No Modern Car Can Match the Model T's Modding Community

·11 min read
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh

Modifying cars is codified into the history of America. The minute two cars pulled up next to each other at a dusty intersection in the Midwest, one of those coachmen decided his horseless carriage needed to be superior.

This story originally appeared in Volume 12 of Road & Track.

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Customizing is about expression and value. It’s about incremental spending and fine-tuning. It’s a David-and-Goliath story, like making your three-year-old Corvette accelerate as quickly as a $4 million Bugatti.

And it’s not just decades—at this point, we’re talking a century of modifying. There’s a solid chance your great-grandfather was an early home-tuner. A hundred years ago, while the Gilded Age barons donned their leather helmets and raced their Mercers, Simplexes, and Bugattis, 15 million average folks were getting the itch for speed behind the wheel of a Ford Model T.

Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh

A Model T cost as little as $260, or about $7850 in today’s money—90 percent less than a European sports car. To experience a Model T is to first learn where that money didn’t go. Most Model Ts are famously all black, saving on paint cost. Later models had no fancy brass work. There are no real brakes, no fuel pump, and only two forward gears. The Model T was revolutionary, yes. But from the factory it was also too basic for many owners. Ford’s assembly-line construction changed the automotive industry forever, and the sheer ubiquity of the Model T meant millions of owners would take fixing its shortcomings into their own hands.

The Model T birthed the automotive aftermarket. You could get anything for these cars. There were mechanical improvements, cosmetic tweaks, durability upgrades, and more. Extensive catalogs, many of which still exist, showed you could customize your T to any specific need, style, or condition you might encounter. And people did.

John Bothwell has five Model Ts in his personal collection, along with a variety of other early cars, from Locomobiles to Rolls-Royces. Professionally, Bothwell is the director of Pur Sang Argentina, a company building period-correct replicas of pre-war grand prix cars using, wherever possible, the exact methods and blueprints from the originals. In fact, if you own a real 1924 Bugatti Type 35 and need spare parts, Volkswagen’s Bugatti can’t help you. Pur Sang is who you call.

Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh

Bothwell became passionate about the Model T after inheriting one from his grandfather and, with shockingly little preparation, joining my friends and me on a 1200-mile off-road drive across Utah.

Grandpa’s Model T proved adept on the dirt,billy-goating up trails that would challenge all but the most dedicated off-roaders. The skinny tires, extraordinary ground clearance, low gear-ing, and atmospheric-pressure cooling system are particularly suited to the task. Its biggest limitations popped up on the short paved sections, where it had a top speed of just 45 mph. It also had a period-modified overhead-valve head that required constant fiddling. Bothwell made notes and plans and acquired more Model Ts.

Four years later, we’ve met up at Apple ValleySpeedway, a dustbowl of a road course out in the California high desert, for a little experiment: What’s it like to drive two extreme ends of the Model T tuning spectrum?

Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh

Bothwell has brought a pair of cars for us today, both in impeccable condition: The “Speedster,” as its name implies, is a race car, and the “Super T” was built from his notes made during our off-road trip, with every conceivable period-correct off-road modification. It’s the 108-year-old equivalent of a modern PreRunner.

When they’re parked next to each other, you cannot believe these two vehicles started out the same. Aesthetically, the off-roader is what you picture a Model T to look like in your head, with the carriage-like soft top, folding glass windshield, and high-riding bench seat. The Speedster looks nothing at all like a Model T; it looks like an early Indy car, with no bodywork, no grab handles, no nothing. Just an engine, a few rails, and two seats. The engine is moved back eight inches, revealing the original mounting holes in the frame rails, now far in front of the radiator.

Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh

To say a Model T is not like a modern car would be a drastic understatement. Controls weren’t standardized at the time, something you take for granted once you try to drive one. The last time I tried was in Southern California traffic, which was terrifying. Here, we’re alone in the desert, like we might have been back then. Out here, there is no danger of being run over by a latte-sipping Tesla driver on a conference call.

I crawl awkwardly into the Super T from the passenger’s side, over the aftermarket gear levers that now dominate the cabin, and settle in. Size-12New Balances were the wrong choice.

There are two small controls on the wheel, a hand-brake lever, and the same three pedals the car left Detroit with a century ago. But the additional floor-mount levers add capability: One controls the Warford three-speed transmission attached to the standard planetary drive unit, and the other controls a Ruxtell two-speed differential. That’s 12 ratios, ranging from a high of about 60 mph on the freeway to a low crawl of about 1.

The 2.9-liter four-cylinder engine is modified for power and durability, with a bigger cam, an aftermarket water pump, a flat-tube radiator, and a high-compression head featuring oversize valves. It breathes through a Schebler carburetor and lubricates itself with a finned aluminum oil pan, transmission oil scoop, and external return line. The Super T cranks out about 40 hp, a healthy improvement over the stock 20 hp.

Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh

Bothwell has fitted later–Model T wire wheels(most Ts had wooden wheels) and non-“clincher” tires, which only came on the ’26 and ’27 T. Out-board Rocky Mountain drum brakes and a pickup bed, rather than the turtle-deck trunk, round out the package. It’s all fairly stealthy; even a T enthusiast might have to look carefully to notice the extra levers and wider tires. Although there are more modern modifications for the T, everything on this particular vehicle would have been available from a catalog in 1926.

