Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales


by Norris Chambers

   We called it the graveyard. Back in the pasture, past the hog pen and stock tank, we started collecting old Model T Fords. They were easy to find in those days of the early thirties. When a family bought a new car, they usually gave the old Model T away, or dragged it out in the pasture and left it. There was no demand for them, and they had no trade value when purchasing a new auto. So Clifton and I took a couple of mules and pulled them in to our graveyard. I never bought but one - and it cost $6.00. But it was in good condition. Most of the others that occupied a grave space had a serious problem of some sort. But they were fun to play with. In the days of no computer games or expensive toys, we played with what we could find. With tools from our blacksmith shop, we tore them up and put them together. We knew just about every bolt and part in a Model T.

  A common fate for a Model T was to become a "strip-down" and have its life extended for a time. I will give instructions for stripping down a Model T for those of you who have one and would like to enter that phase of travel. The first thing we did was remove the bolts holding the body on the frame, and tumble the body off of the chassis. Usually the steering column was removed to make removing the body easier. This left the frame with the engine and radiator in place. On the later model version, the gasoline tank came off with the body, and another mounting had to be improvised. The next step was to shorten the frame. This was easy because it tapered, and when a section was cut out, the smaller frame slipped inside the larger and a couple of bolts on each side held it snugly in place. Coupling the differential to the transmission required sawing off the drive shaft into a very short piece and heating it in the forge, When it was red hot, we could hammer the sawed off end into a square that would fit into the transmission. With this piece in place, the rear wheels were about a foot behind the transmission and that left a really short auto. Of course the steering wheel had to be shortened. This was also easy to do. The housing was sawed to the desired length, and the rod inside the housing was shortened to fit. This was done by sawing out a section with a hack saw and welding the ends together. This was necessary because you were sitting on the frame with a very low seat, usually made out of old lumber or two single seats from another old car that had individual front seats. The gasoline tank was located behind the seats, just about on top of the rear wheels. If a pickup type bed was desired for light hauling, it was placed behind the rear wheels. But this was usually not necessary.

  Strip downs were very fast, and the brake worked better than on a full size car because the lighter weight was easier to stop. The brake was essentially a flat faced wheel on the drive shaft with a band that tightened when the pedal was depressed. The low weight, of course, was what gave all the additional speed. In most cases a muffler was not installed, so they were very noisy. Tires would last indefinitely because of the weight, but usually were fitted with discards from the junk pile.

  The Model T transmission was a unique piece of machinery. It was built into the same pan assembly that covered the engine rods, flywheel, etc. It had three pedals on the floorboard. The left one, when depressed, was a low gear. The middle one was the reverse gear. The right one was the brake. When any pedal was depressed, it tightened a band around a flat wheel in the transmission, and when it stopped, gears were automatically engaged. The brake wheel was directly on the output drive shaft, and was intended to stop the car by slowing the drive shaft and causing the rear wheels to stop the car. The brakes were not very good, but served the purpose because of the slow speed of the automobile. A hand brake on the left side of the driver put the transmission in a neutral position when pulled back to the first detent. The low pedal did the same thing when depressed about half of the way down.

  The same oil that oiled the engine also oiled the transmission. Three valves, spaced about two inches apart on the transmission portion of the pan determined the oil level. If the oil ran out of the top, it was full. If it ran out the middle, it had plenty of oil. If it ran at the bottom, you could add oil if you wanted to. If it didn't run at the bottom, it was considered necessary to add oil. You could crawl under the vehicle with a pair of pliers to make the test or you could acquire a rod that fit the valves and made it possible to test the oil by stooping and sticking the rod over the valves and turning a half turn to open or close.

  Gasoline was measured by a similarly basic system. A stick inserted into the filler opening and withdrawn showed the fluid level. Free advertising sticks were available that were marked in gallons for most popular cars. The Model A, introduced in 1928, had the gasoline tank mounted in front of the windshield over the engine, and had a sight gauge on the instrument panel. The gas tank was moved to that position in the 1926 and 1927 model T's, but no gauge was installed.

