Bob Coiro kindly granted
permission for me to post his buying guide here. This should be helpful
for anybody looking to buy that first Model T.
Model T Ford Buyer’s Guide
by Bob Coiro
Model T Fords come in three basic
flavors; the "brass cars" built between 1908 and 1916; the "steel cars"
built between 1917 and 1925 which were painted overall black including
the radiators; and the "improved cars" built in 1926 and 1927, which,
though available once again in some nice colors, were still powered by
the same basic Brass Era 4- banger and 2-speed planetary transmission,
and were still stopped by the same type of seriously outdated,
single-drum, drive-train brake.
Most if not all of the brass
Fords made between 1908 and 1911 had wooden bodies. A changeover was
made to sheet metal-covered wooden frames midway through the 1912 model
Brass cars command a much higher price
than the steel or improved cars. The earlier vintage brass cars are
worth much more than the later brass cars and even between back-to-back
model years, like 1912 and 1913, the 1912 car will command a
significantly higher price than the 1913 car. It's no surprise, then,
that the 1915 and 1916 model- year cars are the least expensive of the
brass cars (fetching somewhere in the neighborhood of $17,000 for a
very good daily driver with good paint, upholstery and top, in good
This pricing principle does not hold
true for the "steel cars," all of which are worth about the same price,
assuming identical body style (touring, roadster, etc.) and equal
condition. As far as daily-drivers are concerned, a fair steel car
might run $5,000; a good one, $10,000 and a creampuff might fetch
$13,000 (oh, and by the way, I'm not talking about show cars that win
trophies at sanctioned Antique Automobile Club of America competitions.
Prices for those rolling works of art—whether brass or steel—are
astronomical and you wouldn't dare drive one in traffic).
The "improved cars" enjoy upgrades
like balloon tires, geared-down steering and slightly better brakes. In
terms of price, they're worth about the same as the black cars, but
look so similar to the Model A Ford that you almost might as well get
one of those and enjoy its greater cruising speed and highway
As originally manufactured, the
earlier Model T's were lighter and had slightly more power. They do
perform better than the later cars, but that isn't really saying very
much. The Model T is not a highway car. Its best cruising speed is
about 35 mph — 40, if you don't mind abusing the engine. That means
most of your afternoon drives will pretty much be limited to a forty or
fifty-mile radius. Taking a Model T beyond that distance involves
either getting out of bed earlier or towing the car on a trailer. That
having been said, in the summer of 2009, fifty-four Model T Fords drove
from New York to Seattle. Traveling in caravan is much easier, safer
and more fun than going it alone.
For reasons of simplicity (and perhaps
a reluctance on the part of Mr. Ford to pay royalties to those who held
patents on more conventional accessories), theModel T had some basic
equipment unique unto itself. This included a flywheel-mounted,
low-voltage magneto; 4-coil ignition and a 2-speed planetary
transmission featuring a brake that transmitted the braking impulse
down the drive-shaft, through the differential, to that rear wheel
which had the least traction. The most important thing to understand
about driving Model T is that it was designed to have the same braking
capability as the Titanic. It will take time and patience to learn to
drive a Model T. In fact, it's best to have someone teach you.
People think of the Model T as being
tough to the point of being indestructible. That's a myth. In some
ways, it is far more delicate than any modern car—yet many thousand
examples of this century-old design are on the road today. The car's
obstinate longevity is mostly due to its having been produced in
ridiculously large numbers, its go-kart simplicity and a
super-availability of parts (not to mention the best technical advice
forum on the internet). Aside from powerplant overhauls, you can pretty
much do all of your own maintenance. The car always needs tinkering and
a little at a time, you'll learn what you need to know about twirling
screwdrivers and bending cotterpins.
Here are some questions to consider
while making a pre- purchase inspection:
What is the general condition of the
car and is everything on it in working condition? A generally dirty car
with dust on the seats hasn't been run in a while and that tells you
something about recent maintenance. That doesn't mean a car that looks
good is good—because the race is not always to the swift, nor the
battle always to the strong, but if you're going to bet, that's the way
Has the car suffered any damage or
been in a serious accident? A century-old car is going to be carrying
some baggage, so it's not reasonable to expect a vestal virgin, but as
a first-time buyer, you definitely want to avoid a car that has
structural issues like a bent frame.
Is the front end nice and tight? It's
easy enough to rough- test for tightness in the front end by rocking
the steering wheel side to side and checking for excessive play. If
you're mechanically inclined, taking the play out of a loose front end
is fairly straightforward, but for a newbie, it's a headache you don't
need right off the bat.
Is there any rust on the car? Model T
Fords are made of some seriously good quality materials, but corrosion
on a car is never a good thing. Perforation rust on the body is more
serious than fender rust because it may be indicating the presence of
wood rot beneath. Most Model T's have wooden frames covered by sheet
So, is there any wood-rot in the body?
Fixing this problem can be expensive and difficult. Significant wood
rot is a problem for an experienced restorer, not a first-time antique
Is there a lot of Bondo in the body?
This isn't critically important, but it can become a point when
In what condition is the paint job?
Same as above.
In what condition is the upholstery?
Ditto. Is this car a Ford-factory-built original, or was it custom-
built later on from parts? This is a value-related question. An
original is simply worth more.
