It seems like everybody had a Model T in the 1920s, but there were alternatives. Image via lov2xlr8.
My wife and I have three daughters. The oldest will graduate high school in 2025. Perhaps you’ve seen the meme making the Internet rounds joking “in four years it will be the ’20s again, I propose we bring back jazz music and flapper dresses.” It’s hard to ignore that even as they approach the century mark, cars of the 1920s remain remarkably affordable, so we have bench raced a time or two as to what might make suitable transportation for our member of the Class of ’25.
To me, it ought to be a touring car on a short wheelbase, shades of the graffiti’d jalopies that prowled high school and college campuses in the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s before the whole rah-rah, collegiate thing became passé. Most of those, like the majority of cars in the ’20s period, were Ford Model Ts. My friend Clayton Paddison is practically foaming at the mouth with eagerness to get my oldest into a Model T of her own.
A Ford is not out of the question. Not at all. But I’m a bit of a contrarian and always tend to root for the underdog, so I couldn’t help but compile my list of Model T alternatives appropriate to the Class of ’25.
In 1925, there was truly only one “cheap” car and that was the Ford. Back then, even ascendant General Motors couldn’t compete head-to-head with Ford. A 1925 Ford Model T touring car had a factory price of $290. To obtain a new car comparable to the Ford in size (100” wheelbase) and power (22 hp), one would have to pay at least $150 more (equivalent to over $2000 today).
Nevertheless, there were a few of these cars near the bottom end of the market that hoped to entice customers to pay just a few dollars more for some combination of modern styling, increased power or more luxury. There was also a growing used market of middle-market cars selling for entry level prices.
1924 Chevrolet Superior F. Image via The Old Car Manual Project.
When you think of Ford, naturally the next thing to come to mind is Chevrolet. The age-old Chevy/Ford competition was only just warming up in the 1920s, with General Motors taking a long time to figure out how to nibble away at Ford’s market share with its four-cylinder models: first the 490 and later the Superior.
The 1925 Chevrolet Superior K rode on a 103-inch wheelbase, the longest in the class. It had an overhead-valve four-cylinder engine producing 26 horsepower. Overhead valves notwithstanding, the Chevrolet was also the lowest-powered competitor to the Ford, although obviously it was rated higher than the Model T itself. It was also not renowned for its sturdiness, though given that Ford was far and away the industry leader in metallurgy, it’s hard to fault the Chevy in this respect. A 1925 Chevrolet Superior K touring car cost $525 in 1925.
Further, as Managing Editor Dan Beaudry loves to point out, I’m an inveterate tinkerer who can’t help but envision all kinds of ways to “improve” what the factory did on old cars. The Superior would be a great candidate for the two-port ’28 Chevy head sitting on my basement workbench, left over from a project since abandoned and sold. That head would bolt right to a Superior cylinder block and improve the breathing and the rocker-arm angles considerably.
Star Model F
1925 Star Model F. Image via The Old Car Manual Project.
The Star was Billy Durant’s attempt at building a volume make to compete with Ford and his former company, Chevrolet. The Star was introduced as a Model C in 1922 riding a 102-inch wheelbase. As an “assembled car”, it was filled with pieces sourced from outside contractors like Spicer universals, Timkin axles (later Adams) and a Warner transmission. Appropriate to that construction scheme, the 35-horsepower engine (the most powerful of the Ford quasi-competitors) was built by Continental Motors of Muskegon, Michigan. The Star Model F was a restyle of the original Model C that debuted in 1924. A 1925 Star Model F touring car cost $540—the most expensive of the three, likely due to the difficulties in controlling costs when contracting for parts.
The Muskegon connection is near and dear to my heart, since I grew up in a little town just north of there and can still remember the Continental engine plant before it was torn down. Further, our oldest was born in a suburb of Lansing, Michigan where the 1920s Durant factory still stood—although Stars were built in Elizabeth, New Jersey in a former Duesenberg and Willys factory that housed the offices of Fred Zeder, Owen Skelton and Carl Breer before they joined Chrysler Corporation. Lastly, I just find the sculptured hood and radiator shell of the Star quite appealing.
The Star engine survives in fairly large numbers because many had second lives as inboard boat engines. I’ve heard it credited to the fact that they did not use a bell housing, which made them easier to adapt to the driveline of a boat. Again, being a meddler, I can’t help but wonder if my Chevrolet head could be adapted to one. After all, the speedster crowd installs them on Fords all the time—they call them “The Poor Man’s Rajo.”
Overland Model 91
1922 Overland Model 4. Image via The Old Car Manual Project.
Overland, a companion make to the larger, more-expensive Willys automobiles, was the most established of the three price leaders. Its Ford-alternative was the Model 91, seemingly a development of the 1920-‘22 Model 4, both of which rode on 100-inch wheelbase with a 27-horsepower L-head engine that may or may not have been the engine that eventually transformed into the Whippet engine in 1927 and powered the Model 77, Americar and eventually was re-worked into the “Go Devil” and F-134 Jeep engines in the ‘40s and ‘50s. A 1925 Overland Model 91 touring car had an original factory price of $530.
The major distinction of the Overland is that unlike the Star or the post-1924 Chevrolet, which used conventional parallel leaf springs both front and rear, it rode on unique, patented “Triplex Springs” which look a lot like the Ford’s transverse leaf springs but split in the middle and angled toward the end of the car. Overland advertised that Triplex springing had the dual advantages of increasing the springbase for a softer ride and helping to protect the radiator like a bumper.
Willys was hit hard by the post-WWI recession and the Overland brand suffered from a lack of enthusiasm on the part of Walter P. Chrysler who was placed in charge by the banks that bailed out the corporation. But the Overland has a decent reputation (a Model 4 traversed the whole length of Canada in 1922 without mishap) and these days a very low buy-in. There were a pair of Model 4 tourings recently advertised in Hemmings Motor News for an even $1000.
And I can’t help but wonder if an F-134 head would adapt to the engine block.
1921 Essex. Image via lov2xlr8.
Everybody remembers Essex for introducing the first inexpensive closed car and effectively numbering the days of the touring and roadster except as expensive, sporty models. But Hudson’s companion make actually started out in 1919 exclusively building touring cars. The 55-hp, 180-cu.in. F-head, four-cylinder machines rode on a 108.5” wheelbase and sold for almost three times the price of a Ford ($1595 in 1921).
The Essex was largely unchanged from 1919 to 1923, and for 1924 it was replaced with an L-head six cylinder. But that means the early models were relatively plentiful on the used market by 1925, making them my leading candidate for a used car suitable to the Class of ’25. An Essex touring would certainly have been a sporting choice, as they were renowned for good performance when new—much like the marque’s Depression Era successor, Terraplane. Plus, there is something very attractive about their distinctive, square-edged styling.
The Essex is probably the only car on this list I wouldn’t want to modify to any great extent, although I’m not much for wood-spoke artillery wheels, and would be on the lookout for period-correct wire or disc wheels as a replacement.
So, did I miss any Ford almost-competitors? I probably should have included used Maxwell Model 25s along with Essex, but I have entirely different ambitions for that Plymouth progenitor. What would you buy for the Class of ’25? Keep in mind, we’re on a budget here, as we’ve got the Class of ’28 and the Class of ’31 yet to come.