Buying Your First Model T

Model T Fords come in three basic flavors; the "brass cars" built between 1908 and 1916; the "steel cars" built between 1917 and 1925 which were painted overall black including the radiators; and the "improved cars" built in 1926 and 1927, which, though available once again in some nice colors, were still powered by the same basic Brass Era 4- banger and 2-speed planetary transmission, and were still stopped by the same type of seriously outdated, single-drum, drive-train brake.
 

 

Most if not all of the brass Fords made between 1908 and 1911 had wooden bodies. A changeover was made to sheet metal-covered wooden frames midway through the 1912 model year.

Brass cars command a much higher price than the steel or improved cars. The earlier vintage brass cars are worth much more than the later brass cars and even between back-to-back model years, like 1912 and 1913, the 1912 car will command a significantly higher price than the 1913 car. It's no surprise, then, that the 1915 and 1916 model- year cars are the least expensive of the brass cars (fetching somewhere in the neighborhood of $17,000 for a very good daily driver with good paint, upholstery and top, in good mechanical condition).

This pricing principle does not hold true for the "steel cars," all of which are worth about the same price, assuming identical body style (touring, roadster, etc.) and equal condition. As far as daily-drivers are concerned, a fair steel car might run $5,000; a good one, $10,000 and a creampuff might fetch $13,000 (oh, and by the way, I'm not talking about show cars that win trophies at sanctioned Antique Automobile Club of America competitions. Prices for those rolling works of art—whether brass or steel—are astronomical and you wouldn't dare drive one in traffic).

The "improved cars" enjoy upgrades like balloon tires, geared-down steering and slightly better brakes. In terms of price, they're worth about the same as the black cars, but look so similar to the Model A Ford that you almost might as well get one of those and enjoy its greater cruising speed and highway capability.

As originally manufactured, the earlier Model T's were lighter and had slightly more power. They do perform better than the later cars, but that isn't really saying very much. The Model T is not a highway car. Its best cruising speed is about 35 mph — 40, if you don't mind abusing the engine. That means most of your afternoon drives will pretty much be limited to a forty or fifty-mile radius. Taking a Model T beyond that distance involves either getting out of bed earlier or towing the car on a trailer. That having been said, in the summer of 2009, fifty-four Model T Fords drove from New York to Seattle. Traveling in caravan is much easier, safer and more fun than going it alone.

For reasons of simplicity (and perhaps a reluctance on the part of Mr. Ford to pay royalties to those who held patents on more conventional accessories), theModel T had some basic equipment unique unto itself. This included a flywheel-mounted, low-voltage magneto; 4-coil ignition and a 2-speed planetary transmission featuring a brake that transmitted the braking impulse down the drive-shaft, through the differential, to that rear wheel which had the least traction. The most important thing to understand about driving Model T is that it was designed to have the same braking capability as the Titanic. It will take time and patience to learn to drive a Model T. In fact, it's best to have someone teach you.

People think of the Model T as being tough to the point of being indestructible. That's a myth. In some ways, it is far more delicate than any modern car—yet many thousand examples of this century-old design are on the road today. The car's obstinate longevity is mostly due to its having been produced in ridiculously large numbers, its go-kart simplicity and a super-availability of parts (not to mention the best technical advice forum on the internet). Aside from powerplant overhauls, you can pretty much do all of your own maintenance. The car always needs tinkering and a little at a time, you'll learn what you need to know about twirling screwdrivers and bending cotterpins.

Here are some questions to consider while making a pre- purchase inspection:

What is the general condition of the car and is everything on it in working condition? A generally dirty car with dust on the seats hasn't been run in a while and that tells you something about recent maintenance. That doesn't mean a car that looks good is good—because the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle always to the strong, but if you're going to bet, that's the way to go.

Has the car suffered any damage or been in a serious accident? A century-old car is going to be carrying some baggage, so it's not reasonable to expect a vestal virgin, but as a first-time buyer, you definitely want to avoid a car that has structural issues like a bent frame.

Is the front end nice and tight? It's easy enough to rough- test for tightness in the front end by rocking the steering wheel side to side and checking for excessive play. If you're mechanically inclined, taking the play out of a loose front end is fairly straightforward, but for a newbie, it's a headache you don't need right off the bat.

Is there any rust on the car? Model T Fords are made of some seriously good quality materials, but corrosion on a car is never a good thing. Perforation rust on the body is more serious than fender rust because it may be indicating the presence of wood rot beneath. Most Model T's have wooden frames covered by sheet metal.

So, is there any wood-rot in the body? Fixing this problem can be expensive and difficult. Significant wood rot is a problem for an experienced restorer, not a first-time antique car hobbyist.

Is there a lot of Bondo in the body? This isn't critically important, but it can become a point when negotiating price.

In what condition is the paint job? Same as above.

In what condition is the upholstery? Ditto. Is this car a Ford-factory-built original, or was it custom- built later on from parts? This is a value-related question. An original is simply worth more.