The Super T really leans into the spirit of American motoring: freedom to just go. It’s practical, reliable, and relatively comfortable in a variety of environments, from cobblestoned city streets to rutted, rocky dirt tracks. Though the hand throttle lever on the right side of the steering wheel is somewhat clunky by today’s standards, in its time, you were likely the only car around for hours of driving; it’s basically cruise control. With just a quick lesson, I was able to get comfortable driving the Super T without stalling, bogging, or breaking anything. Even in 90-degree desert heat, the engine temperature barely registered on the radiator-mounted thermometer. Unlike Bothwell’s first off-road excursion in Grandpa’s T, this one’s engine doesn’t use overhead valves, minimizing the potential need to make adjustments in the field.

It is mind-boggling how good the Super T is off-road. Though bouncy, thanks to non-dampened leaf-spring suspension, its 21-inch wheels and impressive ground clearance make short work of a rutted-out, unmaintained fire road. Shifted into one of the lower gears, the Super T easily made it up what can only be called a hiking or dirt-bike trail filled with loose boulders. In fact, the Super T’s only real limitation is long, steep hills—the gravity-fed fuel system doesn’t work over an eight percent grade. The suggestion in the Model T user manual? Go up steep hills in reverse. “I’m thinking of adding some kind of pressurized fuel system to solve this one,” Bothwell says, as we carefully back down the one hill we’ve failed to climb.

Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh

Driving in the desert feels oddly at home and relaxing in the Super T. You don’t need anything resembling actual roads, as it will clear sagebrush or downed small trees. Basketball-size rocks barely bother it. The wheels may be wire, but they are steel wire and very tough. The key is to drive with loose hands, letting the T move around a bit on the trail as it follows the ruts and undulations. The steering is very quick, never requiring more than a small shuffle even to go full lock to lock. The turning radius is excellent. And because of the high-compression engine, using gears for braking is far more effective than using the drum brakes (which themselves are far more effective than the stock transmission brake). If you had to cross the frontier 100 years ago, this would be a superior choice and the envy of everyone on the range.

The Speedster’s bag of tricks comes from the mind of someone who would have wanted a much more expensive Mercer or Hispano Suiza, but on a budget. The entire powertrain is moved behind the front tires for a front-mid-engine configuration, with an absolutely wild double-chain and sprocket setup splitting the steering shaft. The essentials-only body is completely custom and handmade, with raked-back bucket seats and a rear-mounted fuel tank held in by leather straps.

The engine runs the stock 2.9-liter displacement but with a balanced, billet crankshaft, a high-compression OHV “Indianapolis” head, a custom-jetted carburetor, and a V-shaped “Wind­splitter” radiator. There’s the same Warford three-speed transmission as the Super T, but with a very short gear lever under my right knee, mounted to the stock two-speed planetary drive. It’s got big 26-inch wire wheels with Rocky Mountain outboard drum brakes on the rear axle only. With the Indy head and high-compression crank, it makes more than 50 hp and probably weighs less than 900 pounds.

Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh
Photo credit: Todd Blubaugh

To me, the modern driver, the Speedster had a crucial modification that changed the game: an aftermarket gas pedal. Throttle pedals had been included in high-performance cars as early as 1900, but Ford consciously left them off the Model T. Based on the size and scope of the track, we elected to leave the transmission in first gear, which was good for 50 mph (remember, there is an internal high and low as well). Second would get you to about 65, and third would knock on the door of 80. The overall setup was for a board track or dirt speedway, as tight road courses such as Apple Valley didn’t really exist back then.

It took only a few laps to really work up to pace in the Speedster—it’s truly incredible what familiar controls will do. The steering is rudimentary, with the shaft just directly moving arms back and forth without any kind of ratio. But I’m thankful for the weight, because the wheel’s literally the only thing to hang on to.

Freeing the mind from having to consciously operate every control makes it possible to consider other things: for one, that the dynamics were not actually that bad. The Speedster drives like a tall, stretched-wheelbase go-kart with less grip. Thanks to eight-year-old three-inch-wide tires, I could induce both understeer and oversteer at will. I found myself wrestling with the wheel many times per corner, like in those old-timey photos and films you see from the period. Despite the open differential, I could even power out of the hairpins with an inner wheel smoking and spinning. It’s a very odd thing to find flecks of white rubber from primitive drifts on the back of your barrel-shaped fuel tank. Because the driver sits on the rear axle, a slide is like riding the end of a bullwhip, pivoting around the front tires. My kingdom for some bolstering.

But compared with a standard T or even the Super T, this thing was so fast. It’s a car, not a tractor. It would easily keep up with modern traffic on the highway or surface streets, and changing gears would be familiar to anyone who’s tried an unsynchronized manual. Its only real weakness was the rear-only drum brakes, which smoked after a dozen laps. Again, the Speedster was meant for large oval speedways, not repeated 50–20-mph haul-downs.

“The best part,” Bothwell says, “is that if you’re driving and the water boils over, they tell you to just keep going. It’s not a pressurized system, so if you get low on water, you just add more, but you never have to stop to cool down. You could literally drive it, boiling, forever.”

Photo credit: Hearst Owned
Photo credit: Hearst Owned

Between Bothwell and myself, we probably ran 100 laps, with zero issues. These Model Ts are tough; they had to be in their time. It’s why so many have survived, why after a century so many still run and drive and are enjoyed by enthusiasts today. It’s why a Model T found in a barn or a backyard will probably fire to life with a little tinkering.

It’s rare to see one car with such widespread possibility: a speedway racer and an off-roader based on the same entry-level car. The Model T put America on wheels, and American ingenuity got those wheels spinning faster and farther. It unleashed a tradition of creative customization that, just like the T itself, is still going strong a century later.

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