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Secrets Of The Model T
The Tin Lizzie carried us into the twentieth century, but she gave us a hell of a shaking along the way. Now a veteran driver tells what everybody knew and nobody bothered to write down.
July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
Many, many authors have written about the Model T, but I’m privy to some information that this legion ignored. My experience with Model T’s began in the Middle West in 1923 and continued on out to California. Like so many others, I drove only second- or third-hand models. Here are some of the things I learned.
No writer I know of has ever described the shimmy—at least, not the Model T shimmy. Technically a shimmy is a self-excited oscillation of the front wheels about their vertical pivots, and it resulted from worn kingpins and their bushings. The whole front end of the car shook back and forth, sometimes gently, more often violently. And it didn’t stop—not by itself. A hard right or left turn might just do the trick. But with a very loose front end the shimmy would return at the next chuckhole or all by itself from pure whimsy. As a last resort you slowed down to a walk; the shimmy didn’t like going at a walk.
The jackknife occurred when the caster of the front wheels was out of whack. It was no problem when you went straight or made a mild turn, but in the midst of an average turn the front wheels would snap hard over to the limit, regardless of the car’s speed. If you still had your thumbs, you frantically fought the steering wheel back to straight, only to have the wheels snap on over hard in the opposite direction. This violent whipsawing would continue until you managed to brake down to a walk. I survived several of these episodes, and after managing to come to a full rightside-up stop, I would sit on the running board for a bit of meditation before continuing on my way.
A quick jerk or two at the choke rod on the dash would cure a harsh and persistent coughing spell.
On all the early T open cars, the gas gauge was under the front seat, and to check it, you had to stop, get out of the car, lift up the seat cushion, and unscrew the gas cap. The gauge consisted of a wooden ruler marked off in gallons instead of inches. You stuck it in the tank, then lifted it out for a reading. This seems a decidedly inconvenient arrangement, but there were some advantages that no other car of the day had: no troublesome vacuum tank or fuel pump was needed, as the gasoline went to the carburetor by gravity (the system never broke down except on long, steep hills); the readings were as reliable as your eyesight; the measuring sticks were plentiful and free.
The T’s “splash system” required no oil pump or filter. The flywheel simply flung the oil up to bathe the bands of the planetary transmission, and the excess flowed down a little tube to the front of the engine, where it splashed all over the rest of the innards. There was no oil gauge, but by getting down on one knee and reaching under the running board with an oil-check rod, you could open the two oil-level petcocks on the crankcase. If no oil ran from either one, you had better get at least a quart fast. If, on the other hand, the little petcocks had merely become plugged up by mud, you twisted the rod half a turn and the little round scoop on the end would poke the offending dirt into the crankcase.
The T used the thermosiphon technique, which worked automatically and required no water pump. It wasn’t very effective on hot days, as the water turned to steam and went unobtrusively down the overflow tube out of sight. But if you drilled a tiny hole in the top of the radiator cap, an early warning of water on the boil would erupt right in front of your eyes.
In wintertime a T touring car, even one equipped with a fair set of side curtains, gave a bitter, freezing ride. But for a very reasonable price you could buy a heater—a tin shield over the exhaust manifold that funneled some of the air from the fan across the hot manifold and up through the floorboards. Not a bad fix, it would warm the car up to about the temperature of a barn.
Tail pipes were not an off-the-shelf item. They had to be invented and selfinstalled. If you replaced the muffler with a long three- or four-inch-diameter straight pipe, you were rewarded with a deep, gratifying throb that made the old T sound like a racing car.
They weren’t very good, but they were expensive and hence driven right down to—and past—worthless. After long use, a tube might bulge out through a hole in the casing. When that happened, you bought a boot. An inside boot was most effective. Installed between the tube and the casing before the tire was mounted on the rim, it made the tire good for many more miles. An outside boot was made of heavy material and laced around the sore spot after the tire was mounted and inflated. It would keep you going for a spell, but it made a thumping noise, and at high speeds—forty miles an hour—the car would shake.
Inner tubes were of pretty good rubber, but punctures were frequent. Everyone carried a patching kit (thirtyfive cents), and on long trips it was common for one of the passengers to patch spare tubes while riding along.