Does the engine start well when hand-cranked? Some of these cars have self-starters and that includes retro-fitment of some of the early brass cars which came out of the factory with no electrical system whatsoever. A starter is a wonderful thing to have because when you stall the car in heavy traffic, setting the brake and getting out front to begin a lengthy wrestling match with a stubborn engine while frustrated, angry drivers are trying to pass at close quarters, can be a humbling experience. At the very least, you want a non-self-starting car to start easily when hand- cranked.

Does the engine run smoothly, have good power, etc.? A correctly running, stock Model T engine is a joy to drive. A properly set-up magneto is important because getting in there to adjust the thing is just not a practical option for someone new to the hobby. On the other hand, the four individual coils, which also benefit greatly from proper adjustment, are very accessible and if you don't have the expertise to adjust them yourself, it's a simple matter to ship them out to an expert like "The Coil Doctor," who will have them singing like The Shirelles.

Does the engine have a high-compression head? A high compression head is the most effective piece of bolt-on performance equipment you can buy. Don't expect a big increase in cruising speed, but acceleration and hill-climbing ability will be measurably improved. Other enhancements might include a later-model carburetor, like the NH, and/or a bigger intake manifold. These are all easy to get.

Does the car have a generator? If not, then by what method is the battery charged and where is the battery mounted? None of the brass-radiator Fords were manufactured with any kind of electrical system. In fact, when electric headlights replaced acetylene headlamps in 1915, these were wired up to the engine's magneto. The headlights would be nice and bright at 30 mph, but dimmed down to almost nothing when the car slowed for turns. Legend has it that you could burn out the bulbs by exceeding 40 mph with the headlights switched on. Henry Ford seemed to pride himself on being the first to be last and he didn't begin installing electrical systems in his cars until 1919, when 6-volt batteries and generators appeared for the first time on the Model T. The brass cars can be retro-fitted with electrical systems, but of course, that would be a significant departure from originality.

Is the radiator of the round-tube or flat-tube type? The original round-tube radiator won't cool as efficiently as the aftermarket, flat-tube radiators being manufactured today. The issue is originality vs. function.

Is the front wishbone attached to the top or to the bottom of the front axle? Originally, the front wishbone was attached to the top of the front axle. For reasons of safety related to loss of steering control, that geometry was changed in 1919 by instead attaching the wishbone to the bottom of the axle. Some of the earlier cars have been retrofitted.

Are the thrust washers in the differential made of babbitt or bronze? The original babbitt thrust washers in the differential have not aged well and so developed a tendency to fall apart. When that happens, the firm mesh of gears between the drive shaft and the differential can loosen to the point where the drive-train brake is rendered inoperative and the only remaining means of stopping the car would be the parking brake (unless you happen to have some kind of auxiliary brakes installed on the rear wheels).

Does the car have a Ruckstell rear end? This 2-speed, shiftable differential was one of the few aftermarket items of which Henry Ford approved, and some of Ford's dealers offered this as an option. It's a nice thing to have if you live in a very hilly area or if you're going to be driving in parades. The most serious disadvantage of a Ruckstell is that it can get stuck in neutral between gears and that renders the drive- train brake completely ineffective.

Does the car have Rocky Mountain brakes? If you have a Ruckstell rear end, you need Rocky Mountain Brakes (or some other kind of auxiliary brakes). Rocky Mountain Brakes became available as an aftermarket item in 1917. They improve the Model T Ford's braking ability dramatically, from abominable to bad. Rocky Mountain brakes are of the "self-energizing" type, which means they don't stop very well when the car is rolling backwards. They're also reputed to work badly in wet conditions (and this is why the original drive-train brake, which functions in either direction and in wet conditions, should be retained even when the car is retrofitted with Rocky Mountain brakes).

Some folks have mounted disc brakes to the Model T and that modification is commercially available. Though these are extremely high quality units, that doesn’t change the fact that the car has awfully skinny wheels and when your tires have the same footprint as a shot-glass, the best disc brakes in the world won't stop the car in any shorter distance than the Rocky Mountain type.

Does the car have de-mountable wheels? De-mountable rims became available in 1919 and they make for much simpler and quicker flat tire changes on the road, assuming you're carrying spares. They're not correct on earlier cars, but that hasn't stopped a lot of people from retrofitting brass cars that frequently go on tour.

Does the car have an electric brake tail light and directional signals? In an open car with the top down, you may get away with hand signals, but an enclosed car that is driven in traffic really needs turn signals because hand signals won't be visible to someone on the right side of the car. Either way, at least one brake-light is a must, for obvious reasons.

Does the car have safety glass? Think of the old type of glass windshield as a guillotine. Replacing such panes with safety glass is a must.

When was the last time the car was driven? How often is the car driven? Has it participated in any tours? Active cars tend to be healthier cars. To take an inactive car out of mothballs invariably costs significant bucks.

Buy the best car you can afford. It's almost always cheaper to find and buy the one that's already restored and equipped as you like than it is to buy a basket case and restore it yourself.