognized, however, and the girls were well cared for by Ford employees before heading on.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

Their route took them into Canada again, where they stopped for gasoline at a station in Brantford, Ontario. Due to the rainy weather, the girls were traveling with the tattered and patched top up and side curtains hung in place – when they pulled in, the attendant thought they were bandits and called the police! The girls continued on to the Fair, where their expenses were fully covered by the Ford Motor Company. Unfortunately, Henry was again unavailable. The girls then continued on their trip, stopping in Washington D.C. before heading North, then back West toward home.

They again stopped in Dearborn on the way and were again unsuccessful in connecting with Mr. Ford. You’ll note that the photograph is signed by Henry – the story is that the photo was taken by a Ford photographer at the Fair. Mr. Ford had seven copies made and signed each one before sending them to Darlene with instructions to give one to each girl and send one copy back to him with all the girl’s signatures. That copy now resides in the Henry Ford Museum Archives.

The 1939 approximate route.

1940 – San Francisco, CA

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

By this time, Darlene was quite confident in her ability (and the Silver Streak’s) to travel long distances and even boldly meet famous people. While they had missed seeing Henry on their 1939 trip, they certainly enjoyed the time spent at the World’s Fair, so it was a natural move for Darlene to consider a trip to the 1940 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco. In May of 1940, she would write to Henry Ford and request a letter of introduction to the “Ford Branch in the West.” She would receive a return reply from Frank Campsall in mid-June indicating their Branch Manager in Richmond, CA would be on the lookout for the girls upon their arrival.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

Due to the distance, this would be a much longer trip – six weeks, and over 6,000 miles. Four girls would join Darlene, and they would set out on Sunday, July 7. Prior to leaving for the trip, Darlene repainted the car (silver again), covering up all of the Lizzy Labels from the previous trips. She also set the girls to repairing the top, using an assortment of awning remnants! The girls then repainted many of the Lizzy Labels, loaded their gear, and headed West.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

Heading down Route 66 through Oklahoma in the heat of the day, the girls finally had to put the top up, choosing the lesser of two evils – shade and stifling air with the top up vs. direct sun and stifling heat with it down. Note that the hood is off in the photo above – a trick used to help cool the engine. In Afton, Oklahoma, a gas station attendant topped off their oil for them, but about 25 miles later the car began to overheat badly. They limped into White Oak, OK, where a mechanic pronounced a burnt-out piston rod bearing due to the previous attendant leaving the oil petcock open, which had drained the crankcase. Secondhand parts were used to make repairs on the now-14-year-old car.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

They arrived (after many sightseeing stops and other adventures with the Silver Streak) in Los Angeles on July 19 after twelve days of travel. One of the girls who was badly sunburned had to drop out of the trip at this point, which put a bit of a financial strain on the other four girls.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

The girls spent some time in Hollywood and besides creating a sensation everywhere they stopped, were disgusted when people kept asking if they were trying to get into the movies! They were, however, able to get several movie and radio stars to sign the Silver Streak. Bringing their ‘star gazing’ to a close, they packed up and headed toward San Francisco.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

The Silver Streak’s age and accumulating mileage finally caught up with the girls at this point. First, the starter had to be repaired, which required a several-hour stop. Then, just outside Santa Barbara, the engine began misfiring – they were barely able to limp to a Ford garage, where another several-hour delay was endured as a mechanic adjusted the coils. The next morning, they had traveled no more than ten miles when a loud banging started from the engine. They made it back to a garage, where the mechanic indicated a valve head had broken and punched a two-inch hole in the top of a piston. Another half-day delay was required for repairs. They again met with loud engine noises as they drove through Paso Robles, which turned out to be a burned wrist-pin bearing. They had to wait until the following Monday for repairs. Continuing their travels, they were yet 75 miles from San Francisco when the thudding noises began to return. A mechanic agreed that this was all due to the oil loss from before, and the girls elected to pay $7.50 to have the car towed to Richmond to have the Ford Factory there make the repairs.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

The Ford people quickly took the girls into their care, while the Silver Streak went to the garage for repairs, which ultimately required replacement of the crankshaft [this is the only major engine overhaul work ever known to be done on the car – Ed.]. The car was then driven to the Ford Exhibit at the Exposition, where a crowd quickly gathered any time the girls were nearby. The photo above features the ‘Model T Girls,’ Clem Powell (Manager of the Ford Exhibit) and Major Keetinge (Head of the Exposition).