Does the engine start well when
hand-cranked? Some of these cars have self-starters and that includes
retro-fitment of some of the early brass cars which came out of the
factory with no electrical system whatsoever. A starter is a wonderful
thing to have because when you stall the car in heavy traffic, setting
the brake and getting out front to begin a lengthy wrestling match with
a stubborn engine while frustrated, angry drivers are trying to pass at
close quarters, can be a humbling experience. At the very least, you
want a non-self-starting car to start easily when hand- cranked.
Does the engine run smoothly, have
good power, etc.? A correctly running, stock Model T engine is a joy to
drive. A properly set-up magneto is important because getting in there
to adjust the thing is just not a practical option for someone new to
the hobby. On the other hand, the four individual coils, which also
benefit greatly from proper adjustment, are very accessible and if you
don't have the expertise to adjust them yourself, it's a simple matter
to ship them out to an expert like "The Coil Doctor," who will have
them singing like The Shirelles.
Does the engine have a
high-compression head? A high compression head is the most effective
piece of bolt-on performance equipment you can buy. Don't expect a big
increase in cruising speed, but acceleration and hill-climbing ability
will be measurably improved. Other enhancements might include a
later-model carburetor, like the NH, and/or a bigger intake manifold.
These are all easy to get.
Does the car have a generator? If not,
then by what method is the battery charged and where is the battery
mounted? None of the brass-radiator Fords were manufactured with any
kind of electrical system. In fact, when electric headlights replaced
acetylene headlamps in 1915, these were wired up to the engine's
magneto. The headlights would be nice and bright at 30 mph, but dimmed
down to almost nothing when the car slowed for turns. Legend has it
that you could burn out the bulbs by exceeding 40 mph with the
headlights switched on. Henry Ford seemed to pride himself on being the
first to be last and he didn't begin installing electrical systems in
his cars until 1919, when 6-volt batteries and generators appeared for
the first time on the Model T. The brass cars can be retro-fitted with
electrical systems, but of course, that would be a significant
departure from originality.
Is the radiator of the round-tube or
flat-tube type? The original round-tube radiator won't cool as
efficiently as the aftermarket, flat-tube radiators being manufactured
today. The issue is originality vs. function.
Is the front wishbone attached to the
top or to the bottom of the front axle? Originally, the front wishbone
was attached to the top of the front axle. For reasons of safety
related to loss of steering control, that geometry was changed in 1919
by instead attaching the wishbone to the bottom of the axle. Some of
the earlier cars have been retrofitted.
Are the thrust washers in the
differential made of babbitt or bronze? The original babbitt thrust
washers in the differential have not aged well and so developed a
tendency to fall apart. When that happens, the firm mesh of gears
between the drive shaft and the differential can loosen to the point
where the drive-train brake is rendered inoperative and the only
remaining means of stopping the
car would be the parking brake (unless you happen to have some kind of
auxiliary brakes installed on the rear wheels).
Does the car have a Ruckstell rear
end? This 2-speed, shiftable differential was one of the few
aftermarket items of which Henry Ford approved, and some of Ford's
dealers offered this as an option. It's a nice thing to have if you
live in a very hilly area or if you're going to be driving in parades.
The most serious disadvantage of a Ruckstell is that it can get stuck
in neutral between gears and that
renders the drive- train brake completely ineffective.
Does the car have Rocky Mountain
brakes? If you have a Ruckstell rear end, you need Rocky Mountain
Brakes (or some other kind of auxiliary brakes). Rocky Mountain Brakes
became available as an aftermarket item in 1917. They improve the Model
T Ford's braking ability dramatically, from abominable to bad. Rocky
Mountain brakes are of the "self-energizing" type, which means they
don't stop very well when the car is rolling backwards. They're also
reputed to work badly in wet conditions (and this is why the original
drive-train brake, which functions in either direction and in wet
conditions, should be retained even when the car is retrofitted with
Rocky Mountain brakes).
Some folks have mounted disc brakes to
the Model T and that modification is commercially available. Though
these are extremely high quality units, that doesn’t change the fact
that the car has awfully skinny wheels and when your tires have the
same footprint as a shot-glass, the best disc brakes in the world won't
stop the car in any shorter distance than the Rocky Mountain type.
Does the car have de-mountable wheels?
De-mountable rims became available in 1919 and they make for much
simpler and quicker flat tire changes on the road, assuming you're
carrying spares. They're not correct on earlier cars, but that hasn't
stopped a lot of people from retrofitting brass cars that frequently go
Does the car have an electric brake
tail light and directional signals? In an open car with the top down,
you may get away with hand signals, but an enclosed car that is driven
in traffic really needs turn signals because hand signals won't be
visible to someone on the right side of the car. Either way, at least
one brake-light is a must, for obvious reasons.
Does the car have safety glass? Think
of the old type of glass windshield as a guillotine. Replacing such
panes with safety glass is a must.
When was the last time the car was
driven? How often is the car driven? Has it participated in any tours?
Active cars tend to be healthier cars. To take an inactive car out of
mothballs invariably costs significant bucks
Buy the best car you can afford. It's
almost always cheaper to find and
buy the one that's already restored and equipped as you like than it is
to buy a basket case and restore it yourself.