I’m a happy man. There’s grease under my fingernails. Not any old grease, either, but 103-year-old grease from a 1915 Ford Model T. My brother Peter, his mechanic Jerry and I spent a recent Sunday afternoon working on the old Ford.
My mother’s brother, Tom Brown, bought the Ford in 1950, when he was a college student in at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. At that time, it was a 35-year-old car. He drove it to the family’s historic dairy farm near Lisle, Illinois, rebuilt it, drove it and won a few prizes with it, including a “cranking” award for quickly starting the car. Tom says he was one of the first members of the Model T Ford club, and he and others who owned Model T Fords would gather at the farm for meets.
It was during those years that Tom owned and restored a number of cars, including Lincolns, Jaguars, MGs, Fords and Chevys and a variety of Model Ts. All but one were sold by the time Tom left Illinois to move to California in 1960. His red 1915 touring car was stored in the barn, covered with plastic, and nearly every summer Tom would come from California for a visit – to see his mother, Grace (my grandmother); and his sister, Nancy (my mother.)
Part of Tom’s visit included getting out the Model T, which was a huge undertaking and quite often would take the better part of a day. It included washing it and the plastic sheets covering it, pumping up the tires, starting it – we often needed to buy a new hotshot lantern battery to provide the spark — and driving it. My brothers, Peter and Bill, and I were part of those visits – we only lived a few miles from the farm – and relished when Tom would visit and we would get out the old car.
I’ve detailed in past columns how hard the car is to start and drive, and I still haven’t mastered it. However, long ago, I mastered turning the crank to start the engine – make sure your thumb is on top of the crank handle – and I’ve been doing that for years.
In 1983, after my grandmother died and the farm and property was given to the Forest Preserve, it was time to finally get the Ford out of the barn for good. Tom arranged for it to be restored in preparation for a cross-country trip – from the Midwest to his home in Marin County. He’s happy to tell you he paid $60 for the car in 1950 and spent considerably more — $13,000 – for its restoration.
Sadly, I was too busy working at a newspaper job to join Tom, his son and wife on that trip but I remember a story about a butterfly passing the barely moving Model T as it struggled to get up a hill.
When Tom sold the car to Peter a few years ago, Peter paid Tom $60, but Peter didn’t want to see the car sold to someone out of the family and Tom was glad to find someone who would care for the car.
So, that’s what we were doing on that recent Sunday: caring for the car. Jerry said we had to replace the leather fan belt – the car was overheating – so I tackled that job, getting tools from my uncle’s tall cabinet with some 15 drawers. Jerry decided to crawl under the car and replace the bearing on the steering column. He also put in a stabilizer for the front end, so it wouldn’t wobble so much when a tire hit a bump in the road.
Peter had ordered new parts, including a rubber fan belt, from an online retailer – surprisingly the parts are easy to find once you know where to look – and the three of us tackled the jobs at hand.
Tom has suffered a series of strokes since August 2015 and although he has periods of time when he doesn’t speak, he’s still very interested when we come to his house in Sonoma – where the Model T is – get it out, work on it, start it and give him rides in that beautiful car. On that Sunday afternoon, he was in the garage taking great interest in everything we were doing.
It was at the end of the day when the repairs were done and we could take the Ford out for a spin. Peter, who was driving, pronounced the steering was much better, almost perfect as we chugged down the road at 25 mph. The fan belt stayed on and turned the fan, thereby cooling the four-cylinder engine (although the car still overheated by the time we got it back to the garage).
At some point, it was my turn to drive the Ford. I drove it in first gear, going slowly uphill, and when I had gone a couple hundred feet, the car stalled. It felt like it ran out of gas, although Peter said the car had plenty of gas in the tank. (There’s no gas gauge on the dashboard. To check the fuel level, you have to pull the bottom of the front seat out of the car, open the top to the gas tank and look to see if there’s gas in it.)
Jerry and I took turns using the crank to turn over the engine, but the engine failed to fire. It had plenty of spark, because the coils were buzzing as we turned the crank. We turned the car around and, with Peter driving, tried to start the car by pushing it downhill and popping the clutch. The engine still refused to fire, which was disappointing, to say the least. Then we realized the small brass knob to adjust the flow of the gasoline going into the carburetor was nearly closed. The engine wasn’t getting any gas and once we turned the knob to give the carb some gas, the engine fired right up.
We drove the car home, with Jerry and I standing and riding on the running boards, feeling like kids with the wind blowing through our hair. What fun!