  The Model T did not have a water pump. Water in the radiator and engine block circulated by heat. Water entered the engine at the bottom and the heated liquid was discharged into the radiator at the top by hot water rising. A fan behind the radiator tended to keep the engine from boiling, except in extremely hot weather. Most Model T users carried a can of water for emergencies.

  Earlier T's did not have a starter, but in the early twenties a battery, generator and starter were added. The earlier autos were cranked by means of a crank connected directly to the crankshaft.

  A magneto provided power for ignition and for the lights. The same magneto was used in 1926 and 1927 T's, but had a selector switch for battery or magneto use. It was customary to start the car on battery power and switch to magneto. The magneto furnished a stronger spark and better lights because the voltage and power output was higher.

  The magneto was attached to the flywheel at the rear end of the engine, and ran entirely immersed in oil. It consisted of a ring of horseshoe magnets turning inside a series of coils connected in series. The output of the coils was brought out to a post on top of the flywheel housing. The negative side was grounded to the frame.

  The ignition system used four vibrating spark coils mounted in a box above the engine. Each coil output was connected to a spark plug and the control wires went to a timer on the cam shaft. The timer was nothing more than four contacts in a housing. The grounding roller on the cam shaft passed over each contact, and at that time the coil for the timed cylinder vibrated and generated a spark about three fourths to an inch long. The timing was controlled by a lever on the left side of the steering column that rotated the timer housing to advance or retard the ignition. It was very important to retard the spark when hand cranking, otherwise the cylinders kicked back and spun the crank in reverse. Many arms were broken by this handle kicking back and hitting the arm. When the engine was in operation, the spark was advanced as far as possible for better performance and gas mileage.

  On the right side of the steering column was the gas lever. It was connected to the output of the carburetor, and when pulled down allowed more vapor to enter the cylinders. The carburetor itself was very simple. Just a metal bowl with a float valve to prevent overflowing and a needle valve to vaporize the gasoline as the engine suction pulled it through and into the cylinders. This needle valve was adjustable from the dash by turning the choke rod. When pulled, the rod closed the air intake of the carburetor and caused more gasoline to be drawn into the engine. The valve could be adjusted for best performance when driving.

  Model T's came in about four body styles - open touring cars with canvas top, coupe or two seated sedans with roll-up windows, roadsters with open sides and canvas top and trucks. The 1926 model was the first that had replaceable rims, allowing a spare to be carried for emergency flats. Before this, a flat tire meant patching and hand pumping. That same year brought balloon tires. Tires before that were 30 inches in diameter and 3-1/2" wide.

Author's strip-down Model T tractor

  Old Model T's served many useful purposes after they were no longer used for transportation. They could easily be adapted to pump water, saw wood or serve as a tractor to plow in the field. Kits were sold for converting automobiles to tractors, but many country blacksmiths or mechanics did their own converting, using two transmissions from other vehicles and a Model T Truck differential and wheels. These tractors were pretty efficient and gave good service. The first Ford tractors had engines built exactly like a Model T except that they were much larger. The same coils and timer fit them. But the transmission was different and they did not have a magneto. They had iron wheels with lugs and two knife-edge wheels in front.The home made tractor shown was built from a Model T Truck. It has a Chevrolet engine and a Fordson tractor radiator. It was capable of pulling two-horse farm equipment.

  What happened to our fleet of Model T's? When we all left during the war and came back when it was over, they were all gone. Scavengers had gone all over the country taking everything that was metal and selling it for the war effort. Even our plows and metal stock guards were gone. My favorite strip-down was gone with the rest of the metal. Nothing has been the same since the big war. Things are better now in a lot of ways - but we old timers miss the freedom we had back then to do whatever we wanted to and have fun doing it.

  Model T Fords were definitely a lot of FUN. It's too bad that so many people never owned one!


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