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History How reliable were T model fords

Discussion in 'The Hokey Ass Message Board' started by Reidy, Dec 27, 2020.

  1. Reidy
    Joined: May 13, 2016
    Posts: 184


    My wife is watching a series on TV set around 1910. There are a few old cars and some are T model fords.

    It got me thinking, How reliable were these cars in there day? I understand that they would require regular maintenance. Were they the type of thing that would be a lottery if you wanted to go anywhere or if you kept up the maintenance you were reasonable certain that it would get you there?

    This leads to the second question, if they were not reliable, when did cars become reasonable reliable if kept maintained.


    Steve from down under.
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  2. Rusty O'Toole
    Joined: Sep 17, 2006
    Posts: 9,608

    Rusty O'Toole

    That is a hard question to answer. By 1915 or so cars were reasonably reliable but required a lot more maintenance than we are used to. If you went 50 miles without having to patch a tire you were lucky. Oil change and lubrication every 1000 miles. On the other hand there are accounts of motor tours where people were on the go all day every day for a week or more without a breakdown.
    By the mid twenties new cars were quite reliable but their life was short - 5 to 7 years, and well under 100,000 miles with a motor overhaul required every 20,000 or 30,000 miles. This was more or less the case up to WW2. After the war there was quite a jump in engine life thanks to wartime innovations like chrome piston rings and better lubricants, fuels and filters. By 1960 it was not unusual for a car to last 100,000 miles without major work with luck. Regular tuneups, oil and filter changes, generator and starter rebuilds still common. There were 10 times as many service stations and garages as there are now and they were all busy. Modern levels of long life and reliability came along in the 1980s and 1990s with fuel injection, electronic ignition, unleaded gas, and computer aided design. Along with much improved gas mileage. That is when most of the old time service stations went out of business and got turned into convenience stores, dog grooming places etc.

    You might say it was a long story of gradual improvements. It is hard to pinpoint one big change but the 1980s would be about the biggest.
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  3. cfmvw
    Joined: Aug 24, 2015
    Posts: 814


    Back around 1977 or si, my parents had some friends with a 1969 Firebird, and the local newspaper did a story on it because it had gone 100,000 miles. That was almost unheard of then, but it's common now with improvements in automotive technology. I had an OT car that went 415,000 before it succumbed to rust, something that the industry really needs to address better!
  4. Ned Ludd
    Joined: May 15, 2009
    Posts: 4,284

    Ned Ludd

    The flipside is that cars like the Model T would last as long as you kept fixing them. To speculate how long they'd last (or how far they'd go, which isn't exactly the same thing) without any maintenance or repair work is academic, as they were never meant not to be maintained or repaired. To that end they were specifically designed to be maintained and repaired fairly frequently.

    If you read the generic automobile service and repair manuals of the time, or the books on veteran/vintage car maintenance written as late as the '50s, the thing which really jumps out is how unspecialized a lot of the work was. A huge amount of it was general engineering workshop practice, so much so that it was reasonable to expect not to have to rely on the factory at all once the car was in use. It was common to remake a wide variety of parts from scratch whenever it was necessary. As long as the iron castings held you could keep on remaking the rest of the car as long as you liked.

    If the boundary between maintenance and repair was blurry then, so was the boundary between repair and manufacture. You could see the history of automotive technology as that of the gradual sharpening of those boundaries, up to the present where maintenance, repair, and manufacture represent radically different kinds of technology, and designs actively resist repair and replication. All you can do today is replace bits with new bits from the factory, and the bits keep getting bigger. The OEMs' holy grail of the entire car being One Big Part is fast being approached.

    (As a philosophical aside, it is worth arguing that this process was not one of historical necessity but was driven by the imperative induced by the reigning system of political economy to reinvest industrial profits in capital, i.e. production plant, leading to the channelling of technological development into techniques which required the greatest levels of recapitalization. This is why so much of the history seems to be about trying to figure out how, apparently gratuitously, to make things more difficult to manufacture unless you have a very specific kind of huge factory. I think we're all here trying to subvert that thing, however unconsciously, or we'd be drooling over Teslas instead.)

