Jan 19 2012

My Little Town 20120118: Old Cars

(8 pm. – promoted by ek hornbeck)

Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River.  It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.

My dad was passionate about old cars.  As far back as I can remember he would restore them, some to keep and some to sell.  When we moved to North Little Rock when I was three, he had been working on a 1919 Model “T” Ford Touring.  He put it on a trailer and brought it with us so he could finish it.  There will be more on that car later.

I also remember him with a 1923 Studebaker Touring, a 1949 Willys Jeepster, a 1955 Ford Thunderbird, and his pride and joy, a 1941 Packard 110.  I helped with some or all of the restorations on all of these cars, but was too little to do much with the Model “T”.  However, there are more memories associated with the cars.

Dad finished restoring the mechanical parts of the Model “T” when we lived in North Little Rock.  It still needed paint and upholstery, but it ran well.  I remember the engine, disassembled, in the garage as my dad replaced the old, clattery steel timing gear with a soy based one.  That actually is correct, and Henry Ford was a big fan of soy based materials, but they were not making timing gears from soy in 1919, evidently.  As an aside, the reason that the Model “T” was available only in black until 1927 was that black was the only color that was stable in the soy based paint that Ford used.

I remember after he got it running again that we would drive it on then yet to be opened Interstate 30 in North Little Rock, which was just a few blocks behind our house.  One day we were driving it and it quit going, and the brakes did not work, either.  The engine was still running, but it just had no ability to move or stop.  Come to find out, one of the rear axles had broken.  On a Model “T”, the brakes work through the transmission, so with the rear wheels essentially disconnected from the transmission, there were no brakes.  It was a long time before modern hydraulic brakes were developed that work at the individual wheels.

My mum HATED riding in that car, or just about any old car, because people would look at us.  She did not like to be stared at (at the time she suffered from anxiety) so I can remember only one or two times that she rode with us in any of the old cars except for the Packard, which she liked.

Whilst we were in North Little Rock, my dad found the 1923 Studebaker and bought it.  He did not do much work on it there because we moved back to Hackett soon after he acquired it.  He did a complete restoration on it, and it was a very robust car for its age.  It actually had a speedometer in it, unlike the Model “T”, and it would easily make 60 mph.  Once again, I was a bit too little to do much to help him with it, but I was old enough to hold the drop light and hand him tools.

The Jeepster was supposed to be for me.  We got it from a neighbor across the street in Hackett, and pulled it into the shop for work.  It turned out that it was pretty much too far gone to restore, for several reasons.  For one thing, it is much harder to come by parts for that model because they did not make that many of them.  Total production for all four model years was only 19,131.  Model “T” parts are common because of the millions of them produced, the Studebaker was in pretty good shape in the first place.  We abandoned the project pretty quickly and my dad found someone to take it off of our hands.

The Thunderbird was different.  For one thing, in 1955 alone over 16,000 were produced, and many parts are interchangeable with the 1956 and 1957 models.  For another, because of the extreme popularity of these cars in the collector community, many reproduction interior parts are available, many made from the OEM dies.  When we got the car, it had been really mistreated.

First of all, someone had replaced the original 292 cubic inch a 352, and the original Fordomatic automatic transmission with a three speed stick shift.  The engine problem was easy to fix, because the 292 Ford V8 was used in Ford products for many years.  My friend Harold happened to have a 1962 Ford Galaxie with a 292 that he was going to get rid of because of numerous mechanical problems, and my dad bought the engine in it and had it rebuilt.  Dad was also able to find a Fordomatic transmission, so the drive train was easy to replace.

This particular car had the hard fiberglass removable roof, rather than being a ragtop.  That worked well, and in 1955 there were no round “portholes” in the hard top as there were in 1956 and 1957.  Dad was able to get plenty of parts and we did a good restoration.  However, that car still had problems.  For one, it had a six volt electrical system that had been converted to 12 volts, and it was not easy to refit the six volt system.  We finally did, but it was complicated.  A new generator was needed, along with a voltage regulator, ignition parts, lamps, and so forth.  Once we got finished with it, it really looked nice.  My brother was going to buy it from my dad.  That is, until he started to drive it to his home in Dallas.

He never even made it out of Arkansas before he decided that it was not the car that he thought that it was.  I was old enough to have my driving license and actually drove it a couple of times, but never very far.  It did have something of a shake and shimmy to it.  In retrospect, I think that the frame was bent due to the chop job that whoever changed the engine and transmission did.  Dad finally sold it to someone else and did not lose money on it, but I do not think that he made much on it, either.

