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Cars: Ford Model T: How to drive the car that got the world moving
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Cars: Ford Model T: How to drive the car that got the world moving

11:36 /

When Henry Ford made his Model T, he built a template for car making for the century to come. It is not, however, the easiest thing in the world to drive. XCAR got behind the 100-year-old wheel.

[MUSIC] Before the Ford Model T, your transport options were limited. Unless you were minted, you could use a bike or a horse. Both ran out of steam, after a while, and didn't allow you to go too far, in the grand scheme of things. Henry Ford knew this, and he wanted to change that fact. The answer to his quandary was this. The Ford Model T. Ford was a farm boy with a passion for taking things apart and figuring out how they work. He also knew that traveling far for him, and people like him, wasn't really an option. Traveling far and wide independently was only possible if you had the readies. At age 15 he got himself an apprenticeship, and later a job at the Edison Illuminating Company. While he was at Edison, he started work on his first vehicle, a quadracycle powered by gasoline. It worked well, but it wasn't quite what he really wanted to create. He left Edison to form his first company, the Detroit Automobile Company, which later folded. But after finding success on the racetrack with his tricky to drive Sweepstakes Racer, he got the money to form another company, the Henry Ford Company. He left it and took his name with him. It became Cadillac and went on to form the Ford Motor Company. Interestingly its investors, two of them at least, were the Dodge brothers. Guess which car company they formed after that. They made a number of cars, the Model A, R, and S, for example, many more besides. But they were still the preserve of the wealthy, not what Ford wanted to build. I will build a car for the great multitude. It will be large enough for the family but small enough for the individual to run and care for. It will be constructed of the best materials by the best men to be hired. After the simplest designs that modern engineering can devise. [MUSIC] [INAUDIBLE] But it will be so low in price, that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one. And enjoy, with his family, the blessing of hours of pleasure in God's great open spaces. He wanted to set the world free. On the first of October, 1908 the first Model T rolled out of Ford's factory gates. It was made of lightweight but durable vanadium steel. And it was mechanically simple, unlike its competition. Afterall, the person who bought it was probably gonna be the one maintaining it. It was also faster than others out there. And it was good off road and in fields, because the road network was awful at best. It's initial starting price of 850 dollars didn't make it the cheapest car available, but it's abilities more than made up for it. Ford, who had achieved [INAUDIBLE] only in the form of his engineering skills, but his talents on the racetrack, found that his go everywhere car was rather popular. In his first year, 10,000 Model Ts, or Tin Lizzies, as they were affectionately known, flew out of his factory gates. Customers could have them in black, red, green, gray or white from the get-go. The Ford was lauded for its skills. It was said that the Ford is a better car not because it's cheaper, but because it's worth more. The people absolutely loved it. And Ford's network of dealers, blacksmiths, bike shops. Farm machinery specialists who've added another string to their bows, were crying out for more cars. In order to meet demand, Ford had to get smart with his production. So he started to play. He gave line workers a specific job to do on each car, one man, one job. Something big was brewing. In 1910, a new factory opened at Highland Park and designed by Albert Conn and dubbed the Crystal Palace thanks to its many vast windows, it's allowed more cars to be built. They still weren't being built quick enough, though. This is where a Chicago meat packing plant comes into play. Ford saw that the whole cow entered the facility went. Strung a line and left in bits with workers taking off their relevant chunks to go wherever it needed to go. He figured that if that process could be used to deconstruct something, then why couldn't it be used to construct something? The cars would enter the facility in bits and go along the line, and leave as a whole car. In 1914, he got an automated production line. [INAUDIBLE] It was a belt that moved around six feet a minute. Now, this has two side effects. It cut the production time of the model T from 12 and a half hours to just 93 minutes. And it made production a lot cheaper. Now, rather than keep prices high, and make bigger profits, he decided to pass the savings on. Because, after all. He could sell more cars to more people. In early 1914, Ford announced a solution to a problem he had been having. His workers were going full pelt for ten hours a day for no more money than they could get elsewhere for less work. So he cut the working day by two hours and doubled his workers' money. The announcement caused a riot at his plant as loads of people wanted a $5 shorter working day. It wasn't all altruism. After all, a well paid worker is a happy worker, and a potential customer. Which some of them became. By that point, the Model T was cheap, reliable and a known quantity. At one point over half the cars in the US were Model Ts. They were used for business, for pleasure, for everything really. Even in World War I they were praised for their ability. Ford's dream of bringing farmers from fields was coming true. And it also meant that city dwellers could go out and explore the countryside. There was a knock on effect too. When the T entered production the roads were terrible. The only paved street would probably be a town's main street. As more people drove, more roads were paved. So not only did the Model T allow people