    The blurry boundaries are also why the numbers-matching mindset doesn't work with a lot of historic cars. Later work was expected and actively accommodated in the design. It is the same as all the upmarket '20s cars which were rebodied around 1937, and people on Facebook go, "surely that can't be stock? Rolls-Royce would never to anything so ungainly in 1928?!" —not understanding that a.) Rolls-Royce only supplied bare chassis in 1928 and b.) rebodying was something which happened in the normal course of stuff. It's not so much about originality as provenance: each individual car represents an ongoing history.

    But be that as it may. Long story short: then you had to do a lot of maintenance and repair work, but could do it. Now you barely need to do any maintenance and repair work at all, but if you need or want to do it, you can't. Then, automotive technology was something you participate in; now it's something you consume.
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  5. southcross2631
    Joined: Jan 20, 2013
    Posts: 4,414


    My mother who is 99 used to tell us that my dad who was born in 1917 and was driving by the age of 13
    drove a 28 model A roadster everyday in summer and in Michigan winters until he bought a 37 Ford sedan and became a family man when my older brothers were born at the beginning of the 40's .
    He loved the old flatheads ,but said the earlier 4 cylinder Fords were slower and required more work to keep them on the road.
    After the war he bought a new 48 Chevy and we used it for a family car until 54 when he bought a new 54 Belair 4 door 3 speed. He would never buy another Ford as long as he lived and they made the 235 .
    In 69 he finally bought his first V-8 automatic . A 69 Caprice that he had until he died in 73.
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  6. and since Ned brought up Roll Royce...the "upper scale" cars of that time where built far better than the common Ford. I have been working on a 32 Rolls and studying how it is over built. they used redundant systems, in case something should fail, made it possible to maintain and monitor the chassis from the driver seat. they also planned for "on the road" and "off the island" hazards and made it easy to make repairs or make do till proper repairs could be done. I believe this car could be kept running forever with common mechanic/machine shop parts, tools, supplies.
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  7. oldolds
    Joined: Oct 18, 2010
    Posts: 3,226


    That is an interesting question. I would guess they were quite reliable that is why they became so popular. A lot of things to think about as far as maintaining them. Back then general knowledge of an automobile was not like it is today. And tools were not as good as today. I would think they would be extremely reliable if same vehicle was made today. Thinking about the knowledge that most of us have about an automobile and the quality of tools that are available to repair them. Think of it like a push lawn, mower simple carb and ignition system, they run forever as long as you keep oil in them. Heck, you can even run them out of oil a couple times and they usually can still be made to run.
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  8. They got driven coast to coast long before the Interstate Highway System.

    Lost of those old cars needed roadside maintenance to be driven. My mom (and my grandad) used to like to tell about driving an old Cadillac from Wamic, Ore to L.A., Calif. They had to lay over at Humbug Mountain (google maps it) to lap the valves in both directions. So any of those old cars would take you where you needed to go but you had to be hearty enough to make the trip.
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  9. My father was born in 1918 in the SF bay area,and the family drove over 200 miles every summer to camp in the Humbolt county Redwoods in the mid 20"s.Flat tires were the common problem. In 1928 they got a brand new Dodge car,and Dodge truck,and my grandmother,three teenage aunts,my ten year old dad,and his 20 year old brother drove from the SF bay area to Victoria Canada,and back! My grandfather stayed home to run his buisness. I guess he had enough trust in cars of the era to let the trip take place.
  10. Thomas K.
    Joined: Dec 25, 2018
    Posts: 28

    Thomas K.

    My wife talked me into buying a 1926 Tudor Sedan. After getting the gas tank coated, rebuilding the carburetor and minor front suspension repair it ran great. Other than adjusting the break band twice each summer we never had a problem with it. She called it our icecream car. Fun car if you only wanted to go about 30 mph. Very dependable if maintained even at 90 years old.
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  11. prpmmp
    Joined: Dec 12, 2011
    Posts: 1,080


    Great thread!! Thanks for the history lesson(enjoyed it immensely) from all contributors!! Pete
  12. 48stude
    Joined: Jul 31, 2004
    Posts: 1,196


    While we're on the subject, I've been disassembling my 27 T coupe body and my thoughts are that Henry wasn't concerned so much about replacing body panels or sub rails. So my question is if your T suffered body damage ,did it get fixed or just got scrapped ? Bill
  13. Binger
    Joined: Apr 28, 2008
    Posts: 1,733

    from wyoming

    Another thing to consider about real early motoring is the conditions of the roads. A car might only have 30K miles on it but those were hard driven miles. The Video I shared features a dodge but Imagine driving a 1920 era car on those roads in the clip.

