Classic Cars: the story of this 1912 Ford Model T Speedster
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David Lane first saw this 1912 Ford Model T Speedster in a bedroom, after he and some mates flew to the States for the Hershey Swap Meet. He was invited to tea by an elderly local, Jim, whose house was a converted fuel station.
As Jim’s wife had been disabled by a stroke, the former showroom became their bedsit and garage in one, and the car was parked beside a bed.
David couldn’t take his eyes off the Model T. “I asked the owner if, when the time came, he would consider me becoming the next caretaker.”
Before he left, the sale was agreed.
“Everyone walking in had wanted to buy the car. I think it was the word caretaker. As he said, ‘You guys not only talk funny, but you’ve got a wonderful way with words’.”
The T had been in family ownership for 70 years. Jim had restored it 45 years earlier, largely cosmetically, and it had been hand painted this vibrant red. Until 1913 five colours were available, with yellow the most popular. The change to black came with mass production.
“Black was a fast-drying paint. The car could be painted in the morning, ready to assemble in the afternoon.”
If you’re wondering why it doesn’t look like a traditional T, take note of the “Speedster” model name.
“Ford didn’t build sports cars. This is a Rootlieb car, everything in red is from Rootlieb.”
The business still exists, and you can buy a Speedster kit, but back then the big company would take 1000 new chassis off the assembly line and put the bodies on.
When this car arrived, in 2015 — via Pennsylvania and LA with Kiwi Shipping — he checked the mechanicals and, “it needed everything”.
Dave and a mate did the work, taking three months.
“It helps that you can buy parts. Order Friday afternoon, and they’re here Monday.”
That’s right, parts are again being manufactured. Some 16.5 million Model Ts were made from 1908 to 1927, and all used exactly the same 16kW, 2.2-litre engine. Around 3.5 million remain on the road, so it’s profitable to make more parts.
Once the work was complete, David began driving it — he’s done about 4000km including a drive to Kaitaia. “I drive it about twice a week,” he says.
When they first came out there was no standard for how a car should look, or run, so the T didn’t seem complicated. It does now. “The trouble with driving one is you have to respool your head before the first junction.” There are two “speeds” rather than gears: the left-hand foot pedal changes from low to high, as long as the handbrake lever is in the correct position. The middle pedal is reverse, and the right brakes the transmission — the handbrake slows the rear wheels. The advance-retard levers on the steering wheel alter the timing as you drive — get it wrong and you lose power — and a manual throttle is used alongside the choke when starting.
“It’s complicated: to drive in Auckland traffic you have to be really on to it.”
Fortunately it can keep up — he’s hit 80km/h.
“I love that it’s reliable. If I want to go somewhere, I go,” as long as it’s not raining.
He’s taken it over the Auckland Harbour Bridge, and uses modern tech to assist on-road manners. There’s no speedo, so he mounts his iPhone and uses that. But it’s old tech he uses to warn cars he’s coming. As well as the bulb horn, there’s an after-market device that was sold when this car was new. As we reach Mt Eden, he reaches under the driver seat, pulls a string, and I’d swear an old-fashioned steam train had let off its whistle. Loudly. There’s little doubt drivers, cyclists and pedestrians could hear it, for next to the exhaust beneath the car are three “organ pipes”, and that string diverts exhaust gas through them.
I suspect the acetylene lights are less effective. The canister on the driver’s side sill makes the stuff, by dripping water on calcium carbide. It was preferred for headlights as it’s bright, but has a tendency to go out, so kerosene was often used for a car’s rear lights, and this T’s sidelights burn oil. Acetylene is also hot — only seconds after David applies the match and the flame catches, the sidelight top is scorching. So if you see a “do not touch” sign on an old car with flaming lights, it’s not to prevent fingerprints.
Would Jim be pleased to hear about his old car’s exploits? “His wife has since died, but I keep in touch with him, only good news,” David says.