A coast-to-coast US road trip in a classic Ford convertible is pretty standard bucket-list fare. I just kept my finger on the Motown rewind button a bit too long. My ride of choice: a 1924 Model T Tourer, bought for $14,000 from an old Texan who was born in the same year, and had owned it for half a century. As the car that launched the petrol-powered American Dream and put the world on wheels, a Model T certainly packed the iconic heft for such a drive. But as a mechanical dunce, I made a poor fit with the challenge. Even before I decided on a dilatory route that would explore the nation's rustic heartlands, thereby almost trebling the beeline distance between Atlantic and Pacific to 6,000 miles.
The journey began at Chesapeake Bay in Virginia, in the last week of June. The guy who'd trailered the car there from Houston drove away into a bright blue dawn, leaving me alone with a very tall, very thin and very black museum piece. The Model T's extensive online fanbase had warned me that learning to drive a Tin Lizzie in confident safety was a process that by general consensus demanded a full year or a thousand miles, whichever came first. As I took my station on that creaky old tramp's Chesterfield behind the wheel, I understood why. Most of my preparatory research had come courtesy of Laurel & Hardy, learning precisely what facial expression to adopt should my T find itself compressed between two streetcars, bisected in a sawmill or driven into a bottomless, slurry-filled pothole. But what never came across in their work was the monstrous slapstick involved in simply getting a Model T up and running.
One of those stubby iron stalks on the steering column before me was the accelerator. The other adjusted the ignition spark. None of the three tiny foot pedals did what I wanted them to. The one that should have made it go faster made it slow down, a bit. The one that should have made it slow down made it go backwards. The last: it's a clutch, Jim, but not as we know it. Pressing this halfway put the car in neutral. Mashing it to the floor selected low gear with a drastic forward lurch; take my foot off and the car was in high. There was one hand-powered windscreen wiper and a solitary dial, which helpfully let me know whether the battery was being charged. And a black button that unleashed a terrific ahoooooga from the under-bonnet klaxon, which I already knew would bring me comfort in difficult times.
On the upside, my T had a factory-fitted electric starter, sparing me the humiliation and fractured forearms routinely visited upon crank-handle novices. And I set out on a Sunday, meaning nobody was around to witness my debut stall, or to kill me in the enormous intersection it happened in the middle of. Two hours in I suffered my first breakdown, an ignition issue that would plague me for days until an off-duty military drone operator resolved it in an Appalachian layby. I took a big run-up at those early peaks, having been memorably advised that the brakes wouldn't hold the car if I stalled on a steep incline. Nonetheless uphill progress was so lethargic that an old guy with a backpack hopped onto the running board as I laboured past. 'Mand if I catch a rad?'
But it was this approachability, this fond sense of common ownership, that made my Model T such a rewarding steer. Henry Ford built over 15 million 'Universal Cars' - only the VW Beetle has done better - and a century on the Tin Lizzie was still deeply embedded in the national folk memory. Every time I stopped to fill up the under-seat gas tank I'd attract an appreciative crowd, ready to share a reminiscence. 'Used to drive one of these on my grand-daddy's farm. That there's the brake pedal, that's reverse, and that's the one that puts you straight through the side of the barn.' The Model T was a reminder of happier, simpler days, when the future looked bright and cars could be fixed at the roadside with common sense and a length of baling wire.
A week in and I just about had the hang of it, dangling one hand in the breeze with the throttle set as a sort of redneck cruise control. On the endless corn-belt straights it felt more like piloting a narrow boat down a canal: set your speed, hold a course, steady as she goes. The corners were more art than science. Close the throttle a touch, maybe change down, then coax the car round by feel, hoping the wriggles and slithers cancelled each other out. And all the while the settlements thinned and the landscape seemed to expand around me: the wide-open space of a big country getting bigger all the while.
Our adventure took us deep into a time warp, down half-forgotten roads that were built for a motor-touring culture the Model T singlehandedly spawned. The 444-mile Natchez Trace Parkway, a beautifully engineered legacy of FDR's New Deal, took a gorgeous, sun-dappled route down through the southern states: a road built purely for recreational motoring, with all commercial traffic banned, yet I had it almost to myself. I refreshed myself at Waltons-pattern drugstore soda fountains, and slept on iron beds in motels with a Bakelite phone on the table beside me. My rickety antique looked entirely at home in the Bonnie & Clyde ghost-towns of northern Texas, then hopelessly at odds with the epic cowboy landscapes that stretched out between them. Bork bingo is a high-stakes game when you're 90 miles from civilisation.
When the starter motor died in an Ohio rainstorm, an old guy with two Ts in his garage put me up for three days while we sorted it. Knocking con-rods and burned valves were resolved by craggy Samaritans across the Midwest and beyond. A Colorado farmer replaced my shattered manifold with one he pulled off a corroded wreck at the back of an outbuilding. When the steering tie rod broke in half - certainly my most stimulating mishap - a 90-year-old North Dakotan welded it back together.
How fortunate I was to tap into the hive mind of these cheery, hyper-capable old make-do-and-menders, the men who had made America great in the first place. No less fortunate to be at the wheel of an ancient machine that never quite knew when it was beaten. I drove 500 miles through Kentucky and Tennessee without a fan belt, and crossed the lonely plains of Nebraska on two cylinders. My T downed two pints of oil every morning then drove 200 miles straight, at a steady 32mph. And before snapping its crankshaft, the poor old dear at least had the good grace to wait until I'd just emerged from Oregon's Great Sandy Desert. In any other car, and any other circumstance, that would have been game over. But with the input of many pairs of oily old hands, twelve days later I was back on the road.
My plan, such as it was, had been to flog the T at journey's end. But when I drove out across the sand to meet the Pacific at Ocean Shores, after 81 days and 6,120 miles, I knew we'd been through too much together. Forgetting that I live in London, and don't even have any off-street parking, I allowed romance to get the better of me. Never bring your holiday fling home, especially if she's 94.
Another Fine Mess, Tim's account of his journey, is published by Yellow Jersey, £9.99. Tim and his Model T will be on stage with Mike Brewer at the Silverstone Classic, 26-28th July.
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