Don’t let its black paint and full fenders fool you–this Ford Model T Runabout is far from stock. Photos by the author.
Henry Ford advertised his Model T as “The Universal Car,” with the implication that it was suitable for all people and all uses (contrast this with GM’s Alfred Sloan who sought to produce “a car for every purse and purpose”). The Model T was universal in another sense, however, with the ability to mix and match parts over the car’s 18 years, 9 months and 15 days in production. That universality ultimately worked against the car in the market, where it was viewed as increasingly obsolete, but it has ensured that many, many examples still exist and that the Ford Model T remains one of the most accessible cars in the hobby.
This car is one such mishmash of years and even includes parts from non-Ford cars. The whole mixture is spiced up with a fascinating selection of period aftermarket pieces. Although it has less known history than everyone would prefer, it will nonetheless be preserved as an example of how Ford owners reworked their Universal Cars to better suit their own purposes and tastes. Indeed, owners Don and Steve Lang, of Lang’s Old Car Parts in Baldwinville, Massachusetts, have avowed that their only changes to the car in the near future will be a replacement radiator.
Obviously, what you see here is a Ford Model T runabout. Pinning it down further than that is somewhat nebulous—old California registrations say it’s a 1919 and the engine number would agree, except it shows evidence of having been re-stamped. With the kind of interchangeability Henry Ford demanded from his magnum opus, that kind of confusion is fairly typical. Odds are that the engine actually resided in a ’19 at some point, probably as a replacement for its original powerplant.
Note the aftermarket radiator guard, winged Moto Meter and sporty knock-off wheels.
Even a casual student of the Model T will recognize the Runabout body (that’s Ford’s term for a roadster) as a late-1923 to 1925 car. Earlier 1923s have the same slanting, non-folding windshield but paired with a lower hood and radiator shared with their 1917-’22 siblings. Hardcore types will point out that the slant windshield may have come on Canada-produced cars as early as 1920—but that’s well beyond the scope of this article.
Honestly, when or how the sundry Model T bits assembled here left the factory is far less important than what became of them subsequently. Sometime in or before 1940, they came together more or less in the form you see here, along with a veritable showcase of period accessories, to form one of those primordial hot rods variously known as a gow job, hot iron, hop up or supe/soup job—take your pick.
People started hotting up Ford Model Ts back when they were still in production, so they were fully refined by the early 1930s—and arguably past their prime by the 1940s—but that doesn’t stop folks from basing their hot rods today on a V-8 that hasn’t come in a production vehicle in 31 years, and it didn’t stop fellas from using a 17-year-old car to go fast and look good in 1940.
Under the hood is where it is undeniably clear that this Ford was somebody’s gow.
We don’t know much of the story on this car prior to about 1948, although the previous owner advertised the car as probably having been run up to 87 MPH on a dry lake in the proximity of Boron, California (probably Muroc) in 1940 with its top down but fenders still in place. The car did come with original 1948 registration documents for a William R. Wilcox and a timing tag for a Bob Wilcox. Some cursory research indicates that a Clarence “Bob” Wilcox, who passed away in 2010, may have been the youthful postwar owner—possibly owning the car under his father’s name initially.
Looking over the car, it’s easy to believe it was together in this form in 1940—or even in 1932. Nothing save for the electric fuel pump appears to post-date World War II and that was likely a replacement for an expired vintage pump or troublesome vacuum tank. Stylistically the car matches several reworked Ts from the 1930-’50 era—most notably with its chopped windshield and top, full fenders, aftermarket 17-inch wire wheels and dropped spare tire.
One of the best ways to go fast in a Model T has always been to swap out the flat cylinder head for an aftermarket job utilizing overhead valves—actuated either by push rods or overhead cams. This hop up features the venerable Frontenac T (for “Touring”) overhead-valve head. For the full rundown on the various Fronty heads, pick up the October 2016 issue of Hemmings Classic Car on sale August 16, 2016.
Juhasz carburetor and water pump are the most obvious engine modifications on this side. Also notice that the stock steering gear has been retained.
Bolted to the Fronty’s single port is a Juhasz barrel-valve carburetor, patented 1924 and advertised at least as far back as 1918, and very similar in appearance to contemporary products from Master, Miller and Winfield. Steve Lang told us that the Juhasz was more popular on the East Coast, whereas Master and Miller carbs found more success on the West Coast. Given that John Juhasz was from New York, that makes sense to us.
After the fuel/air mixture passes through the Juhasz carb, distributed via the Fronty head and squeezed by what we can only assume are some kind of aluminum replacement pistons (everybody used them); a Delco-Remy distributor, adapted via what may be a vintage Bosch front-drive, allots spark among the cylinders. Keeping everything lubricated is an auxiliary oiling system adapted from a 1920s Chevrolet.