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  14. Truck64
    Joined: Oct 18, 2015
    Posts: 5,237

    from Ioway

    As mentioned tires were not very good in those days. Neither were the "roads" but, regardless flat tires were very frequent and common. I got the impression from talking with relatives that any sort of road trip meant a flat tire or two, it was just a given. I still have a half bar (Gramps was frugal, you see) of Ivory soap that he kept in his Model A toolkit for cleaning up after.

    A decent quality tire would get maybe a good year out of it. A Goodyear. Get it?
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  15. winduptoy
    Joined: Feb 19, 2013
    Posts: 2,603


    Henry said something to the effect that if he'd 'listen to the people, he'd made a better horse'
    something that eats even when it isn't running. So in context the Model T would well outpace a horse and it didn't require daily attention when parked.
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  16. Tickety Boo
    Joined: Feb 2, 2015
    Posts: 1,441

    Tickety Boo
    from Wisconsin

    You might enjoy watching the movie Horatios Drive, the 1st American road trip 1903
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  17. anthony myrick
    Joined: Sep 4, 2009
    Posts: 8,984

    anthony myrick

    Define reliable?
    Like owning a new car that can do 100k+miles without a tune up?
    Could you depend on a Model T? Yes.
    Rugged built and simple to work on.
    The ECM was the driver. You handled carb adjustments, timing and gear changes from the drivers seat.
    The gas gauge was a stick.
    Used the same oil pan for both the engine and trans.
    You didn’t have to depend on an electrical system other than a simple magneto.
    No fuel pump
    Tools kits were as necessary as a spare tire.
    In the winter, it was best to remove to coils and set them somewhere near the fireplace to keep warm.
    They were as reliable as the owner could keep up maintenance, just like a new car. .
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  18. squirrel
    Joined: Sep 23, 2004
    Posts: 50,301


    Maintenance....there was a lot required, and many cars (most?) did not get nearly as much as they should. The T has lots of moving parts that need a squirt of oil frequently, and the parts wear out because the required maintenance just doesn't get done.

    Like he says, define reliable. The T was a very reliable car, as long as you maintained it. Tires were a big problem because of poor rubber and lousy roads, but the rest of it was well made, and would last practically forever if you kept it lubricated, clean, tight, and adjusted.
  19. Bert Kollar
    Joined: Jan 10, 2007
    Posts: 1,088

    Bert Kollar

    A friend once told me he needed tires for his model A and a new set was for sale on a friends model A for $50. He bought the friends car for the tires and threw the car away so I gotta believe if your model T had major body damage you could buy a body cheap from the wrecking yard since there were so many T's built
  20. David Gersic
    Joined: Feb 15, 2015
    Posts: 2,460

    David Gersic
    from DeKalb, IL

    On YouTube, search for the Historic Vehicle Association. Their videos on the 15 millionth T, and the Thomas round the world race show a lot of early motoring and what an early car owner could reasonably expect.

    Sent from my iPad using The H.A.M.B. mobile app
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  21. junkman8888
    Joined: Jan 28, 2009
    Posts: 680


    To answer the question of how reliable the old Fords were, in other words how far they can go before they need repair or adjustment, think about how many "Ford" script wrenches you see at swap meets.
  22. I remember my granddaddy Highpockets telling me to story of he and his new bride were driving his T model from Anderson, South Carolina to Hartwell, Georgia for a 4th of July family reunion, they got a early start and so did my granddad, he had loaded the car with all the food and a jug of the local non taxed "licker" as he called it.

    The day was hot and dusty & the road leading to Georgia was rough as a cob, the story goes they had more than got out of sight of their house when he had a flat, out came the jack, the patch kit the air pump and tools and went to work, he said it took about a hour to patch the tire and by that time his shirt was soaked with sweat & dirty, he loaded everything back in the car and then took a long hard pull on his jug to quench his thirst and then they were off again.

