COAL: 1929 Ford Model A Standard Coupe – Chapter 12, A Is For Awesome

One of the not-car things that kept me occupied during my later single years was flying.  I learned to fly, got my private pilot’s license, and thought about the next step.  My father had been an accomplished private pilot, with multi-engine and commercial ratings on top of his rating to fly on instruments.  Me, I was a newbie who had to go with the way guys were flying before WWI – follow the landmarks, and if it’s cloudy or foggy, stay home.  To be even a little bit useful, a pilot has to at least be rated for instrument flight so as not to be completely at the mercy of the weather.  Which would have meant a lot more flight school, more training time, and therefore more money.  The flying was one of the things that had put the Thundering Bird on the back burner, and then I met the future Mrs. JPC.  But then something else happened.  Doesn’t it always?

Very few of my cars have been the product of a search that starts from zero, with little more than a vague idea of what I am looking for.  Most have been what I call cars of opportunity.  These are the cars that plunk themselves into my path and ask me the simple, direct question: “Yes or no?”  This question was posed to me by my next car.

Among the extended family of my step-mom was Uncle Bill.  Bill was a school principal who, with his wife of many years, had lived comfortably but simply.  But at some time in the mid 1970’s he bought a classic car – a 1929 Ford Model A coupe.  Bill was not really a “car guy”, but it was something that tickled his nostalgia bone and provided enjoyment for parades and Sunday rides in his small-town community.  I didn’t get to see him often, and may have only gotten one ride in the A during his ownership.  Some time the spring of 1989 I learned that he had decided to put it up for sale.  Thus flashed the question.

I have always loved old cars, but all of mine had been cars that I could remember as things normal people drove at some point while I was alive.  I yearned for a real classic, something from a time long before I was born.  A Model A certainly qualified.

Bill’s car had been restored in the early 1970’s, and as was often the case then, it was done by a regular guy who did it the way he liked it.  I learned, for example, that the paint scheme was not “correct” and neither was the interior.  Some parts (like the radiator shell) were reproductions and it was (like most of the coupes) a car originally built with a trunk that had been converted to a rumble seat.  But it was a nicely done car that was solid, complete and in good condition.

I had known the future Mrs. JPC for maybe 6 months, and asked if she wanted to make the 2+ hour drive to check it out.  I went with money in my pocket just in case I decided to answer with a “Yes” (which I suspected was going to happen).  I left work a little early on a Friday evening and we drove up in her car – but only because she did not want to drive my ’66 Plymouth back if I was driving the Model A.  I looked it over, drove it for a short bit, and decided that I needed this car in my life.  So the answer would be “Yes”.  This was not pure impulse, and I had thought about the idea for several days before I actually pulled the trigger.  I knew that saying yes to this car would almost certainly put a stop to my flying hobby.  I pointed out to myself that I was staring down the barrels of two very expensive hobbies and needed to pick one of them to continue while walking away from the other.  When I handed Uncle Bill the money and got the title and keys to the Model A, that decision was final.

I had done some reading in advance to be sure I knew how things worked on a Model A.  I knew the gas tank was in the cowl, that the starter button was on the floor, and I got an idea on how the spark lever was supposed to work.  When I actually drove it, everything came together for me – the car made sense and everything felt good about the way it drove.  Uncle Bill was never one to ignore something to be done, so everything about the car was in road-ready condition – at least so far as was possible for something built during the Herbert Hoover administration.

We had an uneventful drive of about 30 miles back to Fort Wayne, where the plan was to stay overnight at my mother’s house before making the 100 mile trip back to Indianapolis the next day.  Mom was surprised when she came home from her evening shift at the hospital and opened the garage door.  There, she saw the A’s two big eyes staring back at her from the spot where she normally parked.  Her reaction was much, much better than the time I had brought Moby (the ’59 Plymouth Fury) home.  Morning came and Marianne and I made ready for our trek.  I had filled the tank with gas, had checked the oil and the tires, and all was well.  Understand that I knew next to nothing about these cars, beyond a fair amount of reading and 30 miles of actual experience.  But I knew that these things had transported millions of people for millions of miles over many decades, so how hard could it be to drive the 100 + miles from Fort Wayne to Indianapolis on I-69?  Why the interstate highway?  I concluded that it would be less of a hazard than getting cars stuck behind me on a 2 lane highway.  I’m not sure I would make the same choice today, but live and learn, right?

