Story and photos by Brian Earnest
One of the dumbest purchases he ever made also turned into a life-altering change for the better for Dennis Gorder.
In a kind-hearted gesture, the affable Gorder and his wife Dena decided to find an old car to help Dennis’ parents get through some hard times. “My sister [Patricia] was diagnosed with ALS and my parents were taking care of her during the day while her husband worked. And it was getting closer to the end and we needed something for my mom and dad to do to keep them busy after she passed away.
“Dad’s first car was a Model T, so we figured, ‘Hey, let’s go get a Model T.’ So we went up to Eagle River and found this car and it was just the frame the engine and the tub was sitting on it. No cushions to sit on… Young and stupid! [laughs] Yeah, it would have been much better to buy something that was already done. Or at least closer to done. It took us so long to get it done and Dad was so excited about driving one, we had to buy a second Model T before this one was done. We bought a ’23 roadster roadster that Dad drove until we got this one done!”
Little did Gorder know at the time that much of his free time over the next two-plus decades would be spent driving and working on multiple Model T’s and becoming a leader in the national club. Today, the couple still owns four of them, including the beautiful green 1926 four-door touring car — their go-to car for trips of all kinds and many driving tours.
“We’ve got to have 25,000 miles or more on it, all at 30 mph [laughs],” said Gorder of Baraboo, Wisc. “We usually do 150 miles a day on a national tour. This is our very first one. At our high point we had six of them. We’ve only got four left. At one time we had 6 T’s and two A’s … I enjoy the T’s more than the A’s, so we got rid of the A’s.
“We were always going to keep it, but it was something for Mom and Dad to drive. Then when we’d go to car shows it was easier. Dad would drive the little roadster and we’d drive this one. It’s been in a lot of parades … and we bought the vintage clothing right away, so everybody would be dressed up in period correct clothing. My mom really got into that, and it gave them a lot of joy in their twilight years.”
Getting into car clubs and networking with Model T Ford fans all around the country was not something Gorder considered back when he was tackling his first “basket case” Ford. He found plenty of kindred spirits when he eventually joined the Model T Ford Club of America, however, and before he knew it he was one of the guys leading the club. “I joined the local club, which got me involved in the national club. I got to know the CEO pretty well and pretty soon he talked me into being on the board of directors, and I was on there for nine years. Then I was MTFCA president for two years. So it’s been an interesting ride, and we’ve met a lot of great people,” he says.
Some of his favorite Model T memories are from the early days when he was trying to figure out what the Model T Ford was all about how to get a retired and disassembled specimen back on the road. “A guy up in Eagle River [Wis.] was selling it and he had hopes of restoring it. The tub he said was found out in the woods. And he had the frame and the engine from some place else. So we bought that and a box of parts, and a year later it ended up like this, and that was 22 years ago.
“Mom and Dad helped us strip it down and helped us restore it and that’s why their name is on the plaque on the inside. Dad taught me how to drive and we drove around the yard with just the frame and the tub on it once we got the engine started.”
These days, the Gorder’s also have a 1915 gentleman’s roadster — “it’s got an aftermarket body that was made by sheet metal works out of Chicago” — along with a 1916 touring car and a 1926 coupe. “The ’16 touring is a non-starter car. The ’26 coupe has got a Ruxtell [two-speed rear axle] and Rocky Mountain brakes, too, like this one. But this ’26 is the one we drive all over the place. My wife runs a day care center and typically we’ve got kids with us, so this is the one we take them out for ice cream in and everything else.”
‘The Improved Ford’
Ford stopped short of calling it’s 1926 Model T all-new. Henry Ford, in fact, didn’t want his customers expecting anything new from his company. He wanted to continue producing the T indefinitely and believed his target customers wanted reputation, reliability and simplicity more than they wanted him to come up with a new car.
But Ford also knew he had to at least make an attempt to keep up with the times, so the 1926 version of the T did have quite a few updates and changes, and was billed by the company as “The Improved Ford.” marked the first major restyling of the Model T since 1917. New fenders, running boards, bodies (except for the Fordor), hoods and even a modified chassis made these Fords unique during the era of the Model T. : All cars equipped with headlamps, horn, starter and 21-inch demountable rims after January of 1926.
