The Funny Car

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“So a Ford dealer comes up with a great idea.…” Actually, I’m not at all sure this is how Americans started off a joke in the first two decades of the twentieth century, but it’s how I remember my father’s answering my question about whether his father had ever gotten mad at him. The “great idea” was a promotional one: The first person to find dimes bearing the mint marks F O R and D could come in and trade them for any Model T in the store. In time a customer appears, asks to see the manager, and triumphantly opens his hand to reveal the four dimes. The manager examines them, and sure enough, the mint marks are all there. He congratulates the customer and tells him to look around the showroom and take his pick of the cars.

The customer approaches him again after 20 minutes and asks, “Can I get my 40 cents back?”

Then—listen to this one—a farmer decides to.… And that was the moment my famously patient grandfather got mad. “Richard,” he snapped at my father, “ will you be quiet !” He’d been packing the family car for a trip—then, as now, a horrible exercise—while my father had been remorselessly reading aloud from a ubiquitous booklet called Funny Stories About the Ford .

All across the country that day, children were likely afflicting their parents with Model T jokes, and everywhere in the country Model T’s were at work, taking people to the dance or the library, sowing or reaping, running a handsaw or racing an airplane, helping Pershing chase Pancho Villa down in Mexico.

There never was—never could have been—a book called Funny Stories About the Chevy , although Chevrolet eventually extinguished the Model T. Those “funny stories” were about a machine that was something more than a car.

Every century or so, our republic has been remade by a new technology: 160 years ago it was the railroad; in our time it’s the microprocessor. These technologies do more than reshuffle our habits; they change the way we think. Henry David Thoreau, hearing the trains passing Waiden Pond, said, “Have not men improved somewhat in punctuality since the railroad was invented? Do they not talk and think faster in the depot than they did in the stage-office?” And of course you know—if you’re older than 15 (when it’s simply the air you breathe)—what computers and the Internet are doing to us now.

In between came the Model T. It’s no longer a force in our lives, yet I think its old power was such that it refuses to look quaint, to acquire that gloss of appeal that time puts on so many ugly things. Its high, unlovely frame and its pugnacious snout still flaunt the car’s ability to change a world. Douglas Brinkley’s story in this issue about how it did so is drawn from his new centennial history of the Ford Motor Company; Julie Fenster, who helped him with research on the project, called our attention to the small picture on page 46—the only one, she says, that gives a clear sense of the car’s capabilities. It’s true: The M. C. Escher-ish confusion of wheels suggests the Model T’s ability to scramble out of the worst ditches of the old wagon roads, and, in the end, to claw its way free of the whole nineteenth century.

My father hated the car. This wasn’t just because it had provoked his father into barking at him; he’d seen it hurt his older brother, Win. One of John Steinbeck’s characters in East of Eden , giving a tutorial in the exacting art of starting the Model T, says, “Now watch careful while I show you. You grab the crank like this and push till she catches. See how my thumb is turned down? If I grabbed her the other way with my thumb around her, and she was to kick, why, she’d knock my thumb off.” And that’s what Win did. The car didn’t cost him a thumb, but it did break his wrist.

My father’s feelings, in other words, were personal. Until the end of his days, he felt about the Model T as he would have an evil-natured uncle who treated him badly but put a roof over his head. The car, for his family, was the bridge between the farming, horse-drawn world of yesterday and the one we inhabit—in this case specifically between a mare named Penelope and a green Buick sedan. Quite a lot of people think the change was for the worse. Not me: I’m too steeped in it—the child, in a way, of the long, smooth roads those drab little cars conjured out of logging trails and cow paths.

Will Rogers, very much a product of that earlier world, said of Henry Ford, “It will take a hundred years to tell whether you have helped us or hurt us.” Then added: “But you certainly didn’t leave us like you found us.”

Richard F. Snow