T is for totally awesome

One of the perks of being a carpenter is that you make friends with lots of grateful people who have interesting toys.

I am not a carpenter. My friend (Zack)'s dad (Alan) is, however. And he has interesting clients. For example:

Last night I got a phone call. Zack said that one of Alan's customers had, in honor of Alan's fifty-somethingth birthday, lent Alan his 1923 Model-T Ford convertible. Did I want a ride? Yes I did.

So this morning, my parents and I stopped by and climbed into an unrestored Model-T roadster. If you know about Model-Ts, you may remember that they start with a crank. This one, however, has an aftermarket electric starter. To operate, simply flip the toggle switch on the dashboard (causing a loud buzzing somewhere beneath you), advance the spark, and depress the floor-mounted starter switch until engine fires up. Then adjust the throttle, engage gear, and begin steering.

"Engage gear" is a deceptive phrase though. Like any manual-transmission car, the Model-T has three pedals beneath the steering wheel. You would think that, from left to right, these are the 1.) clutch, 2.) brake, and 3.) accelerator. You would be wrong.

In fact, the Model-T predates any standardized arrangement of automobile controls. From left to right, the pedals are actually 1.) gear selector (down=low, halfway=neutral, up=high), 2.) reverse, and 3.) brake. Where's the accelerator? It's a lever on the right-hand side of the steering column, slightly above the horn—where you'd expect to find the windshield wipers on a Volvo, or the gear-shift on most American cars.

Make sense? Right. We started off by riding a slow circuit around the cemetery next to Zack's house—Alan driving. It occured to me that we were probably driving OVER people who knew much more about the car than we did, but it did not feel macabre: the day was brilliant and the cemetery leafy.

On to the road. In first gear, the Model-T sounds like a tractor: the engine blusters and the drivetrain makes yawning noises. (In fact, they were so rugged that, when they went out of fashion, people actually used them as tractors.) Second (high) gear is a different story. The ratio gap is so great that, when the car is spooled up like a biplane in low gear, shifting to high reduces engine speed to an idle. Hills require downshifts. All hills.

We idled through the little two-store, two-church village near Zack's house, then drove out a narrow road along the shore. Since it's right on the water, the sides of the road have sprouted trophy homes the way a basement sprouts fungus; we ogled them from a car older than the road itself.

It's certainly the best way to see the coast. You sit higher up than you do in most SUVs; the seats feel surprisingly comfortable; and you have an unobstructed view on all sides: even the windshield opens. If you don't mind the vibration and the noise and the smoke coming out of the dashboard—and you don't—it's the best ride you've ever had. A neighbor even handed us a loaf of her banana bread as we rolled by.

Something happened between 1923 and whenever I started to be aware of cars. I've always loved them, but I've never thought of automobiles as anything but necessary tools—rolling appliances—that can occasionally double as toys. To ride through a familiar place in a car like the Model-T is a revelation: here, for a change, is a car that is not ashamed of itself—a car that does not hide its noise and smoke, or the bumps over which it rattles, or the air through which it moves. Here is a car that takes pride from being a car, not a car that apologizes for it—sorry!—muffles and dampens its car-ness, and masquerades as a leather lounge suite with SurroundSound.

It is a car—the very car, in fact—that made ordinary people first want cars—before they had cars, that is—before they realized they needed cars to do all those other important things. A car made before cars themselves, in the face of all those other important things, quietly took a back seat.


11 Responses to “T is for totally awesome”

  1. 1 Jen June 19, 2006 at 10:06 pm

    That post was positively transporting. Also, capital use of the word “leafy.” Capital.


  2. 2 alden June 19, 2006 at 10:13 pm

    do you mean “LEAFY”?

  3. 3 Jen June 20, 2006 at 1:16 am

    Yes! That is what I was looking for. Two points!

  4. 4 Joe June 20, 2006 at 2:34 am

    Excellent! You should come visit me and I will convince my dad to give you a ride in his MGTD roadster.

  5. 5 canora June 22, 2006 at 3:41 am


    Question, which is not on the topic if Model Ts, although you should check out the show (and i know you don’t want TV but my housemates do) called Fast Inc. It is about 3 guys who get peopel any car they want super fast, it is hilarious and hte other day they dug up Model Ts in the desert.

    Anyways, that was not the point of my comment. I am wondering what theme you are using and if you are using a custom header image. Because I have only found one theme that lets me do a custom header image but I’m not psyched about the rest of the theme.

  6. 6 alden June 22, 2006 at 12:51 pm

    It’s called “Regulus 2.1.3.” I like it enough but not a lot. I’m a fan of the links on the side and the separate pages listed in the header. I think it’s too cluttered, however, and also think the body area (where we’re typing now) could be wider.

    You set the image by choosing “custom settings” (or whatever) under “presentation.” The image has to be 730 x 140 px and has to be hosted remotely.

    The image itself is a portion of “The Mail Boat” by William Hekking (1885-1970), which is, in fact, for sale.

  7. 7 Mary Beth June 22, 2006 at 6:41 pm

    Alden, quit trying to sell us things. You know we’re all poor college graduates with no money for frivolities like ART! 😛

  8. 8 Jen June 23, 2006 at 12:09 am

    I know, seriously! I was sitting in lecture today writing down like the 57th book that I wanted to read slash needed to read in order to be well-read and succeed in the publishing industry, and then I realized (sadly) that I was never actually going to be able to afford to buy any of these books.

    The upside is that I’ve gotten three free books already!

  9. 9 Sam June 23, 2006 at 2:13 am

    Well, if you’re short on cash, you could always beg for money. Of course, it helps if you’ve got a little of this goin’ on.
    Anyways, Alden, I very much enjoyed hearing about your grand day out, and it reminded me of all of the driving of unfamiliar cars that I’ve been doing lately…of course, in my case I am helping my parents test-drive mid-size sedans around suburban New Jersey, which is both decidedly less novel and less picturesque (although I can definitely identify with the sprouting trophy homes).

  10. 10 Joseph Shoer June 23, 2006 at 7:09 pm

    Dear Jen,

    Public libraries are the shiznit.


  11. 11 jenlinnan June 26, 2006 at 2:16 am

    Public libraries, however, do not get you a personal library that requires tall stepladders. WEAP.

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