Among the more important changes for the model year were a vacuum-powered windshield wiper on the driver's side, more comfortable seats, and relocating the fuel tank beneath the driver's seat to the cowl (except for the Fordor), eliminating the need for driver’s to get out of the car to fill up their gas tank.
The two-door sedan and coupe were both lower and more streamlined looking, and both were painted Channel Green. Fordor sedans were offered in dark maroon. Blue and brown were added later for open cars, while closed cars could be painted gray, moleskin, maroon or two different colors of green. Radiator shells were nickel-plated on all the of the closed cars, and optional on open cars. Under the hood, the old 176.7-cid four-cylinder engine was given new lighter pistons to bolster performance, and factory steel wheels could be swapped in for the old artillery-style wooden wheels for just $25. Fatter tires were fitted on the 21-inch wheels, which were black at first, but could be ordered in red, green and brown later in the year.
For most T owners, the innovation that meant the most was the upgraded brakes for 1926. The transmission brake band — T’s were slowed down using a single drum brake in the transmission — was enlarged to 1.75 inches, helping the car stop better and improving brake life. And while it wasn’t technically a factory option, many owners continued to have dealers swap in the Ruxtell rear axle — a popular which upgrade which doubled the number of forward speeds.
1926 Ford cars were offered in six body styles: four-door touring; two-door runabout; two-door sedan; four-door sedan and two-door coupe. Buyers could also get a pickup body mounted on the T chassis, or a chassis-only option. A four-door touring car like the Gorders’ car would have carried a price tag of $380. It was the most popular of the body styles with some 364,409 copies built.
Not just a Sunday driver
Dennis never had any intentions of letting the ’26 sit around and collect dust. If the weather is willing and there is someplace fun to go, he wants the green car to be on the road. To that end, he wanted to make it as safe and driver-friendly as he could. “We added the side mirrors. We added a brake light and directional lights," he says. "We added rocky mountain brakes just to make it safe, especially with us taking kids with us, that’s really important.
“You have to be careful when you drive. You need to drive defensively. These don’t stop like normal cars, they don’t take off like normal cars do. You just have to pick and choose what roads you go on. Back roads are fun. Our granddaughter learned all about contour farming going through the back woods in this car. They were teaching it in school a the time. The biggest thing is to be careful. And the first thing to do with an old car is make it safe. Don’t worry about the looks, make it safe.”
One thing that Gorder doesn’t have to worry about is wrestling with the ’26 Model T’s folding top. It’s not much of an issue since it very rarely gets used. “Always top down,” he says. “The fresh air and the cool air … it’s great. On my ’16 the wife likes the top up, but on this one the top is always down.”
Gorder lamented that there aren’t more owners of Model T’s and cars of the same era willing to drive their cars regularly and share them with the rest of the world. There are plenty of similar cars around, but seeing one on the roads is still not a common occurrence. “Our Model T club is getting older. We probably only have four or five people in the club that actively drive their cars anymore,” he says. “We talk about getting younger people involved in it … but I think when we talk about getting people involved with cars like this, or probably any collector car, we’re talking 40 and up, not 20-year-olds. Once kids are out of the house and people have some expendable income, that’s when they start looking at hobbies.”
Plenty of old car hobbyists over the years have gotten their starts resurrecting old Tin Lizzies. There are a lot of machines out there that are more practical, and certainly more modern and comfortable, than a Model T Ford. But Gorder has tried a lot of them, and he’s always gravitated back to the most important automobile ever built.
“Once I got it into it and found out the history, I was hooked,” he says. “You know if it wouldn’t have been for the Model T, maybe somebody else would have come up with something, but this is really the car that put the United States and the whole world on wheels. This made it affordable for anybody to have a car. And they are just a great car. You go someplace, and everybody talks to you about it. And that’s the great part.”
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