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Tin Lizzie’s uptown cousin

Ford Model A - 1928

18/04/2013 06:41 |  Comments: 

Contributing editor

8 years of working for IBM have chiselled Balázs’s English skills to a level inappropriately high for this magazine, but did much to blunt his interest towards office work and computers. Earlier a reader and seldom contributor, also a deeply affected car maniac, he left IBM and joined us for a longer term as a journalist, but he’s back again to making money – at another IT company. Luckily he kept on writing for us and hasn’t dropped his love for photography either.

In 1927 one of Ford’s ads run like this: “Everything you want or need in A Modern Automobile”, which pretty much means that we got weak and soft by now. Lazy and comfortable. We’ve got to face it: not only were those Fords tough back in the day. So were our great-grandfathers.

It's December 3rd, 2011. My brain already went numb from the freezing cold, and I cannot see a darn thing in the thick and sticky fog. The only sound I hear is an apathetic, steady rattling that's coming from two sources: my teeth and a kind tin wagon. My head may be a block of ice, but my heart is warm from the sight: a 1928 Ford Model A. The thought of driving it keeps me warm.

30 683: that's how many days have passed since the first owner paid 385 dollars for his new Model A. That means I'm one day late to celebrate its 84th anniversary. Still, I feel oddly warm, and I try holding on to that thought as I realize there is no heating in this Model A. To add to my inevitable hypothermia is that fact that the Triplex windshield doesn't close properly either.

Apart from that, the 1928 Model A Tudor is a proper car, even by today's standards. It can do anything that's really expected from a car. In 1928 it cost 495 dollars. By the way, do you know where the name ”Tudor” comes from? No, not from the dynasy. According to the legend, it got its name in honour of the Hungarian designers, like József Galamb, who pronounced “two-door” that way. Same with the four-door version being called Fordor. Anyway, I'm just simply grateful to those engineers.

Why? Because I didn't have to learn Irish step dance, unlike my colleague Csikós, who happened to review a Model T a while back. I read his article three times and I cannot for the life of me understand how to drive those damn things. The Model A, on the other hand, is a proper car having the controls right the way they should be: clutch, break, gas. Pedals in the right order, and yes, I am easily entertained.

The other reason for my gratitude is that those marvelous engineers built something to last. 4 849 340 Model A's were built in a span of four years. It's not much compared to the Model T, but definitely more than the company had built of the previous Model A. The 1927 model is actually the second car produced by Ford under that name, but it has as much in common with the first series, as General Lee with today's Dodge Chargers. The very first original Model A was bought by a dentist in Chicago, Dr. Ernst Pfenning in 1903. It was actually a rather successful car of its time with 1749 pieces being built.

But even if this 1928 model was the only one ever made, it would still be a wonder of the world. Days like this make me realize that sitting in a traffic jam in a beat-up W123 Mercedes is everything but driving a vintage car. On the other hand, what the owners of the Model A do sure is. As it happened three friends put their heads together and discussed the possibility of buying a vintage car, restore it and, well, enjoy it. One of them wanted a Mustang, another one was considering a fancy, old, full size sedan. At the end, they bought a Model A in fair condition. They took it completely apart, restored every last bolt, gave it a new a paintjob and upholstery, and then took off to FIVA (the European classic car exam). They passed it with flying colors.

Since then, they travelled the country through and back without any major problems. That is because, in case I haven't mentioned it yet, the Model A is a proper car. Not the trophy of some millionaire, stashed in a sealed garage, but a proper member of the traffic. It's even suitable for car chases. John Dillinger lost the cops in a Model A once. Another American gentleman, John Kilinger just finished his one-year project during which he used a 1930 Tudor as his daily driver.

Well, if he managed a whole year, how hard can one hour be? After Gergő, one of the owners, got in the passenger seat, he just sat there waiting. And then he did some more waiting, while I was standing outside, trying to figure out how I'm going to get in the driver's seat. Mind you, it's a lot easier to get in as with a Model T, since the Model A actually has a door on the driver's side, even if it's a rather tight one. By doing my best impression of a ballet-dancing Basset Hound, I managed to squeeze myself in without any major damages. To the car that is.

The steering wheel is huge, but everything else is tiny. The clutch and the break are like pedals from a bicycle. The gas looks more similar to a mushroom than a pedal. The seat is like a luxury-stool, the handbrake like a metal walking stick. It's actually rather lovely. “If you can start it, you can keep it,” said Gergő. After a couple of long minutes, spent in uncomfortable silence, looking rather blank, I just gave up. Since I will have so many other opportunities breaking the poor car, I might as well do it with the engine actually running.