to go travelling, it literally changed the landscape due to its popularity. Now this particular Tin Lizzie was built in 1915 which makes it nearly [UNKNOWN] one hundred years old. You'll also note that it's red. Not every Model T built was of course black. That would have been silly but there was a spell where Ford only produced black cars because that was the only paint that would dry quick enough to keep up with the production process. This is the single most complicated machine I have ever sat it. There are three pedals and they all do exactly the opposite of what you think they should do. First off the throttle pedal is actually the brake. The brake is actually reverse. And the clutch. It's actually first gear. But when you put it in second gear, I'm moving the hand break from the middle position to all the way down. There are three positions and having [UNKNOWN] the car stationary so you move it from the middle down to the floor then lift your hand off of the clutch pedal and then you can throw the car speed using the. Which is here on the side of the wheel where your indicators would be. The engine timing is on the right. I can go quite quickly. When you put it into the highest gear, it'll do 35, 40ish. That's quite fast enough because the sensation of speed in this, even though you're very high up, is mildly terrifying. What interesting about the gear box is the fact that the forward and reverse pedals are next to one another. The reason for that is so when these things got stuck in ditches, you could easily rock it back and forth out. That was clever thinking on Ford's part. Even though it's 100 years old, you don't have to molly cuddle it. You don't have to be careful with it. You've got to manhandle it and treat it with the purposes with which it was intended. Which is driving on terrible roads in terrible conditions. What I will say about it though is it's unbelievably comfortable. You'd expect something like this to ride terribly but it really doesn't. The Model T, in all its applications is simply astounding. You could do pretty much anything with one of these. I was told a story that they attached a plane auto-start to the back of one of them. You could use them as tractors. They were used as tractors, quite a lot, conversion kits were sold. The myriad of options and customization things you could buy for these was mind-blowing. I've seen one of books with the accessories in it. You name it. You could get it for a Model T. This one's got some quite cute touches. The horn for example makes an adorable noise. Check this. [NOISE] [LAUGH] And, it has a hand-wound wiper. So if the rain gets a little too much just lean forward and clear your glass. There is nothing quite like the Model T. What you think does something doesn't, it's entirely counter-intuitive. It's very bizarre. But the snapshot of what motoring was like at the dawn of, well, motoring for everybody, for people like you and me, not just those. That live in the big houses and get the good seats at the theater, this is something else. Didn't need a horse anymore, didn't need to feed the horse. Didn't need to stop every 100 miles to give it a rest. All you need to do is gas this thing up, and off you go again. So right now, we're in low gear which means my foot is nailed on the clutch. So to get into high gear, give it a bit more throttle. And then put the hand brake all the way down. Then lift your foot gently off of the clutch. And away we go. Just give it a bit more gas if we want to. We're currently doing 18 miles an hour and I'm terrified cuz I haven't got my feet on any pedals. It's old. Having it in the high gear is rather like having cruise control, because you're not really in control of the car. Your feet aren't on any pedals. So, with a normal cruise control system, to disengage it, you either stamp your foot on the brake, or press on the clutch, or whatever, or just press stop. With this, you have to put your foot on the clutch as hard as possible, and lean forward, and pull the hand brake back to the middle. I won't forget driving it, but I'm pretty sure. [INAUDIBLE] If this opportunity comes around again, I will have no idea how to drive it. I'll tell you this, too. It's really well made, it's beautifully made. The wheels are stunning. The steering wheel's beautiful wood. And the design of it is very [UNKNOWN]. At one point, a large quantity of cars in the world looked like this. And they looked like this because people bought them, not only because they were cheap, but because of absolutely everything they could do. Which happened to be absolutely everything. [MUSIC] The Model T was the idea of a man who saw something and wanted to change it. He saw land-locked people and wanted to free them. He worked towards that goal and ended up changing the world. He didn't just sell a car to set the world free. What was once the preserve of the rich became something everybody could afford. They could go further, go faster, use it for work or play. This is arguably the most important car of the 20th century. Without it and the techniques pioneered in its creation [MUSIC] You wouldn't be able to pick up a hatchback or an SUV or a saloon, or anything. This is the car that started it all.

Alex Goy is XCAR's Cars Editor. He loves all things on four wheels and has a penchant for British sports cars - the more impractical the better. He also likes tea.

Nick Wilkinson
Video Producer / XCAR

Nick Wilkinson is XCAR's Producer, so can either be found huffing serious quantities of exhaust fumes armed with a camera or making a montage of some kind. His background is in video, and as a film and motorsport nut finds himself in heaven most weekdays

Drew Stearne
Content Director & Editor / XCAR

Drew Stearne heads up the XCAR team and has spent the last 7 years producing content for CNET, GameSpot and many other CBS Interactive sites. He's equally obsessed with fast cars as he is with filming and photography, if he isn't involved with one, he tries to make sure he's involved with the other.