Voted the car of the century in 1999, the Ford Model T has left such an indelible mark on society that even 90 years after production ended, there are few people out there who do not know something about this iconic vehicle.
Introduced in 1909 by Henry Ford as a car for the people, it remained in production for 19 years with over 15 million cars being produced. Even though its launch price was well below most competitors, as Henry Ford optimised his mass production line he passed the labour savings on to the consumer so that by 1925 each car cost a third of the original price.
Basic, hardy, easy to repair and reliable for its time the ‘Tin Lizzie’ has had a strong following for decades. Read on to see what it is like to buy and own a car that at one time accounted for nearly 35% of all cars on the planet.
Which Model T to buy?
Broadly speaking, there were three evolutions of the Model T over its 19 year production life. Thanks to their durable design innumerable body styles and specifications were built over the years. Certain body styles could be ordered directly from the factory while a rolling chassis could also be bought, allowing coachbuilders and budding entrepreneurs to produce a wide variety of body styles. The first cars were produced between 1908 and 1916 during the brass-era of automotive manufacturing, and featured crank handle starting, acetylene and oil lighting with basically no interior features to speak of. A speedometer was optional but hardly necessary with a 45mph top speed.
The second evolution of the Model T was introduced in 1917, these were a bit more advanced and could be specified with a few more options such as an ammeter and horn. Post 1920 some models were fitted with battery powered starters. Despite what most people think, the Model T was available in colours other than black, however during the boom sales years between 1913 and 1925 the vast majority were indeed painted this colour.
The final development of the Model T arrived in 1925. Among a number of changes, two of the most welcome were the softer tyres and an improved braking system. While quite simple to operate compared many other cars of this age, if you’re used to modern car controls a short driving lesson will be needed. The accelerator was a lever on the steering wheel, while the left two of the three foot pedals actually control the transmission, with the right pedal reserved for braking.
Choosing a Model T depends mostly on what it will be used for, and how much you are willing to spend. While the most popular body styles were the open touring cars in either two or five-seat configuration, the modular chassis design allowed for numerous body styles and there are dozens to choose from.
Performance and specs
Engine 2896cc side valve In-line four-cylinder
Torque 83lb ft
Top speed 40-45mph
Fuel consumption 20-25mpg
Gearbox Two-speed manual
Dimensions and weight
• The Model T may be a technically simple machine but it does take some mechanical know how to maintain it. Joining a Model T club is highly recommended as the wealth of knowledge that this can open up can make Model T ownership a far more pleasurable exercise.
• Thanks to the sheer number produced and the enthusiasm of many clubs and owners parts and spares can generally be sourced after a bit of online digging.
• The ancient Model T 2.9-litre four-cylinder motor is as tough as, well, an ancient Model T motor. Regular maintenance is generally all that is required to keep them running, while oil changes are recommended at frequent 1000mile intervals. The head is easily removable for repairs and general access to the mechanical components of the car is easy.
• The gravity feed fuel system meant that the car could cut out up steep hills, modern electronic fuel systems are one solution. Driving up a hill backwards is another.
• Cars with wooden bodies require careful inspection for rot and general damage.
• The chassis was built of vanadium steel and featured a rugged (and very bouncy) transverse leaf spring suspension.
• Bearings require regular greasing and the gearbox is tough but will need periodic maintenance too.
1908: First generation of Model T introduced. Most body panels were made from Brass due to its favourable pricing. Lighting was by acetylene lamps up front and oil lamps in the rear. Hand crank was required to start the car. Body styles initially offered were a 2-door touring, roadster, 2-door coupe and town car.
1912: Three-door touring, one-door roadster and wagon body styles introduced – produced until 1925. A number of body colour options were available at this point
1913: colour choices whittled down to Black and in rare cases dark green
1915: Two-door Coupelet body style introduced – built for two years. Electric lighting system introduced.
1916: First evolution of basic Model T design introduced with body now in steel and paintwork predominantly in black.
1919: Electric starter introduced
1923: Four-door sedan introduced
1924: Two-door sedan introduced
1925: Second and final evolution of the Model T with upgraded brakes and tyres. Roadster pickup introduced. A larger colour palette reintroduced to boost sales
1927: Model T production ends with over 15 million cars built - only surpassed by the VW Beetle many decades later.
Owners clubs, forums and websites
• www.modeltford.co.uk – Model T specialists
• www.mtfca.com – Model T Club based in America
• www.modeltregister.co.uk – Model T register
Summary and prices
As always originality is a strong influencer of pricing in a classic car but thanks to the modifiable nature and age of the Model T few have survived in their original form. As a general rule early ‘brass-era’ cars and sympathetically restored models tend to command a premium over the later versions. The variability of what is out there is evidenced by the price range which can be anything from £5000 to £50,000. It may be rough, basic and harrowing to drive in the winter but despite its obvious flaws, the Model T has an enduring charm that makes it one of the greatest classics of all time.
Words: John Tallodi