The Magazine

Tin Lizzie Tales

The car that made our automotive culture.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By RICHARD STRINER
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Ford the liberator was at war with Ford the punitive paternalist. Casey concludes that he "saw the tough, utilitarian, slowly evolving Model T as not only all the car that people would ever need--it was all the car they should ever want."

By the twenties, however, this attitude led to falling sales. The ruggedness, the sheer primitivism, of the Model T seemed worse with every passing year. The car had to be cranked, and yet the crank could kick back and break your wrist. The gas tank was under the car's front seat, and there was no gas gauge provided. You had to check the level of the gas by using a dipstick--very hard (and dangerous) at night. To check the oil, you had to crawl under the car and open two completely separate petcocks. There was no windshield wiper until Ford offered one that was cranked by hand as the driver tried to steer. There was no heater.

As early as 1914 an independent publication called The Fordowner did a lively business giving troubleshooting tips to Ford drivers. This could not go on. Ford, surrounded by yes-men--his best designers and production men began defecting to Chevrolet--was persuaded at last by his clever son Edsel to discontinue "T" production in 1927. But he did so bitterly.

The Model T Ford is especially effective in describing what it felt like to drive one. Robert Casey's powers of description make it easy for us to imagine what it must have been like when the driver had to race from the front of the car after cranking the engine to adjust the faraway "spark lever" on the steering column. Or when the driver had to manage three different pedals on the floor. They controlled the car's "planetary transmission" (no gear-shift lever in the "T") in coordination with the throttle lever on the steering column and the separate hand lever to the left of the driver that held the transmission in neutral while locking the emergency brakes on the rear wheels. (These emergency brakes were intended to prevent the car from rolling in a stationary position.) But to stop the car in motion, one had to use a pedal that applied direct force to the transmission instead of to the wheels.

Was this dangerous? Very dangerous, and Casey's book makes all of this beautifully clear. It is a masterpiece in many different ways. A short study of a man and his machine, The Model T Ford explores all the quirky contradictions of both. It shows the brilliance and myopia that animated Henry Ford's vision. Through the limited task of presenting this centennial study, Casey has found a way to write an exemplary work that has synthesized biography, corporate history, cultural commentary, engineering analysis, and elements of psychology--individual and social--without a trace of intellectual pretension. And there are no false notes in this book. None at all.

Richard Striner, professor of history at Washington College, is the author, most recently, of Father Abraham: Lincoln's Relentless Struggle to End Slavery.