July/August 1989 | Volume 40, Issue 5
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.