CC Vintage Global: Ford Model T Road Trip, Pyongyang


As noted earlier on this website, the Ford Model T was not only the first mass produced car but also the first world car, assembled on all continents and used in practically every country on the planet.  An unusual example of the worldwide distribution and use of the Model T appeared when the author conducted research in a somewhat obscure archive for a book on a subject unrelated to automobiles: a road trip during the 1920s that started in Pyongyang, then in Japanese-occupied Korea, now capital of North Korea.


Unknown to most Americans today, Pyongyang during the first several decades of the 20th Century had the nickname “The Jerusalem of the East.”  It was home to a community of American Christian missionaries who had made it the most heavily Christian city on the mainland of Asia, with a large Korean Christian community and church-sponsored universities, hospitals, seminaries, high schools, and elementary schools.  The American community replicated some aspects of their lives in the U.S. in Korea, including American-style houses and a few imported American automobiles.

In this instance, the driver was a Dr. J.J. Moore, and the car was church property donated by a church in Colorado Springs.  The road trip went from Pyongyang to Haeju, a port city approximately 100 kilometers south of Pyongyang.  In this photo, Dr. Moore drives the church’s Model T down smooth, traffic-free city streets past a building owned by Standard Oil – later Esso (S.O.), and known today as Exxon.


Leaving the city, an entirely different environment confronted Dr. Moore.  City streets gave way to country dirt roads and finally to rutted mud vaguely resembling a road.  The off-road capability of the Model T received high praise then and now, but here the mud has defeated even the Model T, and help from nearby farmers is needed.  Note the two digit number plate, an indication of how rare automobiles were back then.


If you were lucky, when you encountered a river, it had a ferryboat to ride when crossing it.  A pier or ramp would be helpful, but sometimes a jetty of nearly submerged rocks was all that you had to work with.  Reversing along a wood board onto a pile of rocks while making a sharp turn with people and draft animals only a few feet behind you is a challenge in car control that exists in few places in the world today.


At other times, a ferryboat was an unavailable luxury and a combination of ingenuity and muscle power was necessary.  For this river crossing, Dr. Moore (or more likely the people manning the ford, not the driver of the Ford) built a hydroplane of wood planks in front of the front axle, to buoy the front end in order to keep the engine dry and running.


Apparently this method worked, at least with more than half a dozen helpers available to stand in the water and push.  Help or no help, it is a testament to the adverse conditions that a Model T could survive and overcome.

Nine decades later, nothing remains the same in the places covered by this road trip.  The American community in Pyongyang disappeared by the end of 1941, most departing ahead of the looming war and the rest being interned after the attack on Pearl Harbor and repatriated to the U.S., never to return.  The North Korean regime that took over after 1945 created a country whose people mostly live in abject poverty, while the state maintains a huge military and builds nuclear weapons.  The Christians of North Korea fled to the South or have lived underground under persecution unseen since two millennia ago in the Roman Empire.

This Model T probably lasted for many more years, possibly in Japanese hands during the Second World War and maybe even under North Korean state ownership.  It must have been scrapped and melted down decades ago, but some of its parts may live on somewhere.  Perhaps its engine powers an irrigation pump on a farm, or its windshield serves as a house window, each of these products of River Rouge continuing to improve people’s lives in some way in a very dark place.

All photographs courtesy of the United Methodist Archives Center.  The author is currently working on a book on “The Jerusalem of the East.”