October 5, 2014.
She’s a beaut, ain’t she?
1915 Ford Model T.
I took this and the photos below one year ago today, October 5, 2013, intending to post them here back then. I don’t know why I didn’t. Yes, I do. The car and its crew were on their way to Detroit on their way back from Detroit which they’d reached the first time by way of Winnepeg by way of Edmonton by way of Yellowstone by way of Vegas by way California by way of the Grand Canyon by way of Texas by way of…Africa by way of Europe, having started in the Netherlands. I called ahead to friends in the newspaper business out there to alert them there were people coming to town with a great story to tell. I held off on the post, thinking I’d include the link to the articles my friends would write that I was sure would include lots of information I hadn’t been able to get in the short time I was able to talk to the drivers.
My friends never came through.
Anyway, after I realized my friends had let me down, I decided I could do the reporting myself by email, but I let it slide. Then I let it slide again. Then again. Then…life happened and while I was busy with that my meeting with the Model T and its owners just slipped my mind. But this morning I happened to be going to the supermarket and something about the weather or the view from where I parked in the lot jogged my memory.
I thought, Wasn’t it right around this time a year ago that Model T was here?
When I got home I went through the photos in my albums, found the pictures I took that day, and checked the date.
I still don’t have the information I was hoping my newspaper pals would gather for me but I figure I better post the photos and the story as I know it so far now or another year might get away from me.
So, after doing some more Googling for updates and re-visiting the owner’s website, here’s what I’ve got.
Late in the afternoon year ago today, which was a Saturday, I pulled into the lot at the supermarket and there was this jaunty jalopy parked in a back row, acting like it was minding its own business but really hard at work demanding intense scrutiny from the nosey likes of me and just begging to have its picture taken.
I believe in being kind to old cars.
Somebody sure had been kind to this one.
I’m hardly a car buff, antique or new, but I can appreciate a work of mechanical art and I took time to do some appreciating of the brass fittings, wooden steering wheel, red leather upholstery, pink velvet slip covers on the seats…
…forest green paint job. That amused me. Made me remember the old joke about the Model T, that you could get it in any color you want as long as that’s black.
I knew that wasn’t strictly true. I didn’t need to read it in Bill Bryson’s One Summer, America 1927, but since I’ve read it since, I’ll quote it, because Bryson puts these things better than I can:
Early versions of the car [the first rolled off the assembly line in 1908] came in a small range of colors but the colors depended on which model one bought. Runabouts were gray, touring cars red, and town cars green. Black, notably, was not available at all. It became the exclusive color in 1914 simply because black enamel was the only color that would dry fast enough to suit Henry Ford’s assembly line-methods and that lasted only until 1924, when blue, green, and red were made available.
Like I said, I knew that.
One thing to note is that the Model T came in several models. Ford intended the Model T to be affordable for everyone, but affordable is in the bank account of the buyer, and Ford recognized that every car wasn’t going to be used to meet the same needs. If I couldn’t have guessed by its size and roominess, the green paint job would have told me this particular Model T was a town car, built to take families to church on Sundays and for the owner to show off in a little bit when he drove to work or she drove downtown to shop.
I’m emphasizing the she up there because Ford had women in mind when he designed the Model T, although more as passengers than as drivers, something I didn’t know until I learned it from Bryson:
One central characteristic of the Model T now generally forgotten is that it was the first car of consequence to put the driver’s seat on the left-hand side. Previously, nearly all manufacturers placed the driver on the outer, curb-side of the car so that an alighting driver could step out onto a grassy verge or dry sidewalk rather than into the mud of an unpaved road. Ford reasoned that the convenience might be better appreciated by the lady of the house, and so arranged seating for her benefit. The arrangement also gave the driver a better view down the road and made it easier for passing drivers to stop and have a conversation out facing windows. Ford was not great thinker, but he did understand human nature.
Couple other things to note.
The first is that while early on in the history of automobiles in America there were few paved roads and virtually none outside of larger cities and towns and stepping out of the car into mud was routine, it’s amazing how fast that changed, a story told in another good book, this one by Earl Swift, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways.
The other thing is that right from the first, when the first cars hit the roads, women were getting behind the wheel (or steering sticks. Steering wheels were a later innovation). Women had been driving wagons, buggies, carts, and carriages for centuries, so why wouldn’t they drive horseless carriages? Car manufacturers were quick to recognize this and began designing and marketing accordingly but while keeping something else in mind. Expanding prosperity was allowing more and more married middle-class to actually be or at least think of themselves as ladies of the house with the interesting contradiction as a result: cars were advertised as simultaneously advancing women’s independence and reinforcing stereotypical gender roles. You can really see this contradiction in overdrive in car advertisements from the 1950s when women behind the wheels of their cars were depicted at the same time as good and responsible wives and mothers, independent spirits with lives and careers and needs of their own that they could take care of themselves thanks to their cars, and objects of sexual allure---Where was she going? Where had she been, all on her own?
