Slow and Steady: Model T’s Cross-Country Trip
After 34 days and 3,600 miles across America on dirt roads, the Model T that recreated Edsel Ford’s 1915 road trip from Detroit to San Francisco reached its destination earlier this month.
“Seeing America in the slow lane turns out to be amazingly pleasant,” said Mark Gessler, president of the Historic Vehicle Association. “I was surprised how comfortable a 100-year-old car actually is.”
Virtually identical to the 1915 Model T Touring Car Edsel Ford drove with a group of boyhood friends on a journey that became the precursor to the American roadtrip, the car covered the whole distance without a major breakdown, suffered just one blown tire and knocked a hole in the old story that drivers routinely had to back the Model T up steep hills because there was no fuel pump to force gasoline uphill from the fuel tank in the rear to the engine up front.
The car could make it up very steep hills, as long as there was plenty of fuel in the tank, Gessler reported after driving it up the 18 percent grade that leads to Laguna Seca race track just south of San Francisco.
That historic race track was one of the few intentional deviations from the route Edsel and six friends took, though their trip a century ago took longer and included lots more stops to repairs.
The Model T was very capable then and now. Gessler reported getting stuck in ruts and deep sand a couple of times, but the 1,460-pound car was light enough for two people to push it free.
“It’s remarkable what a wonderfully simple, well designed piece of equipment the Model T is,” he said. “It was exactly what people needed 100 years ago, and it’s still effective today.”
He used 21st century technology to plot the route, which stuck to dirt roads wherever possible to avoid traffic and follow the National Old Trails Road, which in turn followed the old Santa Fe Trail for much of the route west. Gessler tapped the bicycle option on his phone’s Google Maps app and that led him to old, lightly used roads in rural areas. Along the way, the saw century-old granite markers the Daughters of the American Revolution put up to preserve the Santa Fe Trail.
The J. Huston Tavern in Arrow Rock, Mo., on the route was 80-years-old when Edsel drove past it. “It was the first building in Missouri preserved for historic purposes,” Gessler said. “Edsel was the first to experience automotive heritage tourism, places using heritage to promote visits.”
The car was more comfortable than you’d expect. The canvas top provided shade and the open sides let its occupants enjoy a cooling breeze. “It was 116 degrees in the Mojave Desert, but it was dry and the wind was pleasant,” Gessler said. “The worst day was when it was 105 and humid in Kansas. It was like having a hair dryer blowing in your face for hours.”
At times, Gessler or his co-driver would sleep in the back seat, their feet hanging over the sides like they were napping on a sofa at home.
Gessler couldn’t resist when the route passed El Mirage Dry Lake in California, which become famous for hot rod racing decades after Edsel’s trip. Wide open, the Model T hit 40 mph, and the 2015 Ford Mustang that was one of his support vehicles reached 140. Still covered with dirt from America’s back roads and bearing its Detroit to San Francisco sign, the Model T will be on display in the Innovation Hangar at the Palace of Fine Arts in San Francisco until the end of September or October. Then it will make a stop at the SEMA auto show in Las Vegas and move on to other events across the country
You can find a blog recounting the trip at drivehistory.org.