Enjoy your car, even when enjoying it requires changing it
Winter storage is a real pain to find up here in Northern Michigan, so I work diligently to keep the owner of the pole barn in which I store my cars happy. When Bruce wanted some work done on his Model T Ford, I was eager to help. Interestingly, he felt the need to justify the changes he had planned for the car. That got me thinking.
Bruce is a really good human. He spent his life as a medical professional, with a side interest in cars. Each winter, his ’40s Chevy truck and first-generation, straight-six Ford Mustang are joined in the barn by my Corvair and Model A. Bruce is no stranger to vintage cars or to broken bones. Like most of us, he avoids the second whenever possible, but the crank-start on his Model T posed a threat.
When it comes to operating an automobile, a fracture hasn’t always been easy to avoid. Starting a ‘T requires intimate knowledge of how an engine works: You must calibrate the throttle, timing, and transmission correctly or the engine can backfire and spin the crank-start handle out of your hand and into your arm. If the engine does start, but you haven’t set the parking brake/transmission correctly, the car can run you over. Neither is an ideal situation.
Even after Charles Kettering patented and began to sell the electric self-starter for automotive engine applications in 1912, the crank-start hung around. It was cheaper. Henry Ford was still trying to push Model T prices down in the 19-teens, and therefore the cars came standard with hand-crank start. Well-to-do buyers could opt for an electric starter beginning in the 1919 model year, but even then it was a $20 add-on to a $500–$750 car that targeted the least affluent buyers. The car was a functional object, not a plaything, so many customers saved the dollars and got to cranking.
A century later, most Model Ts have become the opposite of what ol’ Henry designed them to be: Capable, relatively comfortable daily transportation. Speed limits have increased to the point that the 35-mph top speed of a Model T stands out in traffic—and not in a good way. Now that roads have been smoothly paved, the chassis, which is as stiff as cooked spaghetti, produces an unnerving ride. Heck, in 1927, when the last Model T rolled off that world-changing assembly line, it was already woefully outdated.
Yet Bruce is not ready to resign his Model T to life as a 1:1 scale-model car. This winter, while discussing when I would drop off my Corvair and Model A, Bruce and I got to discussing how to get his ‘T running again. Not just running, but running without the need to hand-crank it.
His car had all the parts for an electric starter. Sadly, Bruce said that not all of them were ready to be pressed into use: The starter ring gear nestled behind the engine yet in front of the two-speed planetary transmission had fewer teeth than a career bare-knuckle boxer.
After doing a little research, I proposed a barter exchange: In lieu of payment for a season of storage, I would pull the T’s engine and transmission, separate the two, replace the ring gear, then reassemble it all. Oh, and deal with any of the other hacked-up or cobbled-together things that would inevitably pop up. Sounded like a pleasurable Saturday to me, and Bruce literally had to do nothing.
Handshake, nod, deal.
I’ve heard jokes about fixing a Model T with bailing wire and pliers. Luckily, this job was almost that easy. After three evenings of work, the engine was back in the chassis. The sad old battery under the driver’s side floorboard had just enough juice to prove the new ring gear was correct, promising that this tired car was going to get a new lease on life come spring. All without Bruce having to fear broken bones.
Could Bruce instead get over his fear and learn all the tricks to hand-start his vintage Ford? Yes. There are countless Model T Fords driving around the world that do not have electric start and their owners are likely quite happy with that situation. Bruce wasn’t. Understanding the limits of the ‘T is one thing; having the tolerance to deal with its inconveniences when you don’t have to is another. Bruce wasn’t reengineering a solution to make this car something it was not. The factory gave the model electric start; he just wanted to get the system working on his car.
There is no right way to own or enjoy a car. Bruce elected to restore one system for the sake of his enjoyment. This is no different than restomods from the 1960s or custom trucks from the 1970s, except that Bruce isn’t declaring himself smarter than the engineers who spend years designing and building the car. He is keeping a functional object functioning, with an upgrade available when the vehicle was originally sold.
An automobile can be highly individual and the most important decision-maker involved in building, maintaining, and driving any given car is its owner. Neither Bruce nor you should never feel any regret for making your car an extension of yourself.
Of course, there is also a bit of comedy to that principle, since the automobile was born as an appliance. I don’t think I’ll ever have the desire to custom-paint my coffee maker, or re-gear my wife’s KitchenAid stand mixer for more torque, but who am I to judge if you do? Just don’t get caught in that mixer … I hear it can break your wrist.
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