Have to shift into reverse and back up here.
Either Bryson got it wrong about when black became the standard color for Model T’s, 1914, or some 1915 modes were built in 1915 and this particular car was one of the last available in green, or whoever restored it wasn’t a stickler for historical detail. But car collectors usually are sticklers. They’re also fussy. They like their cars looking as though they just rolled off the showroom floor, and what struck me was that the paint job didn’t look new. What I mean is that it didn’t shine. Obviously, it wasn’t likely the original paint and I had no way of telling how long ago it had been applied so there it could have been years old. But it didn’t just look time-worn. It looked road-worn. I didn’t spot any conspicuous scrapes, scratches, nicks, or dings, but the weather had definitely done a job on it. This wasn’t a museum piece or rich guy’s toy that spent most of its time garaged or wrapped in a tarp only to be taken out for car shows and weekend jaunts. This car had been driven.
This turned out to be an understatement.
This map was on the side panel.
The car was on a trip around the world!
The black lines on the map mark where it had been, the red chart where it was going. It had already traveled south through Europe, down the length of Africa, and most of the way around the United States and was on its way back to Detroit by way of New England and Maine and then along the Canadian border.
Like I said. It had been driven.
While I was standing there taking pictures and admiring this fact, three people in late middle age, a man and two women, came out of the supermarket pushing a couple of carts loaded with groceries up to the car. I saw them coming and guessed who they were well before they reached the car. The man and one of the women were thin and wiry in a way most Americans their age aren’t anymore. Sixty-ish Americans who aren’t overweight tend to be fit and trim or frail-looking and scrawny. These two had the spare builds of people who had gone easy on the beef and potatoes and soda all their lives without obsessing about it and kept themselves in shape not by going to the gym but by walking to the store and puttering around the house instead of parking themselves in front of their televisions for hours on end. The other woman was stout and hale, again in a way Americans her age usually aren’t, like someone who had always eaten well but not too well and hadn’t had the time or the vanity to watch her weight. You might say she’d grown heavy but it wouldn’t occur to you to say she’d gotten fat. In short, they looked like what I already knew them to be from the names and home address painted on the front fender, Europeans.
On the Mr and Mrs Sprat principle, the man and the second woman were a couple. Dirk and Trudy Retger of Edam in the Netherlands. (On the car it said Holland. And on a couple of places on their website and on one of their YouTube videos they identify their home as Holland, as well. Did I miss a memo?) It was their car and they were its usual drivers. The other woman, whose name I didn’t file away, was a friend who was only along for this part of the trip, one of what I learned later were several friends and relatives who came and went as their personal schedules allowed to act as co-pilots and assistant mechanics and, simply, to provide company.
Dirk and Trudy, accompanied on and off by these volunteers, were driving their Model T around the world. Not in one go. They were taking it in stages, returning home to the Netherlands between jaunts around, across, and up and down continents to rest, regroup, make needed repairs, and prepare for the next leg, the car crisscrossing the ocean by boat. After they were done with North America, their plan was to loop South America and swing up into Central America in 2014, spend the next year crossing Australia and Asia and finish by coming home west through Europe in 2015 when the car will be 100 years old.
They were all three friendly and open and willing to talk about the car and the trip---although Dirk did most of the talking---and, naturally, their English was good, but they were in a bit of a hurry to get back to the campgrounds where they were spending the night. They had guests coming for dinner and wanted to turn in early in order to get back on the road first thing in the morning. And here’s where I made my reporting mistake. Instead of asking what I really wanted to know, which was how did a car built in the United States a hundred years ago end up tooling its way around the world out of Holland and what had Dirk and Trudy had to do to make it road-worthy and where had they gotten the parts and why a Model T anyway, I asked them about this:
They have a cause. I don’t think it’s their whole reason for making the trip---they’re doing it for the fun and adventure and challenge---but they decided to do some good while making it. That is on their website along with a how to make a donation if you’re interested.
