Prime Mover

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As the swelling number of proud new Model T owners learned to master their machines, the old Tin Pan Alley tune “In My Merry Oldsmobile” gave way to ones singing the praises of Henry Ford’s new car for the masses: for example, “The Little Ford Rambled Right Along” (1914) and Jack Frost’s “You Can’t Afford to Marry, If You Can’t Afford a Ford” (1915). The intoxicating feeling that came with driving one for the first time inspired what might be called “Model T mania,” to which even the worldliest did not prove immune. Grace Hegger Lewis, the widow of Sinclair Lewis, revealed in her memoirs that the greatest thrill of her famous husband’s life had not been receiving the Nobel Prize for literature but the moment he pulled up in front of their house in his first Model T touring car and inquired of his family, “How about a little ride?” He was so enthralled with his motorcar, in fact, that Lewis wrote a highway romance novel based on the couple’s cross-country jaunt in it as newlyweds in 1916. Published in 1919 as Free Air , this clever hybrid of dime-store Western and gothic romance offered a thinly fictionalized account of Lewis’s escape with Grace from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Seattle. In it, the young bride, navigating the little car over the punishing roads of rural Minnesota, describes the adventure as a “voyage into democracy.”

Increasing numbers of women were discovering that there was an exhilarating sense of independence to be had at the wheel.

Another renowned Model T enthusiast was far better known for his aerial travels. In his book Boyhood on the Upper Mississippi , Charles A. Lindbergh vividly recalled the day in 1912 when his father purchased a Model T Ford equipped with the “standard footpedal gearshift, four cylinder engine, smooth-faced clincher-rim tires, carbide headlights, hand crank, squeeze rubberbulb horn, folding waterproof cloth top, and quick fasten-on curtains for rainy days.” His mother christened the car Maria, and it made a lasting impression on the future aviator. “Before Maria arrived,” he wrote in 1969, automobiles “seemed almost as separate from our everyday lives as a show up on a stage. The fact that my father had bought an automobile was startling and amazing. It took my mother and me a long time to get accustomed to this new member of our family.”

Soon enough the 11-year-old Lindbergh was piloting Maria at a perilous 25 miles per hour along the unpaved, deeply rutted, and often icy roads of northern Minnesota, in pursuit of groceries in Brainerd or friends in St. Cloud. “I had become fascinated by automobiles in general and by Maria in particular,” he remembered. His account told of lengthy attempts to start the car in cold weather, of getting it stuck in sand, changing its flat tires, and having to lay tree limbs over mud holes so Maria could make it across. His most vivid (and prescient) memory was of his father behind the wheel while he stood atop the family Ford’s wide running board, hanging on by the struts supporting the car’s folding top. “I could pick leaves off branches as we passed, and sometimes when the going was slow, scoop up a stone from the road,” Lindbergh said, adding, “I liked the wind on my face and through my hair. It was much more fun than riding inside.”

 

Any new kind of transportation promises to open up virgin territories for exploration, but the versatility and economy of the Model T made the proposition especially tempting, inspiring a new fad, the automobile vacation. Some took to calling the Model T “Hotel Ford,” in tribute to the ease with which travelers could equip the conveyance for camping. The upper half of the car’s split windshield, for example, folded down horizontally to create a table, which could be made more elegant by being covered with a cloth to conceal any splattered insects still adhering to the glass. The Ford Times , a monthly magazine published throughout the Model T era by the automaker and distributed free of charge to its dealers and customers, chronicled this new development through self-submitted accounts of many early wanderers’ automotive adventures. The publication offered, for instance, the story of Mr. and Mrs. Harvey Harper, of Phoenix, Arizona, whose 1912 road trip qualified them as pioneers of the family vacation. Setting off from home with their five small children, the couple drove their Ford all the way to the city of Eureka, deep in northern California’s glorious redwood country, without once staying at a hotel.

 
 
 
 
 
The young Charles Lindbergh, riding outside on the running board of his family’s Model T, discovered he “liked the wind on my face.”

In 1913 the company’s house organ related the experiences of Ford Motor’s employee E. Roger Stearns, who drove from Los Angeles to San Diego, not a terribly difficult trip, and then made the far more harrowing passage through Devil’s Canyon to El Centro, California, near the Mexican border. Stearns reported that his Model T handled the tricky mountain roads, rocky canyons, and abundant sand without a single hitch. Of course, had he suffered any problems, he might not have found it so easy to sell 10 cars just like his on the spot to the El Centro residents who greeted him.