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

Niggling problems continued to crop up with the Silver Streak, including a blown head gasket and a failed generator. The girls pressed on, stopping to see various sights along the way. By the time they got to Lincoln, Nebraska, one of the remaining girls had to catch the train as she needed to be home sooner than they estimated the T would arrive. Darlene and the other two girls would bump back into Bradford the evening of August 20 after a thoroughly incredible trip.

The 1940 approximate route.

1941 – New Orleans, LA to New York, NY

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

The penultimate trip for the ‘Model T Girls’ would also be the last really long trip. The draft was active in the USA and all signs on the world stage seemed to point to war. Darlene was still planning on another trip in the Silver Streak, however, and wrote to Mr. Ford seeking advice on the best routes to take to the Northwest (it seems Darlene had considered driving as far as Alaska in her early planning!). No record exists of a reply from Ford, and literally as the girls were finishing loading their winter coats in the car, Darlene’s brother-in-law pointed out the aging Model T would never make it through the mountain ranges. Darlene then turned and asked if the girls would mind going South instead? So the coats were unloaded and the ‘Model T Girls’ headed South toward Peoria and points beyond.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

Up until this time, the girls had referred to themselves as either ‘the Bradford girls,’ or ‘the Model T girls’ in their correspondences with Mr. Ford and others. On this trip, however, they had calling cards made up with their names under the title “The Gypsy Coeds,” a name that made perfect sense, particularly when the patchwork top was put up.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

Throughout the trip, the threat of impending gasoline rationing hung over their heads (Darlene estimated the Silver Streak got around 20 miles per gallon, which was perhaps a bit ambitious). Funds were tight for the girls on this trip (partially due to some unexpected expenses), and when they noticed a newspaper ad with an offer to make ‘easy money,’ they enquired, discovering it was for the USO, who would pay them $20 to display a sign on the Silver Streak proclaiming “Shaves for the Boys” as part of a campaign to get the public to send Army boys useful gifts.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

The 1941 trip would cover a number of locations throughout the Southeast (including four Army camps) and then up to Niagara Falls and back through Dearborn again, where they would finally manage to catch up with ‘Friend Mr. Ford’ one last time. Ford put the girls up in the Clinton Inn (now called the Eagle Tavern) in Greenfield Village, which was a special privilege as the structure is a museum piece and not open to the public. The T would suffer the usual flat tires, plus a broken starter spring and broken rear axle leaf spring before rumbling back into Bradford on August 28.

The 1941 approximate route.

1942 – Devils Lake, WI

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

By the summer of 1942, WWII was well underway. Doolittle had made the famous retaliatory raid on Tokyo in April and gasoline and rubber rationing were in place in the USA. People from rural farming areas moved in large numbers to the cities, where war production jobs abounded. Darlene had still had hopes of an Alaskan trip, but by April, when she again wrote to ‘Friend Ford,’ she realized that trip would simply not be possible. Darlene proposed to Mr. Ford that the Silver Streak might be used for defense bond drives. A reply from Ford’s office only stated that Mr. Ford was unavailable to offer any response.

Reproduced with permission of the Darlene Dorgan Bjorkman Estate.

With a growing realization that this would likely be the last trip for the Gypsy Coeds, Darlene quickly put together an itinerary that included a return trip to Devils Lake, WI with four other girls. The return trip again took them through the Chicago area, where they slept on the beach, being reprimanded the next morning by a policeman who told them it was not permitted! The Silver Streak would roll back into Bradford on August 14, which would be the end of the travels of ‘The Bradford Model T Girls.’

The 1942 approximate route.

Darlene probably used the car locally during the war years, but it would soon be replaced with a more modern vehicle as she moved on to new adventures. Like an outgrown childhood toy, the Silver Streak would be stored in the back of her folk’s garage and eventually moved outside to slowly sink into the soft midwest loam.

So what was your first, longest, or most memorable road trip?

Be sure to join us for Part III tomorrow to find out how the Silver Streak’s story ends…