How fast were cars in 1920

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1920 Ford Model T

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Roy RitchiephotographerDon Shermanwriter
Nov 10, 2008

The Ford Model T is the auto world's granddaddy big-kahuna megastar. This is the machine that liberated mankind from rural isolation and offered the masses their first taste of urban culture. It almost single-handedly revolutionized the automobile's role from a plaything for the wealthy to a cherished member of the average household. During its 1908 to 1927 production run, more than 15 million Model Ts were built and sold around the world. No single innovation before or since has done more to burnish America's reputation for ingenuity.

One more Ford Model T factoid: before this account, few at Automobile Magazine had driven one. To rectify that lapse and to toast the T on its one-hundredth birthday, we arranged a test drive in an unrestored 1920 Centerdoor sedan owned for twenty-five years by Matt Lee of Plymouth, Michigan.

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Lee is our kind of enthusiast. Instead of fussing over his T's sixty-year-old paint job or the fact that the doors no longer latch securely because the Fisher-built, wood-framed body has suffered old-age spread, he enjoys driving his car frequently, even in the dead of winter. For the past six years, this T has served as a tangible link to early engineering in the Evolution of the Automobile class Lee teaches at Washtenaw Community College in Ypsilanti, Michigan.

My test drive began with readiness checks. In lieu of a fuel gauge, a wooden ruler is used to measure the level of gasoline in the ten-gallon tank located beneath the driver's seat. To check the oil level in the common engine/transmission sump, I reached under the T's chassis with a long extension handle to momentarily twist open two brass petcocks. Drips from the top one indicate excess oil; as long as the bottom petcock dribbles lube, you're good to go.

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Even though his T is blessed with an electric starter (available factory equipment beginning in 1919), Lee taught me how to swing the hand crank poking out the front of the car. "Nearly all engines rotate clockwise," my professor explained, "because that arrangement best suited a right-handed man." Making sure not to wrap my thumb around the handle in case of a backfire, I engaged the ratchet teeth and gave the crank a quick upward yank. The 20-hp, 2.9-liter four-banger fired instantly and settled into its familiar chuff-chuff-chuff idle. As you'd expect with heavy pistons stroking a full four inches and not a hint of counterweight on the spindly crankshaft, all Model Ts shake like North Pole sunbathers.

The soft suspension took a set when I climbed the two-step staircase to the driver's seat. Because Ts paved the way for roads instead of vice versa, the running gear had to be elevated to clear stumps. One of several accessory upgrades fitted to this car is a Hassler "shock absorber" mounted inboard of each wheel. They're actually coil springs that work in series with the transverse, semielliptic leaf springs to soften ride motions. That they do, but they also allow the body to totter around corners. Real shock absorbers (dampers) were not fitted to Fords until the Model A replaced the T in 1928.

Henry Ford's gift to novice drivers-a pedal-shifted transmission-didn't intimidate me, because I had studied its operation in advance. After releasing the parking brake, stepping assertively on the left pedal commences forward motion. Lifting off that pedal shifts the planetary transmission from low to high gear. You press the center pedal for reverse and the right pedal to slow down. The throttle is a small hand lever sprouting out the right side of the steering column.

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The above operating theory is one thing-not crashing or breaking Lee's baby quite another. First, I had to ignore several decades of H-pattern, heel-and-toe, and clutch-finesse habits. The second trick was finding and holding the left pedal's neutral position. It's located somewhere between the low- and high-gear engagement points and must be used every time you intend to stop or back up. Unfortunately, mashing the pedals is serious work, and none of them provides a hint of feedback. You know you've operated the controls correctly only when the T moves smoothly in the intended direction without growling and vibrating like an angry cement mixer.

With 83 lb-ft of torque available at a scant 900 rpm, stalling a T engine is difficult, but it can be done. Low gear is good for only 10 or 12 mph. The smooth operator moves the left pedal quickly out of low and through neutral, then slowly as high gear kicks in.

Depending on engine rpm, the speed of travel, and the bumps I struck, every piece of Lee's T shook at a different frequency and intensity. What it lacked in comfort, it more than made up in pain. The steering is heavy-handed, bumper-car fast, and only loosely connected to the wooden-spoked front wheels. The harder I pressed the pedals, the deeper I wedged a sharp edge of seat frame between two lumbar vertebrae. The level of concentration required to herd this Ford straight ahead at 30 mph was more than any modern car requires at four times that velocity. Discretion outranking valor, I chose not to verify this T's 35-mph top speed.

Like all good professors, Lee grades on a curve. For returning his pride and joy to the garage with no burned clutches or bent fenders and for skillfully working the pedals, I was ranked among the top five percent of his Model T driving class.

Original Price: $975 (1920 Centerdoor)Value today: $10,000Engine: 2.9-liter side-valve in-line 4Transmission: 2-speed pedal-controlled planetaryPower: 20 hp @ 1600 rpmTorque: 83 lb-ft @ 900 rpmWeight: 1875 lbBrake: Contracting band (inside transmission)Top speed: 35 mphFuel Economy: 20 mpg

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1920 Ford Model T

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