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Fact Check: Henry Ford didn’t design the Model T as a multi-fuel vehicle

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1908 Ford Model T. Photo courtesy Ford Media.

Ask old-timers what they’ve run their Model T on beside gasoline, and the responses will start to sound like the list of potential fuels for the Chrysler Turbine car; that is, anything combustible: coal gas, diesel, kerosene, even granddad’s corn likker. But the truth regarding the T – in this matter as well as many others – is often obfuscated by the century-plus worth of legends that have accumulated around the iconic car, and after researching the matter, we’ve found no evidence that Ford designed the Model T to run on any fuel other than gasoline.

As the multi-fuel Model T legend – easily found across the Internet – goes, Ford incorporated a device on the dashboard of the Model T to facilitate switching, at will, from gasoline to ethanol. Other sources contend the Model T was also designed to run on kerosene and benzene. The story further asserts that Henry Ford’s attempts to make ethanol a standard automobile fuel were thwarted by John D. Rockefeller’s push for Prohibition, an assertion that we’ve already (__debunked__).

The legend certainly sounds plausible. Henry Ford, after all, grew up on a farm and thus had the farmer and rural America in mind when he set about designing the T, so it would stand to reason that he’d design the T to run on fuels that farmers could produce themselves from the crops they grew.

Ford did indeed experiment with uses for farm and agricultural products in automobile production and speak of the potential for using farm and agricultural products to fuel those automobiles. As he told the New York Times:

The fuel of the future is going to come from fruit like that sumach out by the road, or from apples, weeds, sawdust — almost anything. There is fuel in every bit of vegetable matter that can be fermented. There’s enough alcohol in one year’s yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for a hundred years.

And in what was likely a wire article widely distributed to various outlets discussing his research, which Dan Treace, the Model T Ford Club International’s technical editor, said is the most commonly cited basis for the multi-fuel Model T legend:

Using alcohol in an ordinary Ford car, we are able to get 15 per cent more power than with the present gasoline, although the mileage covered was not quite so high. However, that is a matter of consumption which can be adjusted and regulated.

Where government made its mistake was that it went on the theory that an alcohol of very high proof was needed. It began at 180-proof and went up. We began with 180-proof and went down. We found 160-proof to work better than most any other grade. That combination of spirit and water seems to burn best in a gasoline engine.

The raw materials we have used in the laboratories in producing alcohol cheaply are various kinds of grains and vegetable substances. Tests were made with corn and wheat. Then we tried potatoes, grapes, cherries, peaches, currants, strawberries, and many other kinds of small fruits. Carrots, turnips, beets, sugar cane and wood were also used. We also found that the waste from canneries – such as apple peels and cherry pits; the waste from sugar factories and vegetable tops, usually thrown away on the farm, were surprisingly high in alcohol value.

One of the best materials we found were cornstalks. These, ground up, mashed and boiled, produced a very high percentage. An acre of cornstalks will produce 100 gallons of alcohol – some cornstalks would produce 50 per cent more. Then the distiller can turn around and sell his waste back to the farmer for cattle food. Nothing has been taken from it but the alcohol – all the nitrogenous matter is still there, to go back to the soil as fertilizer.

Yet while the Model T was released in 1908, the above quotes come from 1925 and 1916, respectively – that is, long after Ford designed the Model T.

What of the running changes Ford Motor Company made to the Model T over its 19-year production run, then? Indeed, the 1908 and the 1927 Model Ts were almost entirely different cars, as cataloged in minute detail by Bruce McCalley in his book Model T Ford: The Car That Changed the World. For instance, the Model T used multiple variations of no less than 13 different carburetors from at least four different manufacturers. Yet nowhere in McCalley’s exhaustive book does he make mention of a single carburetor designed to run on anything but gasoline nor does he mention any sort of switch or secondary fuel tank designed for running the Model T on a second fuel source.

Photos by the author.

An examination of a stock Ford Model T – such as the 1915 T Touring in the Hemmings Motor News Sibley Shop collection – similarly turns up no evidence of a dashboard switch or secondary fuel source. Just one fuel line running to the carburetor. Just the coil box, magneto switch, and the needle valve adjustment knob on the dashboard.

That latter item may be of some importance in examining the multi-fuel Model T legend, however. While some claim that adjusting the Model T carburetor’s needle valve will magically allow it to run on ethanol, the actual purpose of the device, as spelled out in the Model T’s manual, is to adjust the air-fuel ratio to compensate for ambient air temperature (or altitude or air density, as Model T enthusiasts have pointed out).

However, many Model T enthusiasts have pointed out that the adjuster proved useful in one other aspect. When Ford’s engineers first designed the Model T, gasoline was largely uncut with additives. During the 1910s, oil companies began to cut gasoline with kerosene to keep up with demand. Ford responded in the early Teens by lowering the Model T engine’s compression ratio from 4.5:1 to 3.98:1 and by shortening the camshaft’s duration (also, as Treace pointed out, by switching to the Holley/Kingston “Vaporizer” carburetors later in the Twenties), but the dash-mounted adjuster became an effective tool for the Model T driver to compensate for variable-quality gasoline.

Speaking of kerosene, Ford did design the Fordson tractor to use dual fuels: The farmer would start the tractor on a small gasoline tank and then, once the engine warmed up, he would switch it to run off the main kerosene tank. Plenty of aftermarket manufacturers (including those in the ads above) took inspiration from the Fordson system to offer a dual-fuel gasoline/kerosene system for Model Ts, so it’s certainly likely that adherents of the multi-fuel Model T legend believed cars fitted with aftermarket dual-fuel systems to come from the factory so configured.

Then again, Model T owners – as alluded to atop this article – have reported the Model T’s ability to run on ethanol, isopropyl alcohol, E85, and other alcohol-based fuels for years. In addition, Model T historian Trent Boggess noted that benzene – a byproduct of Ford’s coke operations at Rouge – was sold to Ford employees for use in their cars during the Twenties and Thirties.

However, just because an engine will run on an alternative fuel does not necessarily mean that it was designed to run on that fuel. Modern fuels, after all, are quite dissimilar from the fuels available during the Model T’s time, and yet the Model T still runs on them. But as Treace noted:

Any combustion engine, when provided with the necessary carburetor design or needle valve control of vaporizing and manifold with heat pipe risers to assist in creating a satisfactory fuel vapor from a volatile fuel, could be run on such fuels as alcohol.

(However) no records of any design efforts exist that can prove Henry Ford selected any other fuel than motor car gasoline for powering the combustion engine of the Model T Ford in 1908.

Indeed, during our research into the origins of the Model T, we’ve yet to find credible sources or detailed information that supports the multi-fuel Model T legend. Nothing from Murray Fahnestock, nothing in any other Model T history, nothing from any Model T expert. So perhaps the best evidence that Ford engineers meant the Model T to run on nothing other than gasoline lies in original Ford literature such as the Model T manual (and manuals for Ford carburetors) that specifically stipulates fueling the car with gasoline.