You Are At: AllSands Home > History > Objects > Henry Ford's Model T car
At the turn of the century cars were made for rich people. Henry Ford had the idea that if he could make a car cheaply enough, it could be purchased by any laborer with a regular income. The problem was that in order to reach this goal, Ford had to streamline his manufacturing process down to the very basics. This meant that if Henry could save a half penny a unit on a car by creating a mechanical nightmare for the driver or repair guy, he did it.

One of Henry's ideas was that if you put the gas tank right under the driver's seat, the "trickle down" method would let the gas reach the engine using just a few inches of fuel line. This worked fine when the car was driving on level road, but at the turn of the century, when there were only about 54 miles of pavement in the whole of the United States, most Model Ts encountered some pretty nasty hills.

If the hill was moderate and the gas tank full, then the top of the gas, even when tilted upward never dipped lower than the engine. Gravity worked fine. But if the tank was less than full and the hill was steeper than a few degrees, the engine would go up the hill first and starve the gas tank trailing behind. The engine stalled and couldn't be started until back on level ground.

Ford made a lot of compromises with owner comfort and convenience. If you bought a Model T truck, for example, you got four wheels attached to a metal frame with an engine bolted on it. Pretty much everything else was extra. You did get a steering wheel and a single seat. Ford graciously offered pedals to operate the truck, but there was no truck bed, no wind shield, no horn, no spare tire, no cab, no repair kit, not even an owners manual. It was like a do-it-yourself truck.

Ford owners had to make their own way which meant that many applied bicycle horns to the hood and strapped gas and water tanks on the running boards. Whole industries developed to supply the deficiencies Ford built into the T. Of course, most other model cars had gas pumps which solved the hill problem, but that was an extra Henry thought of as superfluous and costly.

Most steep hills had turn-around areas at their base. Traffic was not what it is today, but even so, having cars turn around in the middle of the road created some problems, even back then. In reverse, the Model T actually had better traction than in the lowest forward mode. I was tempted to say, "gear," but the Model T didn't have gears. Too expensive to make. Instead, the T used something called the "Planetary" transmission which utilized leather belts to deliver the power. The forward belts got a lot of wear, but the reverse belts were relatively tight and so gave better traction for uphill pulls.

This strange mechanical anomoly on the Model T was not lost on early movie producers who loved to feature car chases between the cops, driving overloaded Model Ts, and the robbers naturally driving get-away cars equipt with the lastest in fuel pumps. The robbers scooted merrily up the hill and over the horizon, but just as the cops reached the steepest part of the hill, their T's bands would begin to slip, the engine would stall, and the car would wobble down the hill backwards scattering on-coming traffic as they went. It is odd to think that Henry Ford, with not a drop of humor in him, could have given rise to such hilarity.