Prime Mover


In 1912 Ruth Calkins, of Rochester, New York, ignored repeated attempts to dissuade her from making automobile trips without a man along to attend to mechanical matters and toured the northeastern United States and southern Ontario for a month with three female friends. Calkins proved a sterling driver; even when the car sank to its axles in mud, she managed to ease it out with careful cunning rather than the shoulder power of her companions. As she and other women found out, there was an exhilarating sense of independence to be had at the wheel of an automobile. “The motor-car has returned the romance of travel,” Edith Wharton wrote in her 1908 memoir A Motor-Flight Through France . “Freeing us from all the compulsions and contacts of the railway, the bondage to fixed hours and the beaten track, the approach to each town through the area of ugliness created by a railway itself, it has given us back the wonder, the adventure, and the novelty which enlivened the way of our posting grandparents.”

The secret of the model was its innovative “planetary” transmission and braking system, which was controlled entirely through pedals on the floor, leaving the driver’s hands free for steering. As Robert Lacey describes it in his book Ford: The Men and the Machine , the car’s planetary mechanism was “a primitive sort of automatic gear, worked by three foot pedals: a brake, a pedal for forward, and a pedal for reverse. Orchestrating them was an acquired art, rather like playing the organ. … But once [it was] mastered, all sorts of tricks became available—notably the capacity to shoot straight from forward into reverse, thus making it possible to ‘rock’ the car out of a pothole.” Almost anyone could drive a T for hours without exhaustion, and the little Ford could travel just about anywhere—over paved city streets, on rough country roads, uphill, through mud— and in all kinds of weather.

The arrival of the Model T in hinter land cities like Kansas City, Omaha, and Denver was an event as eagerly anticipated as a Billy Sunday evangelical revival or Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. But actually selling the new Ford—or any car, for that matter—to the millions of committed horse-and-buggyers who populated the country took both patience and a certain amount of courage. In his wonderfully evocative memoir Me and the Model T , Roscoe Sheller, a Ford dealer in Sunnyside, Washington, wrote of the difficulties of selling Tin Lizzies in the American West in 1915, when horses were still the main form of transport and prospective customers had no clue how to drive a car. All too many of these tyro test drivers blithely ran past turns and over corners, shouting a loud “Whoa!” instead of applying the brake. When that didn’t work, they would jerk the steering wheel in the wrong direction and “freeze to it with the strength of Samson before he had a hair-cut,” Sheller recalled. “I could no more break I the driver’s] panic-seized grip than Cleopatra could have tossed an elephant across the Nile.”

Teaching this equestrian lot of would-be motorists to drive on the area’s rutted wagon roads took real fortitude. Sheller’s instructees smashed into everything from ancient sequoias to wooden posts and barbed wire fences, far too often coming “only inches from a messy death.” Because such accidents began to rack up “sickening” repair bills as well as lost sales for the dealership, Sheller adopted a new policy: “I became convinced that it might be wiser to collect full payment for the car before attempting driving instructions. Then, in case of accident, crumpled fenders, smashed radiators and jackknifed axles it would be the instructee’s responsibility, not mine.…” Sheller reported that he soon noticed a considerable increase in the attentiveness of his clients; apparently the driver’s “neck seemed of less importance than damage to his wallet.”

The Model T’s main selling point was, of course, its astonishingly low price—$360 just before World War I—which appeared even cheaper when the scant cost of operating the car was factored in. That the Model T could be maintained so inexpensively further fueled the public’s fascination with the little runabout. During World War I, when The New York Times was reporting that operating an automobile cost $1,500 a year, Model T owners enjoyed annual expenses of less than $100. A well-kept Ford was said to cost about a penny a mile to run—or, as one thrifty fellow noted in 1912, a quarter of a penny per occupant when his entire family rode along. H. R. Worrall, of New Hampton, Iowa, then took his calculations another step, comparing the cost of driving his Model T with that of his former mode of locomotion, walking. Covering a thousand miles on foot cost him $10 in shoes, Worrall figured, but only $7.71 in his new Model T Torpedo Runabout.