The Packard was different.  By the time that he was working on it, I was dating so did not help all that much, but did help him several times.  I remember him renting large sandblaster and us sandblasting the frame (he had stripped it down to the frame) and painting it with primer to prevent rust.  I also helped him with some of the reassembly.  He was particularly taken by that car, and by the time he was finished it looked like it had come off of the showroom floor.

That was one car the my mum would ride in, but she had overcome her anxiety disorder by then.  It ran sweetly (it had a straight six engine), rode smoothly, and was just a nice car.  Shortly after he finished it, there was the opening ceremony for the first leg of the new Interstate grade highway betwixt Fort Smith and Fayetteville, and I got to drive it in the procession.  It was a really nice car.  My brother still has it.

This is supposed to be about growing up, though.  Well, when I was 12 or so my dad taught me to drive, using the Model “T”.  Since I did not have a driving license, he would drive it over the the school where there was a large and smooth open field.  I would take the driver’s seat and begin my lesson.  It turns out that a Model “T” operates in a unique manner.  There is a key, but it only turns on the ignition.  This was the first year that Ford offered an electric starter, and this car had one.  To start the car, you would turn the key to the BAT position, and then push the stater buttoon the floor by your left heel.  You had to make sure that the spark advance was well retarded until it started, then advance it.  That was done using the left lever just below the steering wheel.

The throttle was the right hand lever, since there was no accelerator (my grandmum called them “footfeeds”).  To make the car go, you had to use a combination of three foot pedals and a lever on the floor to the left.  Pulling back the lever would put the transmission in neutral.  To go forward, the leftmost foot pedal was pushed, engaging the low gear transmission band.  Once you got fast enough, you would let go of that pedel and push the lever to the front, which engaged the high speed transmission band.  To stop, you would pull the lever to the rear and push the rightmost pedel, which engaged the brake band in the transmission.  To go backwards, you kept the lever in the disengaged position and mash the middle pedal which engaged the reverse band in the transmission.

Model “T” cars had a very high center of gravity, and twice I almost turned it over by cornering too fast.  You have to drive slowly and corner carefully to avoid that.  When my dad restored the car, he did use safety glass in it rather than the original, shattering kind, but turning it over would assure one of injury because of the fact that there is absolutely no sort of restraint in the car.  But it is sort of fun to know that I am one of the few people my age that knows how to operate a Model “T”.

I almost forgot this.  Once the car started, you would move the key from the BAT position to the MAG position.  Model “T”s had magneto internal betwixt the engine and the transmission that provided electrical power to the spark plugs, very much like rope start lawnmowers have to this day.  The magneto was “hotter” than the battery, and the engine ran more efficiently on MAG than on BAT.  Besides, the weak generator could recharge the battery more effectively when running on MAG.  In addition to the electric starter, the 1919 model was the first to have electric headlights and tail lamp.  Older models used a carbide generator to run the headlamps and a kerosene tail lamp.

For the technology of the day, the Model “T” was actually quite rugged and reliable.  That was largely due to its simplicity of design and the use of heavy steel for the frame and body.  The wheels were a weak point, because they were a steel rim on wooden spokes on which pneumatic tires were mounted.  OEM equipment were Firestone (Ford and Firestone were buddies) with the letters “NON SKID” raised on the tread.  Reproductions are available, and that is what my dad put on the car.

Those of you who are automobile fans will notice that the transmission that I described is remarkably like the automatic transmissions used for the past 40 years in cars, and quite different than a clutch and shifter.  Yes, Ford’s design used bands and planetary gears just like modern automatic transmissions, but instead of being shifted by vacuum activation and electric signals, you had to use foot pedals and the lever to engage the different bands.  The bands sometimes would break, but the car was designed in such a way that the three piece wooden floor could be removed and the transmission access cover easily removed.  Fort also included a tool kit with its cars, so you could take off the cover, cut a new band (a man’s leather belt would do), and install it in only a few minutes.

Well, that does it for this evening.  I hope you enjoyed some recollections from my youth, and I encourage you to write some on yours in the comments.  I get a kick out of reading them, and I know that other readers do as well.

Warmest regards,

Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith

Crossposted at

Daily Kos,

Docudharma, and


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