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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
You did it yourself. The whole car was simple, accessible, and tolerant. The owner adjusted the spark timing, the carburetor mixture, and the spark coils to his satisfaction as he drove down the street. On a cold morning a quick jerk or two at the choke rod on the dash would cure a harsh and persistent coughing spell. In the evening you could tighten the bands, look at the timer, or clean the plugs. A weekend would do nicely to reline the bands or grind the valves and clean the carbon or maybe tighten the rods. A four-day vacation was plenty to overhaul the engine or the rear end. If any of these jobs was a bit beyond your experience, you had merely to ask your neighbor, who not only knew but would come over and help.
They were innumerable. Hundreds of companies stayed in business solely by making gadgets for the Model T. One especially satisfying example was the Explosion Whistle, which consisted of an adapter that enabled a spark plug to continue functioning while a side outlet was fitted with a small lever-operated valve connected to a whistle. A wire from the lever up to the dash area completed the installation. When you pulled the wire, it opened the valve, and every time that particular cylinder fired, the whistle gave out with a loud blast. When the car was running fast, the sound rivaled a steamboat whistle and was guaranteed to clear the road ahead. We used our Explosion Whistles judiciously, however, as the law took a dim view of them.
The police also looked coldly on the Raspberry, a section of soft rubber tubing an inch in diameter and about seven inches long, with the last two inches squashed flat. With a bit of ingenuity, you could rig a hinged contraption that would press the round end of the rubber hard against the exhaust pipe at the pull of a wire. With the engine winding a little it would produce a beautiful wwwaaaaaaawaaahahahah raspberry. Magnificent.
One day, about 1930, I was on the curb at Seventh and Broadway in Los Angeles, waiting for the traffic policeman in the middle of the intersection to blow his whistle to change the flow of traffic. When just even with him, two boys in a stripped-down T revved their engine a bit and gave him a loud, rancorous raspberry that echoed from the buildings. He started after them on foot, blasting his whistle while the boys, safely fifty feet ahead, gunned out another raspberry. Then the poor cop, in front of about five hundred grinning people, had to return to his post and sort out the traffic mess.
T’s came equipped with four spark coils, one for each of the four plugs. Running on six volts, the secondary winding would produce a nice blue spark about half an inch long. The coils were plentiful, quite cheap, and useful for other purposes.
I always equipped my T’s with a spare coil—under the seat. A lead from the hot terminal went through an insulator to a multiple-strand bare wire that extended to the ground. The tires were good insulation, and the whole car became hot with the push of a button. You could administer a jolt to anyone leaning on the car, touching it, or getting into it. I could also get quite a reaction by grounding one hand on the steering wheel spoke and reaching out with the other to touch someone on the ear.
Sometimes, though, I got mine. One day Cleo Howard and I, working for a La Habra rancher, ran out of kerosene for the tractor and drove back to the ranch to replenish. While I took the five-gallon can and headed for the barn, Rex, the boss’s mean Airedale, came over and started wetting on the T’s rear wheel. Cleo pressed the button. That big dog took off around the house with a lot of terrified ky-yi-ing, but around in back he had a change of heart and came charging out after me, madder than hell. Using the can as a shield, I did a backward dance to the barn, trying to keep Rex from chewing me to bits, while Cleo was too deep in hysterics to come to the rescue.
With a bit of ingenuity you could rig a hinged contraption that would produce a beautiful raspberry.
Another time, early one cold, wet morning, I went over to Herb Lunn’s house to change the bands of my ’27 T. Standing on the sopping grass beside the car, I had taken the floorboards out and the case cover off and was tugging with the pliers on one of the bands when my shoulder pressed the button. I could not let go of the pliers. I was taking the full voltage from my hand down to my feet—not a good route. When it dawned on me that I was the one pushing the button, I moved my shoulder. I was no longer cold.
My wife, Mary, and I went to the University of Southern California’s fiftieth reunion of the class of 1932. Gala affair. Old-time music. Old-timers’ talk. Old buddies galore. One, Al Baxter, told Mary, “Sure, I remember Al. He used to park his Model T right by the back door of Bridge Hall. He had a shocker on it.”
Such is fame.