KALAMAZOO, Mich. – In today’s modern-day automotive world, there are drivers, and there are drivers. Millions of people drive millions of cars millions of miles every day all across America and all over the world. Most of those people drive mundane vehicles with the sole purpose of getting from one place to another. Those folks are drivers simply because they need to get somewhere. They really don’t care much about the vehicle they drive beyond its functionality. And to them, the actual act of driving can be a stressful chore, a necessary evil, just to afford them the ability to get from Point A to Point B.
For the rest of us drivers, the act of driving is fun. It’s empowering. It can even be exhilarating. We drive specialty vehicles that are stylish and powerful and that could even be considered an extension of our own personalities. During the process of owning and driving our vehicles, we often develop an emotional attachment to them. We are drivers because we want control of when and how we travel. We prefer to be drivers, and NOT to be passengers. We simply cannot imagine a world where we can’t just hop into our own car and go wherever we care to go.
But it wasn’t always this way. Just before the turn of the last century, automobiles were an expensive novelty experienced only by the rich. Their cost and complexity made the purchase and maintenance of an automobile far outside of the realm of the average consumer. Much of the driving was done by hired chauffeurs and rarely by the vehicle owner. But Henry Ford changed all of that with the development of his Model T in 1908.
Thanks to the Model T’s simple, sturdy and basic design, plus Ford’s invention of the moving assembly line, Ford Motor Company was able to drive production costs so low and volume so high that a new personal-mobility vehicle in the form of the Ford Model T was now a reality for the average working man. The rest, as they say, is history, as Ford went on to essentially put the world on wheels.
Over the following decades, automobiles kept evolving in design, engineering and technology until reaching today’s remarkable levels of safety, reliability, comfort, fuel efficiency and ease of operation. Well-developed controls and modern technology have helped to make the process of driving far simpler and intuitive than even Henry Ford could ever have imagined in his wildest dreams.
But if you’ve ever gotten up-close-and-personal with a Ford Model T, you’ve likely noticed an array of pedals, levers and switches that don’t look anything at all normal to the operation of a motor vehicle. In fact, compared to what most of us know about driving the average car or truck, the controls needed to drive a Model T look downright confusing. Working the throttle, applying the brakes and shifting gears aren’t anything like what we’ve ever seen – and it’s not even remotely like trying to learn how to drive car with just a manual transmission. We’re not talking about mastering a “Three on The Tree” or even a “Four on the Floor.” We’re talking about trying to understand very different ways on getting the vehicle to start, accelerate, shift, and stop. Even for a seasoned car enthusiast, learning how to drive a Model T can be a humbling experience. Here at Ford Performance, we thought it might be fun to share with you what it’s like to go back in time and see if a modern-day driver can block out how today’s cars work and muster the knowledge and skills needed to pilot a Model T.
Luckily for us, The Gilmore Car Museum in Hickory Corners, Michigan (just outside Kalamazoo, about halfway between Detroit and Chicago) gives visitors a unique level of interaction with antique cars, including a driver's training class to teach people of any age to learn how to drive a Ford Model T. Here, you get help figuring out all the idiosyncrasies of this famed automobile.
From the crank starter to the three different foot pedals (no gas pedal!) to the column-mounted throttle control, the Gilmore’s driving school teaches you all about driving and operating an authentic Model T that Ford built between 1908 and 1927, right out of the museum’s fleet of vintage vehicles. Each class lasts a few hours and will soon have you driving along some 2.5 miles of paved roads on the Gilmore Museum’s historic campus with an experienced instructor.
While it was a work assignment for us, it’s easy to see how this would be a truly fun and memorable hands-on experience that’s perfect for multi-generational family groups, car friends, couples, corporate team-building sessions, or anyone who wants to take a step back in time and learn how to drive one of the 15 million “Tin Lizzies” built by Ford over 100 years ago.
Class groups are small (less than 20 students at a time, and all must be pre-registered), and fewer than a dozen sessions are available each year, usually running once a month from May through September. You need a valid driver’s license and must wear practical shoes. (The cars are controlled with foot pedals that are situated very close to each other, so flip-flops, sandals, high heels or work boots could cause you some real problems while driving!) Registration runs $105 per student, and includes admission to the entire campus of the Gilmore Car Museum for the day, as well as a historian-guided tour in portions of the Museum Collection with lessons on Henry Ford and how the Model T changed the world. You also get a souvenir Model T booklet (produced exclusively for the Gilmore Car Museum) plus a “Certificate of Completion” suitable for framing.
On the surface, the skills needed to operate the oh-so-basic Model T compared to that of today’s complex vehicles may seem like child’s play. After all, the Model T has an internal combustion engine in the front, a rear-drive powertrain and a steering wheel -- so what could possibly go wrong? We would soon find out.
Our day of attending the Model T driving course at the Gilmore began inside the museum where all attendees get the official tour of the facility. Special attention is given to the display areas for early automobiles offered prior to the mass-produced Model T in 1908. Most of these vehicles were hand-built with the wealthy owner in mind, where luxury and comfort were paramount.
Shortly after the indoor tour, everyone heads outside where a stripped-down Model T chassis was on display. This portion of the day was of the most beneficial part of the session for us, because it was the first time we were able to clearly see the basics of the Model T’s mechanical layout, which made understanding how all the levers and floor pedals work. The course instructor took time answer questions from nervous onlookers who quickly realized driving a Model T is going to be completely different than driving a modern car.
For starters, there are those three floor pedals. Sure, drivers of any car equipped with a manual transmission would expect to find three floor pedals, but then the instructor explained that none of them serves as the gas pedal. The left pedal is multi-functional to allow the Model T to move forward. One might call this the clutch pedal – except that you push this pedal down all the way to the floor for low gear, which is used when starting. Releasing this pedal while driving allows “high-speed” driving -- at a swift 35 mph in high-gear. Holding this “clutch” pedal half-way down puts the Model T in Neutral, which is needed for idling.
The middle pedal was the hardest to grasp, since it served as the Model T’s reverse gear. The class had the most trouble adapting to the proper use of the reverse pedal because it sits in the same position of the brake pedal in today’s modern vehicles. To confuse things even more, the far right pedal serves as the vehicle’s brake pedal which sits directly where the gas pedal is found in today’s vehicles.
Also located on the floor to the left of the driver is the dual-purpose, hand-operated Emergency Brake and Clutch Release. Pulled all the way back toward the driver, it serves as the parking brake. But pushing the handle half-way into a vertical position is another way to put the car into Neutral, which is essential for stopping and reversing. Moving the handle all the way toward the driver’s feet puts the Model T fully in Drive for the high-speed driving.
Moving up from the floor to the steering wheel, all seems somewhat familiar. The Model T’s steering wheel itself is lined with wood and is supported by four metal spokes. But unlike modern cars, the two levers behind the steering wheel that come out of the left and right side of the steering column are not for what you think. Those levers in the Model T certainly “muddy the waters” for a person who typically uses those components found in a modern vehicle for the turn indicator and windshield wipers. In the Model T, the left lever is the “spark advance” which allows for a smooth start, while the right-side lever feeds gas to the engine as the throttle.
The next step in the class was to break up into groups and take turns riding in the Model T while watching an instructor use all the pedals and the hand brake. There were a few different Model T’s on hand for the class to drive, and the interesting part was they were all built using the same process but they all drive very differently. The instructors made the driving experience look so easy . . . but then it came time for the class attendees to try their hand at driving.
Once the ride-and-drives are completed with the instructor behind the wheel, attendees hop in the driver’s seat for the first attempt at putting everything they saw into motion. After going through low and high gears for slow and fast driving, the instructors then have all the drivers learn how to stop and put the Model T into reverse. This step is where many of the mistakes surfaced, since the natural reaction is to revert back to muscle memory of pedal usage in today’s vehicles. The most common mistake was not reducing throttle when approaching stopping zones, and drivers pushing the reverse (middle) pedal to try and slow down. The result was blowing through stop signs and even driving off the road into the brush, forcing drivers to regain their composure before trying to get back onto the pavement.
The Model T driving experience has often been referred to as a “dance,” as it takes practice and a bit of finesse to get the car rolling, stopping, reversing and cruising smoothly. Many people who attended the class stalled their Model T’s out before they moved even an inch, while others lurched off into the brush after forgetting about the brake pedal positon. All in all, we have to admit that while at the core, the Model T is a very simple machine, it was the most difficult vehicle we’ve ever attempted to operate.
Perhaps we are spoiled with all the intuitive controls and technology that we have in today’s cars, which make them so easy to operate that people think they can still drive safely while using their cell phones or engaging in other distractions. It’s a far cry from the problems associated with driving a Model T in 1908, with rutted, muddy trails and no real paved roads to navigate, and all of the concentration needed to manipulate the mechanical inputs that make the car go.
We rarely worry about breakdowns and flat tires these days thanks to modern vehicle reliability and tire technology. (AAA road service is only a cell call away, and it’s even true that some cars today no longer even carry a spare tire!). But many owners of the Model T didn’t have to just learn how to drive it, but also how to repair it out on the road, serving as their own mechanics when a part broke or a tire popped when bounding down the lane.
After getting a taste of what it takes to drive a Ford Model T, we can say we have new respect for the drivers of those 15 million “Tin Lizzies” more than a century ago, and a much better appreciation of the years of innovation and advances in the automobile since Henry Ford first put everyman on wheels.
NOTE: Click HERE https://www.gilmorecarmuseum.org/education/model-t-driving-school/ for more information on the Gilmore Model T Driving School. For email notification of 2019 course dates, send an email to info@GilmoreCarMuseum.com and ask to be added to the driving school info roster announcement, due out in late November 2018.)
FORD PERFORMANCE STAFF PHOTOS / COURTESY TRENTON ZEISLER