Memories of the Model T

Made in America, Odd Collections, People, Traditions
on October 8, 2000

Zipping through Spearfish, S.D., streets in his brightly polished 1923 Model T, Les Schuchardt draws grins and waves. He responds with a toot of the car’s exhaust whistle.

“You always get lots of attention when you run a Model T through town,” Schuchardt, 75, says. “It’s a piece of history—and not only that, but a piece of history built and put to use by people who loved to tinker and experiment.”

Indeed, just as personal computers would do 75 years later, the first Model T Fords in 1909 spawned an American technological movement. Car owners tuned their mechanical skills and imaginations so that they, as much as manufacturer Henry Ford, invented automotive adaptations unimagined a few years earlier.

Schuchardt loves that spirit of ingenuity as much as the cars themselves.

“Sometimes you can’t imagine what they were thinking when they built these cars,” Schuchardt says as he maneuvers into a traffic flow of mostly motorcycles and late model SUVs. “But you have to put your mind back to that time, what life was like and what they had to work with, and it always makes perfect sense.”

For example, both driver and passenger climb into a Model T on the passenger’s side. There’s no driver’s side door. In the era of dirt streets, the passenger’s side represented access from the sidewalk, while the driver’s side would have meant risking mud holes, sloppy splatter from passing vehicles, and horse dung.

And the Model T’s immense popularity—more than 15 million were built and sold from 1909 through 1927—is understandable when you consider the autos that preceded it. The new Fords were lightweight and less likely to get bogged down in all too common mud, holes, and ruts. The Model T had no battery; it was started by the turn of a hand crank and then generated its own current with a magneto. Earlier cars used profuse amounts of oil, but the Model T’s engine seals ended the era of “total loss oil systems.” And the car’s big sales kept prices affordable.

Schuchardt has pondered these matters for 40 years, sometimes on the road, but more often in his garage crammed with antique parts and smelling of oil and grease. A sign on the wall reads “It’s Around Here—Somewhere.”

He’s restored more than two dozen antique autos, a fourth of them Model Ts. “I’ve always been interested in old cars, even as a kid,” he says. “But I didn’t have money for them.”

In the early 1960s he and a pal, Elmer Johnson, decided to splurge and buy a 1928 Chrysler. They had a blast restoring it. Then, in 1967, Johnson died and Schuchardt reassessed his own life. “Elmer didn’t have any more time, and I decided to use my time doing what I like,” he recalls.

Once he made that decision, money no longer seemed an issue. “It’s funny, but every time I bought a car, the money would come from some place,” he says. “Of course, you’d better have a wife who thinks this sort of thing is okay.”

His wife of 56 years, Delores, loves old furniture and other household antiques, so she fully understands her husband’s passion. While she claims no expertise in car restoration, she’s been an extra set of hands in the garage now and then.

“And Delores is a good mingler,” Schuchardt adds. That’s valuable when the couple travels to swap meets across the nation, seeking cars, parts, and accessories. Her mingling resulted in finding a rare treasure a few years back: a 1905, one-cylinder Oldsmobile engine.

“When you ride in a one-cylinder car, you never forget it,” Schuchardt says, “because every time that cylinder goes off, you feel it in the seat of your pants.”

Schuchardt, retired after 35 years with the local power and light company, is well known in Spearfish and the adjacent Black Hills for his encyclopedic knowledge of Model Ts. So it surprises some people to learn the cars he finds most intriguing are those that predated Henry Ford’s mass marvel. Schuchardt has collected and restored cars from the era when no one knew whether steam, electric, or gasoline models would dominate the market. A few of his favorites are a 1900 Mobile Steamer built by the Stanley Brothers, a 1903 Model A Ford (1,700 built, 100 left in existence), and a 1907 Schacht that Schuchardt describes as “a buggy with a motor.”

Impressive as those early vehicles are, the Model T stands in a league of its own for two reasons. First, Ford’s revolutionary concept of standardized, interchangeable parts makes restoration a relative snap. Second, there’s a vast, international community of Model T lovers who stay in touch through swap meets, the Internet, and telephone. Model T owners tend to categorize each other based on stores of parts and accessories, or expertise such as engine mechanics, body construction, or woodworking.

Schuchardt is a member of both the Model T Ford Club International and Model T Ford Club of America. In 1982 he formed a Black Hills Model T Club.

“People always come to us with uses for our cars, which is fun,” says Dwight Miller, Black Hills club member. “We’re part of parades and a lot of weddings.” The Black Hills, he adds, are good for Model Ts “because we have plenty of roads built for scenery, not speed, so traffic putts along and that suits us fine.”

While it requires deep pockets to own certain classic cars, that’s not the case with a Model T.

“You can get a Model T from 1915 to 1927 for $3,000 to $7,000, which is pretty cheap, and that $7,000 T would be a very nice car,” Schuchardt says. He stresses, though, that while big money isn’t a requisite for Model T ownership, knowledge is. “With a Model T, what you need is to know how it runs. If you don’t, you’re in a world of hurt,” he warns.

Miller agrees. “Today, we’re used to everything being automatic. But the driver has to do a lot of work for a Model T,” he says. “The spark advance, for example, is controlled by hand instead of by the distributor.”

If some of the Model T’s components seem crude today, the way they come together to create a smooth, mechanically efficient ride is quite sophisticated. A modern owner can worry about what the Model T lacks—a water pump and fuel pump, for example—and can bypass authenticity by installing them. Or, Schuchardt says, that owner can keep the car in shape and appreciate how a Model T in good running condition doesn’t need fuel or water pumps.

Henry Ford believed cold water in a radiator would go to the bottom, and warm water would rise to the top where it would be cooled by air hitting the front of the moving car.

As for a fuel pump, with the gas tank located under the seat—higher than the carburetor—gravity fed fuel to the engine. Climbing a steep hill when low on gas put the carburetor higher than the gas supply, so drivers solved the problem by driving uphill backward.

So what is it about cars that prompts people to care for and celebrate them so? Nostalgia, says Dennis Naasz, president of the National Impala Association. “A lot of people had a car when they were young, then sold it, had kids, put the kids through college, and now they wish they had that original car back.”

People usually define classic cars by what they knew in their youth, Schuchardt agrees. But even as fewer and fewer folks recall the Model T from when it could be purchased factory-direct, its place likely will remain secure in the hearts of collectors. It was considered affordable and a joy to tinker with 80 years ago. Amazingly, it retains both qualities today. Humming down the road, it’s a living tribute to an essential part of the American spirit.