Curbside Classic: 1929 Ford Model A – The Best Ford Ever – Maybe Even The Best Car Ever

(first posted 6/6/2011)      Mechanical perfection. Design excellence. The two have never combined so fortuitously and timelessly as in the Ford Model A.  Why? Because Henry Ford, who demanded mechanical perfection, and his son Edsel, who was a consummate design executive, briefly overcame their notoriously difficult relationship and combined forces to create the Model A. Nothing like dire necessity to call a truce on petty politics and focus the best minds on the task at hand. The whole future of the Ford Motor Company was at stake, and the result was superb, and set a standard that could never really be equaled. The Model A was undoubtedly the best Ford ever. In fact, it might well be the best car ever.

Lofty stuff. But the A really is a gem. Just try to find someone to say a bad word about it. The Model T?

It was the butt of endless jokes. Of course, those often just reflected the challenges of living with a crude car still designed in the very early days of automotive history. Who could have imagined it lasting almost twenty years? Henry Ford couldn’t; he was convinced it could be built forever. It took one of his many fired executives to prove him wrong.

To begin to comprehend what a mess Ford was in the twenties is mindboggling: no titles or job descriptions for executives and managers. The place was run on fear and Henry’s unwavering loyalty to the world-conquering T. Edsel was marginalized. And one of his best “men”, William Knudsen, found a job at GM after being sacked like so many others. It would change the business forever.

GM was close to pulling the plug on Chevrolet, a “damaged brand” in the early twenties. But GM boss Alfred Sloan and his new head of Chevrolet saw a gap in the market just above the bare-bones T. And the stylish new 1925 Chevy hit its mark, making the first serious dent in the T. The Chevy was bigger, dramatically more modern in design, emphasized colors and style, and could carry the newly-fashionable closed bodies much better than the very compact and lightweight (1200 lbs) Model T. And GMAC was financing them so that the difference in price suddenly looked very affordable. Ford put America on wheels; GM sold them style and social aspiration, all on monthly payments. It was the beginning of the end of the car that once had an over 50% share of a market with dozens of manufacturers. Henry’s flivver was not immortal after all.

Henry held on until spring of 1927, by which time Model T sales collapsed. He capitulated to the inevitable, and finally heeded the long ignored advice of Edsel and most of his (former) “men”. The factories were simply shuttered, and 60k workers let go. No severance or unemployment…a long unpaid vacation. Henry, Edsel and a few key engineers sequestered themselves to the task at hand: to create the first new Ford in twenty years. Was Henry still up to it?

Quite so. In fact, that brief interlude created a refreshing break from the stultifying politics of fear that had overtaken Ford after some of his earlier organizational geniuses. And the goals of the Model A were so challenging, that all minds were focused on the task at hand.

Let’s consider the design aspect first, because it won’t take long. To most folks, the Model A is just an antique car, and few are be able to appreciate its design qualities. Obviously, it was a huge leap forward from the bony little T. Let’s just put it this way: the Model A benefited hugely from the classic Lincolns (above) of the era, over which Edsel had been given almost free rein to cultivate creative relationships with the finest stylists and body builders of the time. Edsel had a super eye for design, and he brought it to the A. And Henry finally appreciated it, and let him at it. The result is a mini-Lincoln, which really meant something back then.

There’s just not a bad line anywhere, and the Model A exudes a self-assured and tasteful air without resorting to any gimmickry. And it somehow manages to express externally the mechanical perfection hiding under that bodywork.

Henry threw down a virtually impossible gauntlet for the Model A: no part of the running gear or chassis was to be made of stamped steel; all would be forgings of the finest steel the Rouge brewed up. Please note: the Model T was already famous for the extreme high quality of its steel and components, which has a lot to do with all the T frames still on the road. But Henry’s new threshold was dramatically higher than the T; he was determined that the A would embody absolute mechanical perfection, and he nigh-near succeeded.

All this is better seen that read about. Here’s a glance at the front suspension. Is that enough to bring tears to the eyes of a lover of fine machinery? This one picture says it all, and explains why A fans are such fanatics. And why these cars are a joy to rebuild or restore. And why this is hardly anything new. In case you don’t recognize a mechanical brake linkage, that’s the top one. Ford was the last major to switch to hydraulics, in 1939. No wonder; it would be hard to give up this mechanical symphony for a rubber hose.

The rear end is a bit simpler, and of course both front and rear are the classic Ford solid axle with transverse leaf springs. But as an interesting juxtaposition to the mechanical brakes, Ford was the first low-cost car manufacturer to equip its car with hydraulic shock absorbers. Just to keep them guessing. Actually, it goes back to Henry taking an A prototype off-roading; when he came back, he insisted on hydraulic shocks. Unheard of. Yes sir!