The gas tank is between the dashboard and the bulkhead, and the fuel reaches the Zenith carburettor thanks to the help of Newton's invention: gravity. So, you have to first pump up the fuel using a chrome knob, then crank it with the ignition, which is another mushroom sticking out the carpet. Then you have to wait a bit. Pump up again, crank some, then wait some more. Pump, crank, wait! Pump, crankrraankrakaaakaka! It's alive! It's working! I could do this all day!

So after Gergő started the car, I got back into the driver's seat again, and it suddenly hit me just how much my parents screwed up my design: my legs are way too long, my arms are way too short...and weak too. The Model A is the car of a different era, when men were actually strong, and could turn the steering wheel with one hand. I bloody couldn't!

But before I tried turning the wheels, I actually had to set off. I was getting nervous, but Gergő just quietly said: “Don't worry, just gently release the clutch. Don't even bother with the gas.” CRACK-CRACK. First one was the clutch, the second was my neck. Amazing how much torque the 3.3 litre flathead had. So I stepped on the gas, gently rearranged my vertebras in the process, and then tried to put it in second. I heard another crack, this time from the 3-speed transmission.

And now reporting to you live from the driver's seat:

Let's try again: clutch down, out of first, clutch up, clutch down, into second. Piece of cake! Oh, we are going! I see a parking car coming right at us with a mind-bobbling speed of 30 kph, so I turn the wheel to the left a bit. I said a bit! I said turn! You see, you can turn! The cramps in my upper body are repressed by the decreasing blood-percentage of my adrenalin. The last hemoglobin disappears from my veins when the driver's side door just opens. Good thing there are no seatbelts. No wait, that's a bad thing. ‘Please close the door, slow down a bit and turn left,' Gergő says with as much excitement as if he was telling about his grocery list. I manage to close the door and turn the car. At this point I'd love to call a time out for a little breather. I think I've earned it; I've already driven a hundred meters. I step on the break, and after a while, the lamppost coming right at us seems to slow down. Then it stops. Amazing! The drum brakes do have strength but they are operated by pull rods, not hydraulics. Still, it's an amazing piece of machinery thanks to Jenő Farkas, József Galamb and the rest of the engineers.”

Unlike my esteemed colleague at the wheels of a Model T, I was too scared to take it on the road, I was happy with the huge parking lot of an industrial park. I'm weak, I know. After a couple of more rounds, I handed the controls over to Gergő, and we set off for some fuel. While cutting through the thick fog on a B-road, I had the chance to really appreciate the Model A.

You know what's the coolest feature in the car? The dashboard and its light. Imagine a Venetian mirror, with such a night light in the middle that we had as kids to keep the monsters under the bed. You know: the pink mushroom that had to be plugged directly into the socket. That's how the dashboard light looks like only it gives a yellowish light. It has a little hole on its side letting a stronger beam through it and the driver can turn that hole to the gauge he wants to read.

At twelve o'clock it had the fuel gauge, at three the charge indicator, but the best one was the speed gauge at six. It was like in an old Citroen BX, a turning cylinder with the numbers written on its side. The maximum speed was 103kph, but we were ok with doing 75. With the fuel gauge and the odometer, the drivers of the twenties could easily calculate the average consumption: 11 litres per 100 kilometers.

And you know what all that means? If a guy is adventurous enough, he can use it as a daily driver. The controls are like in a modern car. It's reliable. It can go and stop. It even has a horn, you know, with the sound of a cyborg donkey. It's got indicators too. For the trunk the sky is the limit, since it's a fold-down grill. Just make sure you have enough straps to keep your luggage stable. The straps can be kept under the backseat.

But if you really want to haul some stuff, it also had a pick up version. As well as a two-seater roadster, taxi or post office truck. There were all together thirty-four different versions available. The most common was the Tudor with 1 387 270 pieces built. The rarest, and with its 1200 dollar price tag also the most expensive, was the Town Car. Only 1198 pieces were ever produced.

It's one of the most sought after models among the fans of real vintage cars. It has a huge fan base and is also one of the cornerstones of the hot rod culture. But it's also very popular outside the United States, as it was also built in Argentina, Germany, England, Denmark, Ireland and Canada. On top of all that, there was a model licensed and built by the Soviets as well. Next to the originals and the hot rods, there are also some other custom styles as well. For instance a Finnish rally driver had a Model A pro-tourer built, with a 250bhp Cosworth-engine, modernized drum brakes and suspension.

As for me, at this point the only thing I can do is to raise my hat to our forefathers who double-clutched with their short legs, and held with one strong arm the steering wheel and with the other the thighs of our great-grandmothers.

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