Model T never seems to go out of style

Bob Tomaine |

A Model T Ford is a great car for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that driving one is unlikely to turn into a man-against-the-machine struggle. The T was a major contributor to personal mobility 100 or so years ago, when Americans were figuring out how to drive; if it hadn’t been so well-suited to the demands of its time, things might have turned out very differently.
Many owners grasped quickly what they could do with their Model T’s. The 1912 touring owned today by Paul Povinelli of Trumansburg, N.Y., is one that had some adventures when it was new.

“The original family drove it from Philadelphia to San Francisco, back and forth, three times between 1912 and 1916,” Povinelli laughed. “I have no other information on it.”

There’s probably no real need for other information, since transcontinental trips made nearly a century ago say a lot of about the car and the owner’s confidence in it. This car’s owners weren’t alone by any stretch. Victor W. Pagé wrote in the preface to his book, The Model T Ford Car and Ford Farm Tractor, that “there is only one make of motor vehicle in the world that is sold in large enough quantities to warrant the publication of a special treatise on its repair and maintenance and that is the Ford Model T.” 

Pagé was writing, of course, not for today’s collectors, but for those who owned Model T’s before 1920. By then, the car was long an important part of American life, having been launched in 1908. It was a big step away in both concept and execution from its predecessors; that it hit its target squarely is illustrated by the fact that nearly everyone today can recite at least some information on the Model T, and only the serious student of the automobile can name the Fords that preceded it.

The T was an immensely popular and beloved car. Rugged, adaptable and straightforward, it was useful as everything from a delivery vehicle to a station wagon to a pickup, not to mention a touring, a roadster and a coupe. Henry Ford had had a vision of “a car for the great multitude” and while he perhaps loved the Model T too much, it certainly met that goal better than any car of its day. The problem was that its day lasted too long, and when the Model A succeeded it in 1928, the T was painfully obsolete. The trying conditions for which it had been designed and built were becoming less and less common.
 
The Model A was a better match to contemporary roads and the demands then being made on cars, but many Model T owners were loyal. Stories tell of those who bought extra Model T’s near the end of production so that they could be certain of always having one. Many cars, though, were run into the ground, scrapped or otherwise lost, but considering the 15 million built, survival of just a few percent would equate to a formidable group of cars. Povinelli’s Model T is obviously one of the survivors, and it was luckier than many of its siblings.

“I’m the third owner,” Povinelli said. “I bought it in 1992. It was in the showroom window of Witmer Motors in Millersburg, Pennsylvania, and they had it from 1960 to 1992. The original family had it from 1912 to 1960.
“It was in excellent shape. There was no rust on it whatsoever. It had been repainted over the years. I did a repaint, installed new upholstery, rebuilt the engine and all the mechanicals on it, but it was in excellent, excellent shape.”

If it was in excellent shape then, it’s in even better shape now after Povinelli has put his share of work into the car. It started with a broken crankshaft that destroyed the original engine about six years ago. Povinelli was lucky enough to find a new replacement first and then a Rajo head.

“I had to pick up the stripped head and have it totally rebuilt, because they’re very difficult to come by,” he said. “It wasn’t hard to set up, but I had to have all the parts manufactured for it. It was stripped. It didn’t have towers, it didn’t have rockers, it didn’t have anything. I had a local machinist do it and I’m very pleased with it.”

The modification hasn’t hurt his car’s reliability, so there’s really no trade-off for the improved performance.
“It gives it a lot more power,” he observed. “A Model T with steroids.”

Of course, having “a lot more power” available can be a problem for any car of the brass era. Stopping is a valid concern, as Povinelli found out on his first trip after installing the Rajo head.

“That was the problem,” he admitted. “It can go fast. It actually has Rocky Mountain brakes on it, but still, it’s only two wheels and once you get over 45, your braking capacity just goes right downhill. It’s not safe.”

Safety concerns or not, Povinelli loves his T.

“It was instantaneous when I saw it,” he said. “Absolutely. It’s still the right car. I still look at it that I did the right thing.”

Povinelli admitted he’d like to own a larger brass car such as a Cadillac, but would he sell the Model T to make that happen?
“No, no, no,” he said. “The T they’ll pry from my dead fingers.”

More Images:

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It’s unusual to see a Model T touring completely buttoned up against the weather, but this 1912 example stands out more for its Rajo head and for the transcontinental trips it made when it was an everyday car.

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