Driving a Model T forces you to rewire your whole car brain
Looking for some serious mental stimulation? Consider going for a spin in Ford’s iconic Model T. This past weekend marked my first attempt to drive one, and let’s just say there was a lot to absorb. Its combination of three foot pedals, two column-mounted adjusters, and one handbrake lever had my mind working overtime to keep my limbs synched up and untangled.
With exception to the functionality of the steering wheel, nearly everything you know about driving a traditional automobile can be thrown out the window in a Model T. Those three pedals on the floor are for the clutch, brake, and gas, right? Well, no. The left-most pedal would be low and high gear, while the brake is the pedal all the way on the right. And the middle option? Reverse, of course.
Likewise, the two paddles located behind the steering require attention. Spark advance is on the left and throttle on the right. Thankfully, there’s not a terrible amount of ignition adjustment once the car is started—just set to full-advance and forget about it. Unless the vibration transmitted through the column happens to back the lever off to the 3/4 position, in which case, constant fiddling will be required. Don’t ask me how I know.
The last piece of this pre-war puzzle is the braking system. While the Model T has a pair of drum brakes on the rear axle, the brake pedal itself doesn’t interact with these at all. Instead, it actuates a band which squeezes down on the rotating parts within the transmission to slow the car down. The handbrake lever, on the other hand, actually activates those rear drums when fully engaged. Not only that, but when pulled to the half-way position, the lever also shifts the gearbox into neutral.
Following the dizzinging technical overview, it was finally time to drive. I proceeded to complete the sometimes-wrist-breaking (not a joke) hand-crank starting procedure, set the timing to fully advanced, and adjust the throttle to a high idle. I then pushed down on the low/high pedal while simultaneously releasing the handbrake to engage first gear. The T lurched forward and picked up speed as I fed in more gas. Approaching what I imagine was a blistering 11 mph, my foot slowly released the leftmost pedal to engage high gear. Revs dropped back down under 1000 and it was full steam ahead.
The car puttered along some backroads as I began to acclimate to the strangeness of the clear-as-mud controls. Feeling out the brakes took time, but once I got comfortable, stops became slightly less harrowing. Taking off, on the other hand, was a breeze from the start—the ancient 177-cubic-inch four-banger simply didn’t have the urge to stall with the ultra-short low gear. Steering in the old sedan could be best described as “immediately vague.” Inputs provide quick-yet-rubbery direction changes, influenced by the probably-egg-shaped wooden wheels.
It’s awfully tempting to liken the driving experience of a Model T to that of a go-kart on stilts, but the comparison fails to illustrate the mental challenge and triumph of re-learning how to drive with a set of foreign controls. There’s a sense of newness to the whole ordeal that, for most, people don’t experience after first learning to drive a manual transmission.
Some psychology experts hypothesize that consistently picking up new skills, along with having fresh and varied experiences, makes life feel more “full.” Full of anxiety at first, washed down at the end with triumph, maybe. But I’d say that’s reason enough to go out and drive a T.