Prime Mover


The Ford Times set out to dispel the perception, common in the early automobile age, that older motorists might find the vehicles difficult to operate. Surely that could not be the case, Ford Motor’s internal publication proclaimed, if “the world’s oldest [automobile] owner,” Robert Allison, who in 1898 had become the first person in the United States to buy a car (even if it was a Duryea), could still enjoy driving his Model T at the age of 86.

An astonishing number of those who roved the countryside in Model T’s chose to share the exhilaration of the experience in the Ford Times . One of the most compelling of these accounts, down to the last splatter of mud, appeared under the byline of none other than Henry and Clara Ford’s only child, Edsel, who drove a Model T Runabout from Detroit to Chicago in 1913, when he was only 20 years old. Like any other motorist of the era, the scion of the Ford Motor Company had to contend with a vexing dearth of paved roads, decipherable maps, and decent roadside restaurants.

Somewhere past Ypsilanti, Michigan, heading west, Edsel Ford and his unnamed companion came to a stop before a good-size creek over which several men were building a bridge. “They said that some wagons and carriages were able to drive through the creek, but all automobiles were compelled to go around several miles through a back way,” the young Ford wrote. “We thought that rather than lose so much time, we would try driving through the stream, so we backed up far enough to get a good start, and thought by speeding we could force our way through. But for our wise thoughts we received two wettings. First, when the radiator hit the water it sent a shower all over us, and then by stalling the motor right in the center of the creek, we had to climb out into cold water up to our waists and push for shore. At first the car would not move an inch, but by much tugging and pulling we managed to get near enough to shore so that the crank was up out of water. Then all we had to do was crank for half an hour to get the water out of the carburetor, and finally she started.” No one but Edsel Ford would have been allowed to admit in the Ford Times that a Model T ever would not start, even if it was underwater at the time.

Whether the townspeople he and his buddy encountered along the way were aware that one of the car’s occupants was Henry Ford’s son is not known. Edsel probably did not disclose his identity; he was anything but spoiled, and probably would not have wanted to attract any special attention because of his family ties. Nevertheless, unwanted attention is what he and his pal attracted in one rural town when their arrival coincided with that of the afternoon train. “The streets of Paw Paw [Michigan], like all other towns we passed through the day, were lined with farmers and [horse-drawn] carriages,” Edsel Ford wrote, when a loud noise suddenly disturbed the pastoral scene. He continued: “We don’t know whether it was the noise of our exhaust or the train, but one or the other scared a horse, who turned around so quickly in the road that he upset the buggy and threw out the two occupants. … Well, we did not wait very long in that town, for, as a rule, farmers do not love automobiles.”

Although America’s farmers may have been until then slow to accept the inevitability of the automobile, they quickly embraced the Model T. In 1912 the Farmer magazine conducted a study of car ownership in Minnesota’s agricultural areas for the years 1909 and 1911 that indicated the rural appeal of the little Ford. The article reported that in 1909, a year after the Model T was introduced, there were 191 Fords in towns with populations of 1,000 or fewer; two years later the number had grown to 1,187, outdistancing the second most popular make, Buick, by almost 400. The magazine’s survey also showed that in towns of between 10,000 and 20,000 people, Ford ownership had soared to anywhere from 3 to 20 times what it had been two years earlier.

The Model T’s popularity in farm districts owed largely to the car’s capacity to make rural life more bearable at a time when many families were finding it increasingly hard to support themselves through agriculture. Farm living had of course never actually jibed with its popular bucolic image as demanding but honest work leavened by an assortment of simple pastoral pleasures. In reality, most farm work was hard, tedious, and not at all lucrative, making the few modern comforts that were available in rural areas unaffordable for most farm families. Central heating, indoor plumbing, and hot-water heaters had become standard in all but the poorest urban housing during the Model T’s first decade, but not on the farm.