The Model A engine could be rightfully seen as a natural evolution of the T’s, with its four cylinders and side-valve configuration. Its 201 cubic inches (3.3 L) was a bit bigger than the T’s, but it made twice the horsepower, a whopping forty of them. And Henry had to give up his beloved herky-jerky planetary gearbox; the Model used a scaled down Lincoln three-speed sliding gear box. Really pushed, an A can hit 65. But they much prefer cruising at about 45, maybe 50. BTW, that jarring orange thing is a modern plastic shield of some sort; to catch oil drips? Couldn’t they make them in a more subtle color?

The flathead T and A engines were of course mildly tuned, but their innards were the stuff of legends. Numerous cylinder heads were available, including DOHC units, like the Frontenac, that turned the Fords into the terrors of the dirt tracks, and even competitive at Indy. Despite making several times the original power, they ran stock crankshafts, rods and pistons.

This A is obviously well restored, and well used too, and features a Mitchell overdrive unit that makes extended cruising much more pleasant. It’s a synchro two-speed affair, that results in six speeds overall. Doesn’t exactly look very original. The A’s three-speed transmission is strictly a non-synchronized affair, requiring some skill and timing, as well as double clutching for downshifts. BW T-5 five speeds implants are increasingly popular, for obvious reasons.

Let’s just savor a few of the delights of the engine compartment, like the Zenith carburetor. And what antique car would you take on a trip around the country? I’d take a Model A around the world, given air-express and the availability of parts.

Here’s the drive shaft for the fan, which has been replaced by a modern, more effective plastic one. This Model A gets driven plenty, and was actually supposed to be in a club drive up the McKenzie River.

I found it sitting in a parking lot, but shortly its driver appeared with a part from the hardware store to repair something amiss with the fuel line. It certainly wasn’t the fuel pump, since there isn’t one. The tank is in the cowl, above and behind the engine, and the fuel arrives at that Zenith carburetor thanks to gravity. I didn’t ask what exactly was wrong, as the driver seemed a bit harried and eager to catch up to his cohorts.

This would be the fuel line drain, just below and on the other side of the cowl from the tank, which was basically in one’s lap. And the connections for the distributor are beyond. The ignition timing was advanced mechanically, from a little lever on the steering wheel hub. I would like that! Beats texting while driving.

Lots of brass everywhere, even the bolts and nuts on the exhaust manifold header. These practically beg you to take a wrench to them, unlike all that rusted-together steel exhaust hardware you swore at before you realized there was a reason all the muffler shops just cut them all off.

And the nickel (not chrome) plating on the radiator and headlights has a mellow glow so deep you could dive into it. And makes for quite a contrast to the plastic front ends of today’s cars.

Even a quick peek into the radiator is worth a shot. The plain stock cap was being substituted for a very flamboyant aftermarket one for the ensuing road trip with the other As. How else to distinguish oneself in the company of other similar vehicles?

Although the A was a bit larger and heftier (2300 lbs) than the T, cars of the times were still mighty cozy, as in very narrow. That wouldn’t work today, unless as a single seater. This coupe does have a rumble seat in the trunk, in case the need should arise to haul two fresh-air lovers in back. Given that closed cars were a fairly new commodity, most folks wouldn’t have complained.

The Model A finally arrived on October 27, 1927, with sensational publicity. The whole nation was gripped with anticipation as to how the car that came to totally represent a nation on wheels would and could be replaced. Celebrities were given first crack, as the production ramp-up was very slow. Folks fought over them, and the A was pronounced a stunning success, even if they couldn’t get their hands on them. It wasn’t until 1929 that production was finally at full tilt, and over 1.5 million As were spun out of completely revamped production facilities in the Rouge plant. Ford reclaimed the sales lead from Chevrolet, but that would be a very short-lived. Chevy’s new six came out in 1929, and by 1930 reclaimed the lead it wouldn’t give up again for quite a while.

Henry spent a big chunk of his vast cash hoard to completely update his factories with the latest and finest machinery. And it all ran more efficiently now too, which meant that 25k fewer worker were now employed than during the T era. The Model A really was the second birth of Ford Motor Company, and the A provided the basis for all subsequent Fords until the all-new 1949 Fords. Twenty years (again) was of course too long, even if the A was a stellar starting point. But transverse springs, mechanical brakes, and other Ford quirks took their toll, despite providing an almost endless source of well-made parts for hot-rodders to come.

The thrall of the Model A never really left, unlike so many cars that were “rediscovered”. Here’s one being used as a daily driver. When I arrived in Iowa in 1960, there were still on or two old Farmers who drove their As into town occasionally. Our neighbor, a doctor had two cars: a 1962 Mercedes 220SE and a 1929 Tudor Ford, both black. Model As were living legends already, icons of a time when mechanical superiority was the hallmark of a fine car, not giant fins on a leaky, creaky Bulge-mobile.

And they are today too, as much or more than ever. As cars become less “mechanical” and more electric and electronic, the allure of the Model A is greater than ever. As long as gasoline is still being sold, undoubtedly there will be Model As on the road, or being fixed in five minutes in a parking lot after a quick run to the hardware store.