All this sophistication in the engine bay is matched by an upgraded drivetrain. The Ford Model T engine was produced in a unit with the Model T’s two-speed, planetary transmission, which was operated by floor pedals rather than a shift lever. The minimal gear selection spawned a whole industry devoted to the Ford driveline, and this Runabout features two such accessories.
A stock Model T has three pedals, one lever and only one gauge. This hot iron has four pedals, three levers and four gauges—plus a custom steering wheel. The levers give notice of the driveline modifications.
Directly behind the Ford transmission is a Jumbo three-speed auxiliary transmission. The Jumbo features underdrive, direct drive and overdrive, plus a reverse gear—meaning that in normal driving, the Ford transmission can be left in high gear and the Jumbo shifted like a three-speed. Coupled with the Ford trans, the Jumbo offers seven speeds forward and three in reverse. This was advertised as giving the Ford with standard gears a flexibility of speed ranging from 3 ½ MPH to 50 MPH.
As if this wasn’t enough shifting, the second driveline accessory doubles the number of gears available yet again—to 14 speeds forward and six in reverse. The Ruckstell rear axle can be engaged to practically double the Ford rear gearing—an ability that led many owners to retrofit 3:1 or 2 ¾:1 gears in place of the Ford’s standard 3.63:1 gears, allowing higher cruising speeds without sacrificing the ability to accelerate or climb hills. We didn’t inspect the tooth counts, but it’s a safe bet this runabout has 3:1’s.
The addition of higher speeds, driveline accessories and/or modern traffic (even by 1940s standards) mandated yet another classic Ford attachment on this T: Rocky Mountain brakes. The standard Ford Model T brake is a band in the transmission, but in the event of an auxiliary transmission or Ruckstell going into a neutral state, stopping the transmission from turning won’t have any effect on the rear wheels.
Changes abound at the rear of the car, including a stylish dropped spare tire, Model A taillamps, Dodge Brothers gas tank, aftermarket suspension pieces and Rocky Mountain brakes.
Rockies are an external band that contracts against a drum on the rear wheels (the Ford drum in the case of 1926-’27 cars, or a supplied drum on earlier models). A common piece of graffiti found on Model T jalopies in the ’30s and ’40s was “Four wheels, NO brakes!” Auxiliary brakes are intended to keep you from being that fellow.
Before we leave the underside of the car, there are more details to point out—and they help distinguish this car from many of its contemporaries. Model Ts came from the factory suspended only from transverse “buggy” springs—the shock absorber would not make its Ford debut until 1928. Seasick Ford owners soon went looking for a remedy, and many companies answered the call. This car features Hassler spring shocks on the back, along with Hartford friction shocks at both ends and K-W “Road Smoother” anti-sway brackets on the front. Coupled with its lowered profile and shorter wheels, Wilcox’s roadster must have had relatively good handling for its era.
Shock absorbers, anti-sway “road smoothers” and 17-inch wire wheels no doubt made this Flivver better handling than most of its contemporaries.
In the cockpit is another area major changes were made: The aluminum dash panel, still wearing vestiges of engine turning, is filled with a potpourri of vintage instruments. The seat has been lowered to better fit inside the chopped top (which looks suspiciously like a Model A part) and the under-seat gas tank done away with in favor of a 1920s Dodge Brothers unit hung out back. The stock Model T steering is still in place, but the T wheel was replaced with a springy three-spoke unit. Old-time race cars used worn-out circular-saw blades to form such shatterproof wheels and we wouldn’t be surprised if this tiller was crafted in the same way.
One instrument you won’t find on the Model T’s dash is a temperature gauge. Instead a Moto Meter sticks up through the radiator cap, supplemented with an Essandee Glo-Light attachment. The ever-popular wing motif is also present on the cap, although in a slightly different form than we’re used to seeing. The bright-metal radiator shell (a nickeled ’26-’27 Ford unit, we presume) also sports a radiator guard of a type we’ve seen before in early ’30s photos.
Essandee Glo-Light allows driver to see coolant temperature from the cockpit in addition to time, amps, oil pressure, altitude(!) and speed.
Model Ts are simple cars that spawned a whole industry based on addressing its deficiencies, both real and perceived. This one is a great permutation of the customizing formula that resulted in style and speed, and it’s a great showcase of the parts and workmanship that a much older generation of car enthusiasts used when they were young. It will be even better if someone out there in the Hemmings Nation knew Bob Wilcox or the history of this car and can say definitively if this is a recreation of a style or an actual rolling time capsule.