As one of Ford’s earliest models, the Model T offers a significantly different driving experience than modern cars.
It’s standard operating procedure for today’s automakers to lend their newest vehicles to members of the press, and beyond providing important information for shoppers, the resulting reviews can fill another role: giving folks a taste of cars they may not otherwise get to experience for themselves.
But for a company’s oldest vehicles, it helps to know someone like Bob Skingley. He’s a member of the Detroit-area “Piquette T’s” club, which supports preservation efforts at the first Model T plant, located on Piquette Avenue in the Motor City. He was also nice enough to volunteer both his 1913 Runabout and his patience for a recent driving lesson.
The Starting Point
The Ford Fiesta is the smallest and least expensive car currently sold by Blue Oval dealerships, but even here, some models can be started by merely pressing a button, and without even having to take the key from your pocket to get inside. Now, you don’t need a key to get into the Model T either, but that’s because it doesn’t have door locks (or a door on the driver’s side, for that matter). As for the actual starting process, it’s a lesson in everything modern-day cars do automatically, from adjusting the fuel-air mixture and ignition timing to the ignition itself. Indeed, according to the Model T’s instruction manual, one of the first things drivers needed to do was make sure their gasoline was free of debris and other material. By straining it. Through a clean chamois skin.
When you’re ready to fire up the Model T, well, it helps to have a strong left arm. The first automatic starter was introduced in 1912 by Cadillac, but it wasn’t patented until 1915, and none was available for Skingley’s 1913 Runabout. Cold-starting the car requires an old-fashioned hand crank and a combination of care and practice. It’s a bit like starting a typical lawn mower, where pulling the starting cord gets the engine spinning to initiate the combustion cycle.
The proper procedure in the Model T relies on a ratchet-style motion, though. If you’re facing the car, you begin with the crank at roughly 9 o’clock and pull it over the top to the 3 o’clock position. If it’s necessary to re-crank, you go counterclockwise from 3 o’clock back to 9 o’clock instead of continuing in a clockwise fashion. You’ll also want to use your left arm and hand without wrapping your thumb around the handle, to avoid snapping any bones if the engine backfires.
Moving Out in the Model T
Here’s the thing about climbing up into the Model T: You’re really climbing up. The seat is roughly 43.5 inches off the ground. To put that into context, the seat in a typical compact car is about 18 inches off the ground, and compact crossovers, like the Ford Escape, have seating positions that are about 26 inches high. The result is you’re sitting at about head height compared to most of today’s cars, with an excellent view of the road once you get going.
You need to unlearn much about modern-day driving to start moving, however. The Model T’s basic controls include three pedals (clutch, reverse and brake), two steering-wheel levers (for timing and throttle) and one floor-mounted parking-brake lever. There is a standard speedometer/odometer, but that’s way over in front of the passenger, and Skingley’s car has a period-correct aftermarket clock just down and to the left. (Also on view in the photos are the coil box and coil switch, to help provide the spark for ignition, and that thing that looks like a plunger is for adjusting the carburetor.)
With the engine on and timing set with the left steering-wheel lever, you release the parking brake and press in on the left-most pedal, which is the clutch. Pushing it all the way down engages the car’s low gear, and you’re off at a comfortable pace. Initially, it feels a bit like the left pedal is the gas, because of the way the vehicle responds. You click the throttle stalk downward to go faster, and at about 10 to 15 mph, you can shift into the car’s only other forward gear. The parking brake, which has two positions, has to be all the way forward, and then when you take your foot off the clutch, the Model T’s planetary transmission “automatically” goes into high gear. Just don’t forget to adjust the throttle right beforehand, the way you’d lift off the gas when shifting a standard manual transmission.
The Driving Experience
Skingley also pilots small planes, and he aptly compares that to driving the Model T. There’s a visceral, connected feeling you get when behind the wheel of the Runabout that’s very different from the feeling experienced with modern cars. Today, automakers and owners alike put a particular premium on quiet cabins. Thus, cars like the Ford Fusion can even produce unnoticed, electronic sound waves designed to cancel out unwanted interior noises.
In the Model T Runabout, especially with its top down, you feel as if you’re driving on the car as well as driving in it. Acceleration from its four-cylinder, 22.5-horsepower engine is relatively brisk, at least up to its roughly 35 mph top end, and the steering is lightning quick. Skingley says the Runabout has a 4:1 steering ratio, so every 4 degrees of steering-wheel movement leads to 1 degree of change on the road. That steering ratio is more than four times faster than that of the 2016 Ford Shelby GT350 Mustang, which relies on responsive steering for its track-friendly handling and has a 16.5:1 ratio.
The Runabout also gives the Shelby a surprising run for its money in another measure: the “wow” factor. Although that sort of hi-po muscle car has a way of attracting a crowd, the Model T set a new personal benchmark for this reviewer for on-road conversations – both from other drivers and from folks just wandering into the street when the car came to a stop.