The first 30 or 40 miles were traveled quite successfully.  I was trying to keep it at around 50 mph or so, or maybe 55 (which was only 10 mph under the posted speed limit back then).  The car had a (reproduction) Boyce Moto Meter thermometer on the radiator cap, and I watched for increasing temperature that would suggest that it would be time for a break along the roadside.  But no, that thermometer was steady as a rock.  Right up until the moment when billows of steam started blowing out from under the hood and the car began slowing down.  We pulled over to the berm as Henry’s Lady just stopped running.  Not-Yet-Mrs. JPC was sent ahead to scout out the small town off the next exit.  There was a NAPA store there and I hoped I could buy some suitable radiator hose for the one that had surely split.  After a little rest I restarted it and got it off the highway and halfway to town before the steam started again, and followed that method again to the curb in front of the parts store, where the steam caused it to stall yet again. But once there, I could not find the problem.  The hoses on the car seemed fine, and when I poured more water in after a bit, nothing leaked out.  But now the car would not start.

The short version of this story involved us driving the Honda back home and me borrowing the pickup truck and car trailer owned by a neighbor down the street who was into SCCA racing.  The A still wouldn’t start (probably because its battery was dead by then), so we winched it up on the trailer and drove home, as I wondered how badly I had broken my new car.  Not that badly as it turned out, because once home, I decided to make one last attempt to start it and the old girl fired right up. I drove it off the trailer and into the garage and called it a night.  It had not been the complete waste of a day because the city slickers with a broken down classic car made the weekly newspaper in Warren, Indiana.  But only on page 2 – a chicken coop fire got page 1.  Also, Marianne got a taste of what I looked like when angry and frustrated. It must not have been terrible because she continued to take my calls.

The post-game analysis (after I got some more time with the car) was that I had tried to run it too long at too many revs.  Henry Ford’s cooling system design had a very narrow band between o-kay and oh-shit.  I also learned that the 1930-31 cars had larger radiators in an effort to help the cars keep their cool.  Finally, too much involuntary steam-cleaning of the ignition system was what finally finished me off for the rest of the day.  I have never lacked appreciation for a working temperature gauge since that experience.  And, for what it’s worth, the car never overheated like that for the rest of the time I had it.

I owned that car for 4 years and learned a lot about them, like the almost uncountable number of grease fittings underneath.  I also developed an admiration for the combination of simplicity, durability and serviceability that Henry Ford conceived when this car was on the big drawing board in his head.  It has been posited hereabouts that the Model A is the best car that the Ford Motor Company ever built, and there will be no argument from me.  The A was a big hit at family picnics, with lots of rumble seat rides being given.  I joined a local Model A club and went on a couple of area tours, with Mrs. JPC as my constant companion.  We would take Sunday drives just for fun, driving through unfamiliar neighborhoods to check them out – which is how we found the one that contained our next home.

After a proposal of marriage had been offered by me and accepted by Marianne (more in a future COAL), I had suggested using it in our wedding.  That idea was nixed (not unreasonably) by what such a ride might do to a wedding gown.  This was not a big car, and entry/exit was a well-planned affair even in casual clothing.  The space between the front of the seat and the door opening was small enough that one’s feet had to be aimed in a particular direction before admittance, and once in, two normal sized adults sat right next to each other, more or less the same was in a more modern subcompact like a VW Bug.

This car looked so right in my garage – my house dated to 1927 and my somewhat newer garage and its brick floor accommodated the A perfectly.  Cars like my 66 Plymouth had been a chore to park in those tight confines, but the A was made for it.  Or rather, the garage was made for cars like the Model A.  I was playing around with an old Polaroid camera at the time and think this might be one of the best pictures I ever took with it.  All that’s missing is the guy in the fedora with one foot up on the running board.

This car was the opposite of its garage-mate, the Thunderless Bird, in almost every way.  The Bird could sometimes be started and driven, but only with much effort that usually involved pumping up two flat tires and a jump start.  The Model A sat there like a puppy with a ball in its mouth, looking at me with those big, happy eyes.  It never failed to start and if the battery had gotten low from sitting, a couple of turns of the crank did the trick.

Parts availability was never a problem,  given the car’s status as one of the most-collected old cars ever.  Not that I really needed much of anything.  The only thing I really had to do to it in that time was to send the distributor out for new bushings when the shaft started getting sloppy and noisy.  I also bought a steel fuel line between the sediment bowl and the updraft carb.  I had been on a neighborhood drive when a pedestrian pointed and yelled that I was dripping something.  That something turned out to be gasoline.  Someone had used a copper line for fuel, which eventually did what copper does, which makes it a no-no for that application.  And how great was it that Henry Ford had thoughtfully put a fuel shutoff right under the dash so that the entire contents of the fuel tank did not drain out onto the street (and lets just stick with that best-case scenario).

