3600 miles behind the wheel of a 1929 Model A on Route 66

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Phillip Thomas

Context is everything, right? For modern traffic, Route 66 is a slow, constricted highway, especially when compared to the interstate highway system. For a 1929 Model A, Route 66 is just the right speed.

Just as time and technology ditched the horse for the horseless carriage, those forces eventually bypassed Route 66 for interstate highways. Communities built along the highway withered while the traffic flow was diverted sometimes hundreds of miles away to newly-built freeways. Priorities for infrastructure had changed and no longer supported aging mining towns and farming communities; instead, Eisenhower and his administration sought to funnel the masses and their goods between metropolises with military efficiency.

Among the forsaken, recession-plagued byways of America, Route 66 became a martyr. Its meandering pavement is synonymous with the mystique of the open road, drawing those who crave an unpredictable journey and delight in driving for driving’s sake. One such scenic traveler is Ryan Tebo, who has been rattling and rumbling across from coast to coast in his 1929 Ford Model A for the past two weeks.

I caught up with Tebo at the Cool Springs Station in western Arizona, a kitschy rest stop on the eastern side of the Black Mountains. The Model A puttered off the road into the parking lot and I leaned on the window frame of the Model A to introduce myself. Tebo had covered 3200 miles thus far, and his attention was fixed on the three-thousand foot pass just ahead. He had been on the road for 11 days, and the push from Gallup, New Mexico to Needles, California, had been among his toughest yet. The temperature highs through the Southwest hovered above 115 degrees, pushing the Model A’s nearly 100-year-old cooling system to its limits. The 30-year-old New Hampshire native behind the wheel was feeling the strain himself: “I have no idea how you guys live out here!”

Well, we drink lots of water. The Model A seemed to agree with this strategy; as we wound up Sitgreaves Pass into Oatman, Arizona, it demanded several stops to refill the radiator, which was constantly boiling over.

 

In the past month, Tebo’s developed an entirely unexpected cult following in the automotive community. He was nearly two weeks into his road trip when a Facebook page he made for his friends and family to track his trip picked up serious momentum. More and more people began living vicariously through his updates and photos logging each day’s trip and the challenges it brought.

“The people really surprised me—how outgoing they are, and how willing they are to help. I’ve gotten hundreds of messages from the United States and all over the world [from] people that are watching,” he explains.

The story began with his search for a daily-driver early Ford, as Tebo has owned quite a few over the years and had several projects already. He scoured the internet until he stumbled upon this ’29 Model A on Facebook Marketplace.

The Model A had been restored decades prior and served as an older couple’s runabout for several years before it was parked roughly 10 years ago. The flathead four had been rebuilt with a counter-weighted crankshaft, slightly healthier Touring cam, and a higher-compression Brumfield head, which helps it burn today’s higher octane pump gas. Beyond a few other minor tweaks, the ol’ Model A was practically as pure as God and Henry Ford intended. It still had a three-speed manual, drum brakes, and no EFI. Ironically, its sole modern concession, the electronic distributor, represented Tebo’s only real complaint on his cross-country trek; its built-in timing curve isn’t ideal for that particular motor, and it removes the driver’s manual timing controls from the steering wheel.

“I was looking for one that I could just leave outside, not worry about, was pretty good mechanically … and that’s really why I bought this one originally,” Tebo recalls. “It’s a good driver, which is what I look for—I like them pretty much original. I won’t buy one that’s been chopped or anything like that, but I’m not so crazy that it has the right spark plugs in it for the period.”

 

Even though the idea of taking the Model A cross-country had flitted across his mind, Tebo could never have anticipated the circumstances that would create the opportunity for his cross-continental trek. His primary objective for the Model A was getting it sorted for trips around the Northeast to shows and swap meets; he’d never been beyond Pennsylvania, and he figured the Ford was a great foundation for a road warrior. Once the COVID-19 pandemic cleared his schedule of those planned events, he found himself with a fistful of vacation time and a road-ready Model A.

He spent the first few days getting from New Hampshire to Route 66’s eastern branch, which starts in Chicago. “I was pretty comfortable there because I had driven a different Model A to Hershey, Pennsylvania last year to a swap meet,” Tebo says. “I really didn’t have any part of that section that I hadn’t been on before, but I had to fix the carburetor on the second day.”

The base plate of the carburetor, an aluminum component, had warped and begun to leak between the intake and carb. Tebo managed to use a file and flatten it enough for the time being, “but I didn’t make it too far and I could smell something burning and hear a flapping noise—I lost the fan belt and grabbed the fan belt that I had brought, which was too big … pure stupidity on my part to not double-check beforehand!” After a little self-ribbing, he put the ravaged belt back onto the Model A and limped the car to a parts store in rural Ohio.

Phillip Thomas

Tebo managed to find a suitable replacement at another store, and he decided to stop at Snyder’s Antique Auto Parts to pick up a rebuilt Zenith unit before the old one warped again. On the bright side, Tebo says: “I’ve dealt with [the shop] for years, so it was kinda cool to make the personal connection and go down there.”

The Model A griped only once more, when the exhaust gaskets failed. Tebo managed to replace the upper gaskets, but the lower collector gasket eventually blew out too. There was no chance in hell—or at least, in Staunton, Illinois—of finding another, so he folded aluminum foil until it was thick enough to become a gasket. “I check the exhaust clamp’s tightness every morning now to keep it in check,” he laughs.

From there, the trip westward continued with only minor complaints from the Model A, mostly regarding cooling as it entered the desert mountains. Though the Ford tolerated 55-mph speeds when it had to—specifically, when interstates overlapped with the original route—it was most at home on Route 66’s lower speed limits, which rarely break 45 mph.

As he pulled through each Route 66 town, word began to spread among the shop owners and historians dotting the old highway about this crazy dude driving cross-country in the middle of the summer … in a prewar Ford. With COVID-19 largely reducing tourist travel, this year has been especially tough on the Route 66 community, so the excitement spread quickly.

“I’m from a small town where the main route used to go through our downtown until the interstate came along. Once you lose your traffic, you lose your restaurants, your gas stations—so even though this happened before my time, I guess I feel for the people,” Tebo explains. “I kind of have an understanding of what they go through.”

 

Tebo managed to complete Route 66 this past weekend, entering Santa Monica with 3600 miles on the odometer. “I was driving through Los Angeles traffic, so I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it, but it felt good that I had made it,” he says. “And it really was bittersweet—not because the trip is over yet, but because I had enjoyed the people on Route 66 and that whole experience.”

Tebo turned north after Santa Monica to chase the Pacific Coast Highway before heading back east along the Oregon Trail—which is where you can catch him now.

Even if you can’t break free of responsibility to tackle thousands of miles of pavement yourself, his trip serves as a reminder of what the fractured two-lane blacktops of yore can teach us. There’s more to the world than what you see on the internet and from the comfort of the interstate. You’ve got to get out there and experience it for yourself. “You watch the news and you think America’s really in a bad spot,” Tebo says. “If I go off what I’ve seen so far, I don’t know where the news is getting their information from.”

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