Many Model T owners believed their car had a self-healing feature. Put an ailing Tin Lizzie under a
shade tree, come back after awhile, and she would be ready to go again. Sometimes this did happen. When
it didn’t, a variety of other remedies were available for what was arguably the most fixable car ever built. It
didn’t take much: baling wire, fish line, stove pipe, waxed twine, chewing gum, a paper clip.
That Lizzie was a temptress was a given. Novelist John Steinbeck said she knew exactly the
number of turns of the crank he would endure before kicking in her radiator – and she always started on the
last one. On a cold morning, applying boiling water or a blow torch to her intake manifold was generally
sufficient to start her. (Though if the oil in her quirky epicyclic transmission – two speeds only, operated by
the left-hand pedal – was cold, Lizzie was apt to inch forward, pinning the unwary person turning her crank
to the wall; electric starters didn’t become available until 1919.)
Because the Model T had no gauges, an owner didn’t know how hot his engine was, how fast he
was going, or how much fuel he had left. But he could buy what he needed. An entire industry grew up to
provide Tin Lizzie with what she didn’t have: anti-rattle devices, shock absorbers, single shot lubricators,
faux hoods, vee radiators. Even speed equipment should you want to take the old girl racing.
The Model T dominated the low-priced automobile market. Henry Ford’s obsession had not been to
produce a cheap car – the industry was littered with those, most of them godawful – but to produce a good,
sturdy and dependable car cheaply. In August 1913 when the assembly line at Ford’s Highland Park moved
for the first time, he owned that market. By October the time necessary to build a Model T had been reduced
from twelve and a half hours to six, by year’s end to an hour and a half. As mass production was refined, the
price of a Model T, which had been introduced in 1908 at $850.00, was progressively decreased to a low of
$290.00 in 1924. More than 16 million Tin Lizzies had been sold worldwide in 1927 when she was replaced
by the Model A.
Following the First World War, every other car on the globe was a Model T Ford. Tin Lizzie had
changed the world. She was the single most important car in history.
Photos – Peter Harholdt
Briggs Cunningham imported the first Ferrari to race in the US and you can see it in the museum. Learn more