But even the best old cars have their issues.  First, it was not housebroken. I read that these cars used an “oil slinger” that caught oil at the rear of the crankshaft and threw it back to the front of the engine instead of an actual oil seal at the back of the crankshaft.  So, when you shut it down, it stopped slinging the oil and let it dribble onto the ground below.  This sort of thing was frowned on by owners of suburban driveways, so a metal cookie sheet had to be carried around and slid underneath before shutoff.  Then there were the brakes.  Modern traffic all assumed that I could stop like everyone else.  Modern traffic assumed wrong.  More than a few Model As had been converted to hydraulic brakes over the decades, but not this one.  There was not a lot of lining surface, and the mechanical system of rods and levers, while in good condition, did not generate the kind of pressure that hydraulics could.  More than once I had to stop the car by standing on the brake pedal, butt off the seat, while pulling back on the emergency brake lever (which operated on its own separate little brake shoes for the rear wheels) while the little skinny tires tried to bob and weave in some direction other than straight ahead.  Mrs. JPC became much less interested in Sunday rides after a couple of those experiences.

Some of its problems were more like quirks.  It was not water-tight, for example.  Guys in the local club told me that I was not alone.  The all-steel roof was a genuine advance in the industrial science of building car bodies.  It also seemed to have a slow current drain which made for a dead battery if it was not driven for a few weeks.  I must also confess that while I was good at smooth upshifts, I never really mastered the 3-2 downshift of the non-synchro transmission.  I learned why Henry Ford called the sliding-gear transmission a “crash box”.  But it was a tough old crash box because it didn’t seem to care.

The 200 cid flathead 4 cylinder engine put out all of 40 horsepower, but was actually a peppy little car from a standing start.  I once read that the Model A was as fast as any car then being built up to 30 mph – in other words, through first and second gears.  But there was a large gap between 2nd and 3rd gears and once you shifted to 3rd, momentum kind of leveled off.  It was happiest between 35 and 45 mph and lightly traveled roads that allowed those speeds were a delight.  Much over 50 and the noise and vibration of those 4 big cylinders let you know that the car preferred a more sedate pace.

The killer, though, was a growing family.  The car had been fine for two of us.  It had even been OK for two of us with a baby or toddler on Marianne’s lap.  Yes, I know, it was unsafe as hell but this was how people did it in 1929 and it was how we did it too, though we tried to stay away from busy roads.  And really, this lack of crash safety could well have killed us all had we been hit hard by a speeding minivan.  But that is one of the risks about driving any old car – with the risks going up the older the car is.  None of us gets out of this world alive and we make the best choices we can to balance fun and safety.  That kid grew up to be a Catholic priest, so maybe some guardian angels improved our odds.

Safety aside, a second kid made it impossible for us to go for a ride without someone getting into the rumble seat.  Because I was the only one who could (or would) drive it, the options were 1) a sub-3 year old, 2) a sub-1 year old or 3) Mrs. JPC.  I guess we picked the 4th choice, which was “none of the above.”  Who knows how this story might have ended if Uncle Bill had owned one of the sedans where there was a back seat that was on the inside and not on the outside.  As much as I hated to, I offered it for sale.  I  still enjoyed it, but a fun old car just isn’t as fun without someone to share the experience with.

I actually sold it twice.  The first time was to a client, an insurance claims manager who was approaching retirement.  He had been looking for a classic car to enjoy with his wife, and the A was exactly what he wanted.  I asked a fair price and told him everything I knew about it, and he was happy as we shook hands and exchanged a check for a title.  Two or three days later he called me and told me that he was going to have to sell the car.  “My wife is a large woman” he said, sheepishly.  “We went to go for a ride, and we almost couldn’t get her into it, then when we got home we almost couldn’t get her out.”  He said he didn’t expect me to undo our sale (well, he probably kind of did or else he wouldn’t have called) and that he would sell it himself, but just wanted to let me know first.  But he was a client (and one I genuinely liked) so I told him that I had not yet deposited his check and to bring the car back.  It is funny how you can be sad to sell a car, then kind of sad to get it back after you have prepared yourself to move on.  The car made it to our new house in the summer of 1993 but was sold soon after, for right around what I had paid for it.

My Model A is one car that I really miss, and I would buy another in a heartbeat if I got in the mood for another play car.  Had it been a sedan with all of its seats indoors, I would probably have kept it far longer than I did.  It was the Anti-Thunderbird (which still hung around my neck I still owned at the time).  Where the Thunderbird was constantly screaming for money and attention and was never really together enough to drive, the A was always ready.    It made me friends wherever I went, and it was an owner’s delight with so little to go wrong.

There is a restaurant chain called Ford’s Garage.  I like going there, but it makes me sad that so many Model As have been turned into restaurant decor when they should be out making smiles.  My Model A probably made more smiles for more people (including me) than anything else I ever owned.