What isn’t on the website are answers to my unasked questions. I was hoping my friends in Detroit would get those questions asked and answered. Like I said, my friends let me down. You might think the Retgers and their Model T would be news wherever they went and in some towns they were. I did the Googling. But the reporters for newspapers in those towns apparently didn’t ask those questions. Amazingly, neither did anyone from antique car clubs they visited who met them and wrote about it on the club website. Instead of wanting to know about the car, it seems most people want to know about the drive itself and not as a driving adventure for human and car alike but as a sight-seeing tour. Among the sights the Retgers have seen are elephants in one of their campsites in Africa and Jay Leno.
I did learn that Dirk is a third-generation Model T buff. His father and his grandfather both loved the Model T. It’s not clear if either Retger seniors owned or restored their own cars. If Retger senior senior did there’s the possibility that it was around for World War II and so I’ve got more questions: Did it survive the war and how did it make it through if it did? What happened to it if it didn’t?
I’m planning to email Dirk and Trudy and ask them all my questions. I’m not expecting an immediate reply. Right now Dirk and a team of friends---Trudy’s back home but planning to rejoin them soon---are on their way into Argentina from the south, having come down the length of South America from Columbia through mountain regions of Ecuador, Peru, and Boliva and then along the Pacific coast of Chile to Tierra del Fuego. They’re headed for Brazil where they’ll finish this year’s leg of the journey. There’s a problem at the moment. A broken axle. But Dirk doesn’t seem too worried about it. They’re getting a tow from a Land Rover to a shop he knows of where he can get it fixed.
I wonder if he scouted out repair shops around the world ahead of time. He probably did. Something else to ask him, though.
Meantime, while waiting for him to get back to me---that’s assuming I don’t drop the ball on this again---I’ll hand things back over to Bill Bryson and give him the last word on Model T’s for today:
The Model T, like Ford himself, was an unlikely candidate for greatness. It was almost willfully rudimentary. For years the car had no speedometer and no gas gauge. Drivers who wanted to know how much gas they had in the tank had to stop the car, get out, and tip back the driver’s seat to check a dipstick located on the chassis floor. Determining the oil level was even trickier. The owner, or some other complaint soul, had to slide under the chassis, open two petcocks with pliers, and judge from how fast the oil ran out how much and how urgently more was needed. [That had changed by 1915. You can see in the third photo up that the Retgers’ Model T has four gauges, with the one on the left of the steering wheel appearing to be the speedometer.] For shifting, the car employed something called a planetary transmission, which was famously idiosyncratic. It took much practice to master the two forward gears and one reverse one. The headlights, run off a magento, were uselessly dim at low speeds and burned so hot at high speeds that they were inclined to explode. The front and rear tires were of different sizes, a needless quirk that required every owner to carry two sets of spares. [Scroll up four photos and there they are.] Electric starters didn’t become standard until 1926, years after nearly all other manufacturers included them as a matter of routine. [Another question for Dirk: Did his Model T come with one or did he install one during the rebuild? I’m assuming he and Trudy haven’t been handcranking the engine into action.]
Yet the Model T inspired great affection…For all its faults, the Model T was practically indestructible, easily repaired, strong enough to pull itself through mud and snow, and built high enough to clear ruts at a time when most rural roads were unpaved. It was also admirably adaptable. Many farmers modified their Model T’s to plow fields, saw lumber, pump water, bore holes, or otherwise perform useful tasks.
Again, that’s from One Summer, America 1927, in which Ford appears as a character not on account of his cars but because of his being the defendant in a lawsuit arising from his virulent anti-Semitism and his ill-conceived, ill-fated attempt to establish what he intended to be a model American community around a rubber plantation in Brazil supplying his factories in the United States with rubber for tires.
[Ford] hated…being dependent on suppliers who might raise prices or otherwise take advantage of him, so he always did all in his power to control all the elements of his supply chains. To that end, he owned iron ore and coal mines, forests and lumber mills, the Detroit, Toledo & Irontown Railroad, and a fleet of ships. When he decided to make his own windshields he became at a stroke the second-largest manufacturer of glass in the world. For owned four thousand acres of forests in upper Michigan. The Ford lumber mills proudly boasted that they used every bit of the tree but the shade. Bark, sawdust, sap---all were put to commercial use. (One Ford product still with us from this process is the Kingsford charcoal briquette.) Ford could not bear the thought of having to stop production because some foreign despot or business cabal was denying him access to some needed product---and by the 1920s he was the single biggest user of rubber on earth. Thus it was in the summer of 1927 that Henry Ford embarked on the most ambitious, and ultimately most foolish, venture of his long life: Fordlandia.
There’s another good book to look into, Greg Grandin’s Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Jungle City.
Lots to explore on the Retgers’ website, even without the answers to my particular questions. News, photos, maps, and a few videos, like this one: