Curbside Classic: 1926 Ford Model T Coupe: T Stands For Tall

(first posted 7/11/2011)   I have two regrets about taking on this CC. One, I couldn’t shoot myself standing in front of it. And two, I won’t be able to do the Model T full justice in the short time available (it would take a book or two). But today is a celebration of sorts: cars for tall folks as well as the diversity of cars (and writers) that make up Curbside Classics. So let’s celebrate by honoring the most important car of all time. And one of the tallest ones ever.

Let’s consider the first aspect of this tall-boy “telephone booth” coupe first, since it’s what stuck me most viscerally upon approaching it. Being 6’4″, I really notice the fairly rare encounters with someone taller then myself. Well, that just about never happens with passenger cars. But this coupe tops me, by about two inches. That is seriously tall. These two begin give a bit of human scale to it.

The awkward height of the coupe was an unavoidable outer manifestation of the T’s decline into obsolescence. Back when the T was first designed by Henry and his little coterie, enclosed car bodies were very rare indeed, and only the purview of the very richest of buyers. The T was designed as an open car, and very much in the vein of the “horseless carriage” as this very early model makes clear. The twenty years of the Model T’s life span was an eternity in the early decades of the motor car; like still running a 386 processor IBM PC today.

In the twenties, enclosed bodies became the hot new thing, for many obvious reasons. It was a s much of a revolution as the T itself had been. But the T’s slender and sky-high frame had been designed for the primitive rutted dirt “roads” of the time. An open-bodied Model T weighed all of 1200 lbs. Meanwhile Chevrolet was nipping at the T’s tail with much more stylish and modern cars that carried their closed bodies more gracefully.

Yes, Henry hung on the the T too long, in the misconceived notion that folks would keep buying it forever. The 1929 Model A (CC here)was originally intended to supplement the T, not replace it, but when T sales crashed in 1927, Henry saw the writing on the wall and just shuttered the plant until the A was ready. And the Model A makes a nice counterpoint to the T for more than just its ability to look handsome with enclosed bodies.

The A was also an opportunity for Henry to “perfect” the T, and having just taken a close look at the Model A’s mechanical excellence in that recent CC, it was interesting to see just how crude the T comes off in comparison.

I’m not going to do a shot-by-shot comparison on each of them, and obviously this T is hardly in the pristine shape as this restored A. But except for the change to a sliding-gear transmission, the A still had all of the T’s similar configuration and mechanical design, but just taken to its highest level execution.

Everything on the T just looks so much cruder although familiar, which given the early days of the automobile when it was hatched, is of course obvious. And it was a testament to Henry’s brilliant design in its simplicity and yet high quality that it lasted as long as it did. And although the T’s components may look crude,  they were made of nothing but the finest materials Ford’s forges could hammer out.

While we’re underneath the T, and believe me, it’s the easiest car to shoot from below; one can practically walk under it, let’s take another look at the rear end from the front. The torque tube design, which creates a single pivot point behind the transmission, was a Ford hallmark, and carried right through 1948. Oan it looks remarkably similar to the Peugeot 404 rear axle design, because it is, except for the springing, of course. It’s a very durable design that allows massive articulation, just the thing for America’s roads in 1908 or Africa’s roads today.

One of T’s biggest limitations were the two gears its planetary transmission afforded. A big market developed for auxiliary transmissions, and perhaps the most successful was the Ruckstell two speed rear axle, shown here. It replaced one half of the T’s rear axle, and doubled the number of gear ratios. Since it also had a higher (lower numerical) axle ratio, the Ruckstell gave a wider overall spread of gears, everything from a stump-pulling granny low, to what amounted to an overdrive high. Over a million of these were sold, and it was the only one approved by Ford to be sold and installed by its dealers.

It’s pretty well known, but just in case you missed it by actually paying attention to your fourth grade teacher instead of reading about the Model T, its transmission needed no “clutch” in the usual sense. One just pushed the “low gear” pedal, the left one, and held it in, while the T lurched off to a less-than-elegant start. Releasing it once a gait something faster than a brisk walk was attained created a second lurch into direct, or high gear. The middle pedal engages reverse. And the right one is for the brake, rear only, and not very powerful, to say the least. Gas pedal?

That’s on the steering column, along with the spark advance. Yes, one doesn’t just hop in and drive a T without a bit of orientation. It’s quite a bit like a tractor though, in regard to many of those controls, not to mention its engine qualities.

I’m not going to even try to spell out the starting routine for the T, but let’s just say that the arm-weary motorists of the world embraced the self starter more affectionately than their children. Is it the origin of the word “cranky”?

But the T motor was state of the art in 1908, developing 20 hp from its 177 cubic inch (2.9 L) side-valve four. Its redline was 1600 rpm, and it developed 83 ft. lbs of torque at 900 rpm. A chugger indeed. And the heavy loads of enclosed bodies and the higher average speeds of the mid-late twenties conspired increasingly against it. Theoretically, a T could hit 45 mph; maybe a roadster with its windshield folded down and the driver in a tucked position. Most Ts chugged along up to about 35 or so; any more for any length of time was asking too much of it, and trouble.

That’s not to say the T couldn’t be coaxed to give more. It’s basic block, crank, connecting rods and pistons were so well made for the times of the best forgings, that the sky was the limit, as long as its breathing limitations were addressed. And how they were: the T started the whole hot rod/performance industry, in the twenties already. There were numerous high performance heads, and this Rajo is one of the more ambitious, with dual overhead cams and hemispherical combustion chambers. But they all used the stock Ford block and internal components.

Back then, it wasn’t drag racing, but oval racing. Modified Ts were ubiquitous, since the real racing engines like Millers were exorbitantly expensive. Modified Ts raced at at the Indianapolis 500, and dominated (in number) the dirt tracks that every little town had back then.

One of my recurring (of hundreds) auto-lusts is for a T Speedster, which can be anything from a very crude and simple cut down Roadster like this,

to more exotic and lowered versions. Their elemental and visceral appeal keeps at me like a recurring dream. And have we ever strayed from the tall-boy coupe today. That’s why this is so much fun…nobody is telling me to stick to Geometry, or next months’ sales forecasts.

But I do have other things that need attention, so we’ll wrap up our brief visit with the T. I’m looking forward to finding one of the early brass-radiator tourers, as it was the only one I had some personal experience in. In the summer of 1971 in Iowa City, a sort of glamor-hippie started cruising downtown with one on hot summer evenings. Needless to say, it was a total chick-magnet, and I’d sit there on the square in utter jealousy as he puttered off with beautiful young things squeezed in tight with him, and overflowing out of the rear seat.

One night things must have been mighty slow, and there was room in the back for one more, so he deigned to invite me for a ride out to the Dairy Queen and a detour in the country on the way back (his imperious attitude made it obvious as to who was buying). But it was well worth it. There’s nothing like chugging down a quiet road on a hot evening in a dead Midwestern town, skin to skin. It still gives me aches today…to remember watching him drive off with them after he unceremoniously dropped me off.

No wonder I’m fixated on Ts, although now I’ll stick to two-passenger versions. But not this coupe please. If I’m going to have a vehicle that likes to cruise at 35, make it an open one. This one reminds me too much of my Xb anyway. Wonder if anybody’s converted an Xb into a T-Coupe replica?