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How to Drive a Model T

Chris Kaiser

The Ford Model T isn’t just old, it’s odd. Here’s all the weird quirks that go into starting and driving a Model T.

The Tin Lizzy

1908 Model T Ford - media.ford.com
1908 Model T Ford - media.ford.com

Some 15 million Model Ts were produced between 1908 and 1927. Ford’s first mass produced car helped usher in the automotive age and transformed America in ways large and small. Given the Model T’s ubiquity, the sheer number of them on the road in its heyday and the number of people driving them, it might surprise you that the average motorist a hundred years later probably couldn’t figure out how to get one into gear. That’s because, for as commonplace as it once was, by modern standards the Model T is a deeply weird car.

But, for the aspiring time travelers among our readership, we’ve written up this handy explainer for starting and driving a Model T. This way, if you’re ever transported back to the 1920s and tasked with driving the getaway car for a crew of cigar chomping, Tommy gun toting bank robbers you’ll know exactly what to do.

That’s Not What You Think

1915 Ford Model T - carsforsale.com
1915 Ford Model T - carsforsale.com

The first thing you’ll discover when exploring the Model T is that its controls are vastly different from a modern car. More vexing is that many of the controls look familiar but aren’t actually what they appear to be. Take the pedals. You see three floor pedals and think: throttle, brake, clutch. Wrong, or at least two-thirds wrong. In a Model T the right pedal is actually the brake, the center pedal is reverse, and the left pedal is the clutch (but also first/low gear, which we’ll get to momentarily). Where’s the heck is the throttle, you shout? On the steering column of course along with the spark advance lever. Oh, and then there’s the multipurpose parking/hand brake that also plays a part in engaging first and second gear.

Getting the Model T Started

The first thing you’ll need to do when starting a Model T is to check your fuel level. Since there isn’t a modern fuel gauge this requires removing the front seat cushion to access the fuel tank and peering into the tank. Using a wooden dipstick helps with this process.

1910 Ford Model T brake lever - carsforsale.com
1910 Ford Model T brake lever - carsforsale.com

Next, making sure the parking brake is on, you can prime the engine. To do this you’ll go to the front of the car. On the lower left section of the radiator you’ll find the choke which you’ll pull. From here you’re free to crank the engine to get fuel into the cylinders. Three or four rotations should do it.

1922 Ford Model T hand crank - carsforsale.com
1922 Ford Model T hand crank - carsforsale.com

Now that the engine is primed you can set the key to magneto (to the right) for spark, set the spark lever (the left stalk on the steering column) all the way up and the throttle lever (on the right) to just barely open.

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1915 Ford Model T spark and throttle levers - carsforsale.com
1915 Ford Model T spark and throttle levers - carsforsale.com

It’s important to remember when cranking the car at this point to do so with your left hand rather than your right. This is because the engine rotates clockwise and there is always the chance that the car can kickback. One or two hard cranks should get the engine to turn over. From here you can adjust the spark timing. You’ll be able to discern almost immediately when you’ve got the timing right just by listening to the motor.

Battery Starting

Ford Model T starter button - St. Louis Car Museum & Sales on YouTube.com
Ford Model T starter button - St. Louis Car Museum & Sales on YouTube.com

If you’re Model T was made after 1919, hooray, starting is even simpler. This is because later Model Ts came equipped with an electric start. After priming and setting your levers in their proper positions all you needed to do was turn the key to the left to battery and hit the starter button located on the floor. Again, adjust the spark lever to smooth out the engine and then flip the key all the way to the left to magneto to save your battery’s charge.

Gearing Up a.k.a. I Can’t Drive 45

Once started, getting the Model T moving is simple, if a little counterintuitive. To get the car into first/low gear you move the hand brake from park (fully back) to the 90° middle position (neutral) and depress the clutch pedal. This will put the car in low gear, adjusting throttle as you go while keeping the clutch depressed. From here you can shift the car to high gear by moving the brake lever all the way forward and letting off the clutch completely.

The Model T had a top speed of 40 to 45 miles per hour, but most enthusiasts say the engine is happiest at no more than 35 mph. Even at considerably lower speeds, say 25 mph, the Model T feels like it’s moving frighteningly fast.

1915 Ford Model T - carsforsale.com
1915 Ford Model T - carsforsale.com

Now that we’re puttering down the road in our Model T you say, wait, what about that middle reverse pedal!? Relax, reversing is similar to advancing. With the brake lever in neutral, you’ll press on the middle reverse pedal rather than the clutch and the car will move backward, again, adjusting the throttle as you go. Easy peasy.

Yes, the Model T does indeed take a lot of practice and getting used to for modern drivers. And yet, for millions of Americans of generations past, for our grandparents and great-grandparents, operating the Model T was second nature.

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Chris Kaiser
Chris Kaiser

Chris’ greatest passions include topiary, spelunking, and pushing aging compact cars well past 200,000 miles on cross-country road trips. His taste in cars runs from the classic and esoteric to the deeply practical with an abiding affection for VW Things, old Studebakers, and all things hybrid-crossover.

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