Scott Benjamin

Starting and Driving a Ford Model T

A 1923 Ford Model T (Ford Motor Company)

Over the years, I've owned, or had the opportunity to drive, a few cars that I think could best be described as "a handful" to drive. However, after reading a short feature article in the July 2009 edition of Car and Driver titled, How to: Drive a Ford Model T, I now realize that no car I've ever driven can compare. Ford's Model T is a true test of driver skill.

Peering into the cabin of a Ford Model T can be deceptive. It all looks so simple. A steering wheel, three pedals on the floor, a hand brake...there aren't even any gauges on the wooden dash. At first glance, it seems like this car would be easy to just hop in and drive. But oh, would you be wrong...

The pedals aren't in the standard placement that we've grown accustomed to over the last 100 years or so, and in fact, only one of the three pedals does what we might expect from a floor pedal these days. I'm talking about the brake pedal. Yes, the brake pedal stops the car -- but even then, it's in the far-right position (where you would normally find the accelerator pedal). So what are the other two pedals for, you ask? Well, in addition to the brake pedal, you'll find a gear selector pedal that provides first gear (all the way to the floor), neutral (half-way out and used for stopping) and second gear (all the way out). Next to that pedal, you'll find a separate reverse gear pedal. In other words, if you're driving a Model T, you'd better be up for some pretty fancy footwork.

But it's not just your feet that will stay busy in a Model T, your hands will get a pretty good workout, too. Aside from steering the car where you want it to go, with your left hand, you'll be adjusting the firing of the spark plugs (down to advance and up to retard), and with your right hand you'll control the throttle (down to open and up to close).

According to the Car and Driver article, "The odd position of the throttle, brake, and shifter make driving a Model T an archaic and dangerous experience. It's like trying to do the Charleston while loading a musket after a big night at the speak-easy."

But the full Model T experience isn't just about sitting in the driver's seat and, well, driving. Before you can drive it, you have to start it. And, if you ever find yourself behind the wheel of a pre-1919 Model T (prior to being equipped with an electric starter), that can be another challenge. In fact, there's even the very-real risk of breaking an arm each time you start it up -- that is, if the engine backfires.

So, read through these three easy (yes, I'm being sarcastic) steps to starting a Ford Model T that were taken directly from the How to: article in Car and Driver:

1. Pull the choke adjacent to the right fender while engaging the crank lever under the radiator at the front of the car, slowly turning it a quarter-turn clockwise to prime the carburetor with fuel.

2. Get into the car. Insert the ignition key, turning the setting to either magneto or battery. Adjust the timing stalk upward to retard the timing, move the throttle stalk downward slightly for an idle setting, and pull back on the hand brake, which also places the car in neutral.

3. Return to the front of the car. Use your left hand to crank the lever (if the engine backfires and the lever swings counterclockwise, the left arm is less likely to be broken). Give it a vigorous half-crank, and the engine should start.

Wow. See what I mean? The Ford Model T, although it appears extremely simple in design, is deceptively difficult to operate. Even after reading all of this, I think I'd still like to give it a shot. I'm positive that once you have it figured out, the benefits far outweigh the difficulties. And I think you'll agree that anyone skilled enough to be able to drive one of these cars on the road deserves a lot of credit.

More related stuff: How Ford Works 1908-1927 Ford Model T Family Vacations: Henry Ford Museum New Ford Prices & Reviews