Friday, 4 March 2016



Piloting a Model T is no easy matter, especially for an accomplished older driver, and I can vouch for this from humiliating personal experience. Astonishingly, I did not properly get to grips with one until a press day at Beaulieu in 2010, and I am moved to say I found it an odd contraption beyond my immediate and instinctive understanding. An habitué can drive a Model T smoothly, as was ably demonstrated that day by Baron Edward, but not a novice. It takes time to become familiar with its unique rhythms, and until then driving one can be something of an adventure. Certainly, entirely new techniques have to be learned.
To accelerate, one moves a lever on steering column where a spark advance/retard control lever is mounted also. There is no hand gear shift. Instead, two forward speeds and reverse are controlled by foot pedals. A further pedal tightens brake bands inside the gearbox, while a dual-purpose hand lever operates tiny brakes inboard of the rear wheels as well as allowing the selection of gears to take place.
Starting was by hand-crank only until 1919, and one must retard the ignition, or the engine might run backwards or backfire and break your wrist, and, unless the car’s various levers and pedals are set correctly one can get run over by one’s own vehicle (thankfully the test car, like Reg’s, was a 1923 model with an electric starter, so I was spared these risks).
Once running, adjust the timing to get her ticking smoothly, then to move off, hold the car with the right foot brake, release the hand brake lever and put the left pedal fully down to engage low gear. Then release the foot brake gently while moving the throttle lever upwards and, all being well, she should be off and running in low gear.
At 10mph or so, ease the throttle slightly and take one’s foot off the left pedal. As it rises there will likely be a violent jerk and a howl of protest from the transmission as the car moves into top. With practice, I am assured complete smoothness can eventually be achieved.
The brake pedal engages bands in the transmission. These bands run in oil, so it pays to restrict use of this brake to short bursts to avoid scorching and allow cooling, and because the wheels are not affected directly, the differential can allow one driving wheel to spin forwards and the other backwards. Lurid skids can result from over-zealous use of the footbrake in slippery conditions. In the wet, I found to my embarrassment, it can be safer to use the emergency hand-brake.
To stop with grace and aplomb, close the hand throttle and hold the gear pedal halfway down to put the gears in neutral (although pushing the left pedal down into low gives engine braking, and one can ease it back into neutral as she comes to a stop), then move the right foot across to brake pedal. Confusingly, the hand lever can also be used to put the car in neutral as well as a brake, and this lever must be in a forward position to facilitate driving. I was also informed reverse can be engaged while moving forwards to provide extra braking effort, and as a way of saving band wear. Confused? There’s more.
To reverse the car, come to a complete stop, put the left pedal halfway down into neutral and then tread gently on the middle pedal, although one can ping backwards and forwards Laurel and Hardy style by pressing the reverse pedal while going forwards, and the gear pedal while travelling backwards.
On level going, on a good day, a Model T will puff its way to 40mph and sail along happily, although the direct steering is mighty twitchy. The trick, as ever, is to hold the wheel loose in the hands and let it get on with it. The car can climb steep hills without strain and come back down them on tick-over without any need for brakes, but a T with badly worn transmission bands can be incapable of climbing even the most modest gradient. Except, that is, in reverse, and that, I realised 80 years later, is probably why I would sometimes see Reg Kay tackling Attorney’s Rump and other local mounds in backwards fashion, although it could also have been because he was low on fuel. The T’s petrol tank is located under the front seats and the carburettor is gravity-fed. Going up hills backwards serves to raise the fuel supply above the atomising instrument.
While I found the Beaulieu Model T Ford something of a pig to drive that rainy day in Hampshire, I came away not at all hostile to the breed. I readily concede that my lumpish reflexes, dulled senses and clumsy hands were at the heart of the problem. Alas it was me, not the T, that was the most antiquated old crock in action that morning.

Coming soon! A Life Awheel - The ‘auto’ biography of W de Forte

A veteran motoring journalist’s extraordinary life, told through delightfully eccentric stories and charming diary extract. This unique book is packed with fascinating stories about classic cars and motorcycles, set in a bygone world, and properly fixed in time. More info.