February 1994

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Starting Model T Fords


John Rezelman

Index of articles by John Rezelman

About two hundred years ago, if you wanted to go for a drive in your own vehicle, you climbed aboard and, with that subtle communication of touch between horse's mouth and horseman's hand, you alerted your horse to expect a command and reminded him—"take notice, horse"—that you were in charge. Then you slackened the reins and made an appropriate sound—maybe "get up," or maybe just a barely audible cluck. In response to this the trained beast set his four legs in motion and you were under way. Very, very simple.

Today we slide into our car and turn the key in the switch. The motor roars to life—most times, anyway—and we're off. Simpler yet? Not really. A look under the hood at all the devices, hoses and wires crammed in there will remind you that this apparent simplicity is actually very, very complex.

In the time intervening between these two contrasts there was an extended period when starting an automobile was a more involved, yet quite standardized, procedure. That period varied in duration with different makes of car. I will confine my reminiscences that follow to the Model T Ford. Fords remained basically unchanged year after year, the longest of any. In my boyhood where I lived there seemed to be more Fords than any other make, hence it was with Fords that I had most experience. The other makes operated similarly at some briefer times in their history.

The way you began was, first, to "give 'er a little gas." The inflow of gasoline and the timing of the spark were regulated by two iron levers sliding along two iron quarter-circles mounted on the steering column and notched for calibration. With the gas lever you opened the throttle, say, three notches on the quadrant. You also retarded the spark by moving the other lever down about three notches too, so it would not fire prematurely during the starting process.

Then you left the driver's seat and moved outside to the front of the vehicle. There you would find a little wire with a ring on its end, protruding near the bottom of the radiator. That controlled the choke. Using it, you closed the choke. Now you were ready to "turn 'er over."

The electrical source on the Model T was a magneto, an imposing array of magnets arranged around the perimeter of the flywheel. With a Model T as it came off the assembly line, you were in theory supposed to be able to "start 'er on the mag," meaning that the spark generated by the magneto was expected, all by its sometimes-feeble self, to ignite whatever gasoline mixture entered the sometimes deathly-cold cylinder. Hah! Hah! again, producing "Hah hah!" In fact, you could really do this—under ideal conditions, such as a hot day, a well warmed-up engine, oil free-flowing and gasoline vaporizing instantly. Otherwise, forget it. Sometimes, of course, you could still do it due to those inexplicable, unpredictable whims that were standard equipment on the T-Fords. These whims sometimes made things happen that, by the best of logic and reason, shouldn't happen. But not often.

While this electrical source produced more or less of a spark, it could not go so far, of course, as to turn over the engine. Human muscle applied to the crank had to do that. So, to get on with starting, you engaged the hand crank with the crankshaft by means of a primitive, spring-loaded toothed clutch. There was a certain way you held the crank, nullifying the opposable aspect of the human thumb so that, in the event of a kick-back your hand would be flung free instead of your arm broken. Everybody knew somebody who'd had a broken arm from cranking a car. First you tried by cranking in quarter-turns. You pulled it through a quarter-turn, then released and reengaged, ratchet-fashion, and so on. Rarely on the first pull, but often after only a few, the engine responded. "Ooh-huck, ooh-huck, ooh-huck" it said a few times. Then the pop of an explosion. You hoped this would be followed by more pops in rapid, steady succession, telling you "she's running."

Quickly now, with a speed motivated by experience and desperation, you let go the crank and went for the choke wire, before you "flooded 'er." With a sensitive touch and ear acquired by experience you eased the air intake open until the carburetor was successfully handling a full in-draft of air. Now you could mount the driver's seat, advance the spark to full and apply yourself to getting under motion.

The foregoing scenario worked if all went reasonably well. Sometimes it did. Sometimes it didn't.

If, for example, several quarter-turn crankings produced no firing, you tried "spinning 'er." To do this you grabbed the crank, same grip, braced yourself and laid into it, turning full circles, a lot of them, by keeping the crank engaged. Sometimes this worked.

If the car had been standing in cold weather so the engine metal was thoroughly chilled you learned better than to waste time trying, but went straight to the remedies. You draped the intake manifold with a pile of rags on which you poured very hot water from a teakettle, thoroughly soaking them. The water heated the iron and the rags held in the heat, or some of it, so that any gasoline going through would be coaxed into a more explosive state.

But that still wouldn't do it if the spark produced by your efforts at the crank, hampered by cold-thickened, semi-congealed oil, were insufficient. This was so often the case that it was a common practice to augment the spark at this stage with a "hot shot." A "hot shot" was a six-volt dry-cell battery wired to the ignition coils which, in the model T Ford, were encased in a handsomely-crafted little wooden box. Supplemented by a "hot shot" the magneto could usually ignite gasoline vapor.

The Ford assembly line, by the way, unabashedly and without apology, turned out vehicles whose performance could be improved by the addition of supplemental devices like the "hot shot." Ford's objective was to produce a car so cheaply that the greatest number of people could afford to acquire one. If this objective could be furthered, as it was, by omitting parts, then leave 'em off seemed to be Ford philosophy-provided the car would run at least some of the time without them, which it did. Along this line, the Model T had no fuel pump and no water pump, for example. Gravity and convection were relied on for these functions. (Yes, you really did have to climb some steep hills in reverse gear.) If you wanted such refinements you could add them from outside sources. There was a whole separate industry making and selling parts to beef up and refine the Model T. Ford made sure you didn't have to pay for them if you didn't want them, selling you only the essentials, as cheaply as possible. If you wanted to get fancy, that was up to you, on your own.

If, after using the stratagems so far discussed your car still wouldn't start, hope was not thereby extinguished. If you could reach a hill that you could descend—Model T Fords were not very heavy to push—you could send it rolling on down and perform the equivalent of "popping the clutch"—only you couldn't call it that because your Model T had no clutch. It had bands instead, activated by foot pedals. They called that a "planetary transmission." By the way again-you could not ease a Model T into motion ever so smoothly and gently, as you could some other cars. When those bands took hold they did so decisively. You were shot forward like a runner from a sprint start. It was not for nothing that the Ford car of that comic-strip character of the time, Harold Teen, was called "Leaping Lena." This was just another endearing eccentricity of this most popular conveyance.

It was axiomatic, absolute gospel, that you could always, somehow, with enough effort, start a reasonably complete Model T. If everything up to this point had failed, however, further attempts were on a higher level, a more drastic, dangerous one smacking somewhat of folklore and involving acts like jacking up and spinning a rear wheel or building strategic bonfires. This level separated the men from the boys. In my case, ever-easier-to-start cars coming on the market spared me from ever having to progress beyond the boy stage, so I can't tell you any more. As far as starting Model T Fords is concerned, I never became a man and I can't honestly say I lament that.

Other cars of the times were not so different at some point in their history; they just were quicker to adopt such refinements as the "self-starter," a cranking motor powered by a wet storage battery serviced by a generator. They didn't stay in an equivalent stage as long as did Ford. They, too, needed rags and hot water on the manifold, but when newer ways of doing things came along they were quick to adopt them rather than clinging to unvarying ultra-simplicity.

Before the Model T ceased production and gave way to the Ford Model A, its cars of the 1927 year came with a "self starter." The Model A that appeared in 1928 was a whole new and different product. It had a starter and lots more. But for the Model T this was a last-ditch concession, reluctantly arrived at, as it was not truly representative of that wonderful car everyone knew you could buy in any color—so long as it was black.

© 1994, John Rezelman
Index to articles by John Rezelman
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