    Shortly after crossing the Savanna River basin he felt the unmistakable felling of a flat tire again, he turned to grandma and said we have another damn flat tire, he also told me he took a couple of swigs from the jug before getting out and going through the whole process again and like the previous time a stiff belt from the jug finalized the job and once again they were off.

    As the story goes granddaddy kept the jug close at hand as they proceeded and he was well on his way to being drunk, that;s when it happened again, another flat and he eased the car to the side of the road beside a huge oak tree, he told grandma to get out of the car and he started working on fixing the flat & off course drinking, this time when he let the car down the patch didn't hold air. he said that's it I'm done and told granma to get out the food, we are late anyway and we are going to sat right here under this tree, and that's what the did and granddaddy continued to enjoy the jug.

    While they were finishing up a elderly black man & his grandson came down the road in a horse drawn wagon and granddaddy ask them where they were going and the said Hartwell he told the man he would give him a dollar to take he and grandma the the Cleveland farm just outside the city limits and they got their food and jug and got in the wagon, that's the story as granddaddy told it and grandma pretty much backed him up, but add's he did a lot of cussing and he also pulled out a pistol and shot a hole in the radiator of the car. HRP
  23. lippy
    Joined: Sep 27, 2006
    Posts: 5,820

    from Ks

    We had a 1919 T I drove around a lot when I was a kid. I was just big enough to crank it. But It was a 1919 so did have an electric starter. I remember retarding the spark and cracking the throttle with my right thumb NOT around the crank, in case it kicked back it wouldn't break your thumb. The choke was a wire with a loop on the end that stuck through a hole in the bottom of the grille. You pulled the wire as you flipped her through a couple times. My Dad use to tell me in the winter when it was real cold you drained the oil out of it the night before and put it on the stove and warmed it up then took it out and dumped it back in. Then you jacked one rear wheel up so it cranked easier. In the winter you ran Glycol in the radiator. Ours had an accessory waterpump. Never overheated. It always started and ran. We had a guy in town that had an old machine shop re-babbit the engine. I think he charged 50 bucks. lol
  24. hemihotrod66
    Joined: May 5, 2019
    Posts: 497


    The Model "A" Ford owners manual called for the oil pan to be removed every 500 miles to check bearing wear...I am sure the "T" was the same... They were never designed to run at interstate highway speeds.... They were reliable for the times they made for...
  25. Lots of stories over this side of the Atlantic of barn find T's firing up after 50 years stood. Here in Chester there was a T powered river boat that ran for decades with a cracked head

    Sent from my moto g(8) power using The H.A.M.B. mobile app
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  26. BTW, the body on my T Modified looked completely roached with deep rust pebbling on the scuttle. I had it blasted thinking it would turn to lace. Not at all. The metal was so thick that the pebbling wasn't a problem. Had it epoxy primed to oil rig standards, light skin of filler and painted it with a brush.

    Sent from my moto g(8) power using The H.A.M.B. mobile app
  27. Budget36
    Joined: Nov 29, 2014
    Posts: 7,569


    Speaking of flat tires back then, I had a neighbor who passed away in the early 2000’s at 101 years old, in the 90’s he told me a story about his first truck driving job. The truck had solid tires and several bar magnets hanging down off the front bumper

    I think this was in the 20’s, but his job was to drive a certain route and the magnets would pick up all the nails/ metal on the roads. He’d stop every so often and clean the magnets, fill up a bucket and dump in the back of the truck. He said is wasn’t uncommon to get several hundred pounds of metal in a day
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  28. RJP
    Joined: Oct 5, 2005
    Posts: 2,049

    from PNW

    In the early days of motoring. drivers didn't expect much. A mile without trouble was considered an achievement. You left early, carried most of what you needed for repairs and planned your day around the constant and frequent down time. Breakdowns were expected and tolerated. If you drove a T, you got there late, wet, cold and dirty.
    Truckdoctor Andy likes this.
  29. Horse shoe nails????

    Sent from my moto g(8) power using The H.A.M.B. mobile app
    MO54Frank likes this.
  30. Budget36
    Joined: Nov 29, 2014
    Posts: 7,569


    Not a clue, just a story he told me about. Makes sense though.
    Jrs50 likes this.

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