Nicked Knuckles: For the Love of a Model A

The joys and frustrations of an old car enthusiast: just don't call 'Silas' a Model T.

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Daily Yonder correspondent Richard Oswald got his Harley a couple of years ago — maybe, as he noted, a sign of midlife crisis.

As my own midlife blurs into the past, I’m catching up on late adolescence/early adulthood. I recently purchased a 1928 Ford Model A Sport Coupe, the third Model A I’ve owned. This is NOT a Model T. The distinction is important, like the difference between Virginia and West By God Virginia.

Henry Ford’s mass-produced, low-priced Model T was built from 1909 to mid 1927. It revolutionized transportation, changing rural and urban America forever. Lower-priced cars gave people extraordinary freedom to wander, linking cities and the countryside, shrinking space, opening regional markets, and increasing our dependency on oil.

By the mid 1920s, Ford’s Model T flivver was a technological fossil. Sales were falling. Other cars were better designed, more powerful, and more attractive. The Model A was introduced almost 85 years ago, in December 1927. My car was built a year later, December 28, 1928. Henry’s son Edsel (whose namesake label was a disaster in the late 1950s) led development of the highly successful Model A. It was a radical new design for the company and ushered in the era of modern automobiles for Ford.

My wife, Shannon, is calling the “New Ford Car” an early 60th, 70th, and 80th birthday present. I begged, puppy dog eyes and all, to get her OK from her, telling her it was better than money in the bank, a tangible asset to keep me out of her way. Besides, we all know what money in the bank earns, so, why not put it into an antique car?

Really, the asset thing is a myth. Shannon quickly realized that an antique car is a gift that keeps on taking. There’s a price to pay for tinkering, and she’s not about to let me forget it; I’m more than happy to see the bathroom get remodeled if it makes her happy.

Ford’s publicity materials for dealers included sample ads like this one. Note the upscale suburban setting, complete with house help practically worshipping the car.

The “New Ford Car” was built for city and countryside. It had sharp styling at relatively low prices, ranging from $385 to $570 in the first year of production. A 1928 Sport Coupe had a base price of $550 ($7,449 today). Ford also built trucks and other commercial vehicles based on the Model A, which was reliable, economical, and easy to maintain.

Almost 5 million Model As were built at sites across the U.S. and in Canada, South America, Australia, and Europe. U.S. drivers loved it during its four years of production, ending in March 1932. The global appeal extended to Soviet Russia, where Models As were built under license from Ford from 1932 to 1936.

The Model A had a flashy top speed of about 65 miles per hour (my “New Ford Car” has been restored but, no thanks, I won’t be pushing her that fast). Other cars were even faster. When Ford introduced the Model A, the U.S. had become decidedly urban, but outside the cities, narrow macadam, gravel, and even dirt roads were the norm. The first Model As had 21-inch wheels and narrow tires, ideal for rutted roads. First gear was really low, matched to the heavy, 40-horsepower engine.

Courtesy of Timothy Collins
‘Sweetums,’ my Model A coupe from high school and college, brings happy memories.

My first Model A, a 1929 standard coupe, had been used as a farm vehicle before my father bought it for me (and himself) in 1969. I was a senior in high school. “Sweetums” was ugly, brush painted black in gooey rust-resistant paint. But the car was fun to drive, especially in the snow. Besides, I preferred attention to speed. Once, when I was visiting a friend, a nine- or ten-year-old kid playing in the driveway looked at me, looked at the car, and looked back at me, saying, with a straight face: “Boy, are you on the wrong side of the generation gap!”

So, here I am, farther across the gap than ever, fondly remembering the coupe and phaeton (“Phineas”) I sold many years ago. I look forward to puttering across the countryside to take photos, go to festivals, attend swap meets, and experience whatever comes my way on the back roads of our Midwest countryside. At slower speeds, you can actually absorb the landscape. I just hope Shannon decides she likes the idea. Picnics and antique shopping will have to be part of the ongoing negotiations.

Timothy Collins
A hacksaw is a mechanic’s best friend when working on an old car, leaving behind a trail of cut nuts and bolts and the remnants of the old water pump.

My relationship with the car, which I’ve named “Silas,” is already in negotiations. Anyone who has worked with an antique vehicle is engaged in something of a love-hate relationship, balancing the good times on the road with breakdowns and rusty nuts and bolts that plague maintenance and repairs. Silas is stubborn, but I’ve had no major surprises. Yet. Already, I’ve repaired the carburetor and rebuilt the water pump. I am dealing with the radiator, engine crank pulley (yes, I accidentally broke it when the motor slipped off a jack), a stripped out bolt hole for the front engine mount, and an oil leak. Grease under the fingernails and barked knuckles are only part of the fun of working on an 84-year-old car that was partly restored by a cotter-pins-are-optional barnyard mechanic who didn’t take safety precautions for certain crucial nuts and bolts.

The big question about buying Silas is, I suppose, why? Both Shannon and my son, Daniel, think I’m crazy. Maybe they’re right. But working on a car requires a different mindset than writing and research. Crawling over and under a car can help an achy old body feel better, or at least stay more limber.

True, automobiles have contributed to pollution, global warming, and rural out-migration. But preserving a classic car keeps history alive and reminds us that ideas that seemed good at the time also have their downside. Silas drives me toward a larger history and fond personal memories of different times, especially of my late father, who enjoyed the old coupe as much as I did.

The “New Ford Car” is a way to the future on the backroads and in the small towns of western Illinois and eastern Iowa. Let the fun begin! …as soon as I get those repairs made.

Timothy Collins is assistant director for research, policy, outreach, and sustainability at the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs at Western Illinois University in Macomb. Opinions expressed here are his and his alone.

 

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