Jim Hillibish: Behind the wheel or under the hood, Fords fit him to a T

Jim Hillibish

Imagine the November day. It’s 1908. One of the town’s first Model Ts arrives on a flatcar. Bob Studer is there, $300 in one hand and a gas can in the other.

He was my great-grandfather. He loved tinkering. His new Ford was a tinkerer’s dream. This began a car love affair that he struggled with until he died. He’d dust his wheels after every trip. Keeping a car always was a full-time job.

We spent hours at Grandpa’s chair listening. He said it was his favorite car, period. His wife, Minnie, interrupted. “His perfect Saturday was when the T broke down, so he could take it apart and put Humpty back together again.”

Every bolt was engineered for simplicity. Henry Ford insisted on it. This kept the price low so “any man making a good salary could enjoy the blessing of hours in the pleasure of God’s great open spaces.”

Grandpa would add, “flat on his back with wrench and bloody knucks.”

Ford still makes good cars, high on safety and quality surveys. It’s not surprising they are the first American maker to go green (profitable) out of the recession.

I got a close-up tour of Howard and Terri Thompson’s Model T last Saturday. It’s a Ford lesson.

First thing you notice: There are no brakes on the wheels. Henry’s engineers built breaking into the transmission. Next was the engine. It comes in at 20.2 horsepower. Your lawn tractor has more power. Still, it makes high torque to pull you through mud-rutted streets. Farmers used Model Ts for tractors.

There were no expensive gears in the transmission; Ford devised a system of rotating bands that kept the wheels and engine in sync.

The vexing part was the spark advance lever. It adjusted the speed for the load, always different.

The car sometimes refused to run up steep hills. Gas would slosh below the fuel intake. Grandpa said the Serpentine Hill in town was so steep, he had to back Humpty up it.

The little engine got about 20 miles per gallon with fresh gas and would run on ethanol and perfume. Finding the best fuel was the constant quest. Grandpa tried mixing gas with dry-cleaner naphtha. Humpty went off like a rocket and blew up downtown.

After that, he always drove Fords. His ’48 flat-head was a screamer. When he died, I inherited his car tools, a black wooden box of everything to keep a car running, always in his trunk, still in mine.

In the early days, drivers insisted Ford stood for “Fix or Repair Daily.” That was a loving joke. You’d never feel right leaving town without one or your tool kit.

JIm HIllibish writes for The Repository in Canton, Ohio. Contact him at jim.hillibish@cantonrep.com.