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How Much Has the World Changed Since the Model T?

From a crank to a push-button to self-driving google-cars, how will technology transform us again -- both for better and worse?

Jean Kaufman


September 26, 2013 - 12:00 pm
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Ever wonder what it was like to drive a Model T?

The great prose stylist E. B. White, famed for his beloved children’s classic Charlotte’s Web, knew what it was like very well. He described it in a 1936 New Yorker essay entitled “Farewell, My Lovely” in which the recently phased-out Model T was the “lovely” of the title.

The car to which White was bidding reluctant adieu had dominated the automobile industry in its early decades, from 1908 to 1927, bringing the joys and travails of auto ownership to middle-class Americans of that era. White himself was born in 1899, which makes him a member of the generation before the so-called “greatest” generation; technically, White and his cohorts were known as the “lost” generation, coming of age during those transitional years of upheaval and cultural transformation represented by World War I and the Twenties.

White’s description of the Model T set me to musing on how much cars have changed since then, and then to thinking about how much life has changed—and about how the differences in products such as cars have been no small part of that change, because they affect us on a day-to-day basis and alter our perceptions of the world and our place in it.

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All Comments   (8)
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I still prefer a car with a manual transmission. Especially when engaging in "sporty" driving, I don't feel like I'm really connected to the car unless I have a stick shift in my hand.

A point to remember about old cars like the Model T is that the controls weren't standardized. Steering in some early cars was via a tiller. As noted in White's paragraph, the throttle was often a lever either on the dash or on the steering column, and it usually was not spring loaded. Also, control of the ignition timing was manual on many of those old cars, and you had a second lever for this. You had to adjust it depending on your speed, your driving condition (uphill, downhill, etc.), and the weather. A common brake setup was a pedal for the front wheel brakes and a hand lever at the left side for the rear wheel brakes. A judicious balance had to be maintained when braking to avoid swapping ends.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
And for youngsters asking "what's a choke": On carburatored-engine cars, it was a plate that partially blocked the air flow going into the carburator. What it did, effective, is change the air-fuel ratio to make the engine burn richer (more fuel per unit of air). This made the engine easier to start when it was cold.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Disney World's Carousel of Progress shows the progress of household appliances and devices from the 1900's to modern times. Just the savings in manual labor are tremendous.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
Well, technically, from 1900 to The Future of 1970...unless they've updated it. The four tableaux were originally 20 years apart.
28 weeks ago
28 weeks ago Link To Comment
My niece, a high school senior, was quite amazed at my bothers car that he'd purposely bought with manual windows. She'd never seen them until a visit not long ago.

For a rather fun romp through the changes in the first 50 years of the 20th century, I recommend, 'The Big Change: America Transforms Itself 1900-1950' by Frederick Lewis Allen.

Here's how he opens the century. A past further from the Model T than the Prius is:

But horses were everywhere, pulling surreys, democrats, buggies, cabs, delivery wagons of every sort on Main Street, and pulling harvesters on the tractorless farms out in the countryside.

The sights and sounds and sensations of horse-and-carriage Iife were part of the universal American experience: he c!op-clop of horses' hoofs; the stiff jolting of an iron-tired carriage on a stony road; the grinding noise of he brake being applied to ease the horse on the downhill stretch; the necessity of holding one's breath when the horse sneezed; the sight of sand, carried up on the tires and wooden spokes of  carriage wheel, spilling off in little cascades as the wheel revolved; the look of a country road overgrown by grass, with three tracks in it instead of two, the middle one made by horses' hoofs; the special maIe ordeal of getting out of the carritge and walking up the steeper hills to lighten the load; and the more severe ordeal, for the unpracticed, of harnessing  horse which could recognize inexperience at one scornfui g!ance. During the Northern winter the jingle of sleigh bells was everywhere. On surmner evenings, along the tree-lined srees of innumerable American towns, families sitting on their front porches would watch the fine carriages of the town as they drove pst for a proud evening's jaunt and the cognoscenti would wait eagerly for the glimpse of the banker's trotting pair or the sporting lawyer's 2:40 pacer. And one of the magnificent sights of urban life was that of the fire engine, pulled by three galloping horses, careening down a city street with its bell clanging.

29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
I remember mine - and my daughter's much greater - mystification, upon overtaking a gentleman driving a vintage 1930's automobile, and both of us briefly wondering why the driver was wagging his hand and arm outside the window. Oh, yeah - duh! Hand signals! His automobile didn't have signal lights! It had been years since I had seen hand-signals for a turn or stop, although they were taught in my generation in driver's ed. My daughter had never seen them at all.

In college, I had a friend who routinely drove a vintage car - a Model A, painted bright electric blue and named Delilah, who could make perhaps 35 MPH tops with a tailwind and a slight downgrade. He loved Delilah deeply, because with all of her limitations and frailties, he could fix anything that went wrong (and frequently did) with a screwdriver, a pair of pliers, some baling wire and chewing gum in about fifteen minutes.

So passes the glory of the early automobile age, so many skills that now are no longer required. Like the ability to drive a shift. I don't know how many stories I have read of juvenile carjackers trying to steal an expensive but slightly vintage vehicle, and being totally defeated because they couldn't drive anything but an automatic.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
I had a 1977 MGB -- they were still easily maintained even then (well, the MGB was always an early 60s design) -- I knew literally nothing about cars when I bought it, not having any gearhead friends or relatives growing up -- but I learned to do a lot of stuff with that B -- I replaced the carburetor, the ignition system (twice, the first, Allison electronic system was pure garbage), rebuilt the brake master and slave cylinders, the clutch master and slave cylinders, replaced the front engine mainseal, replaced the fuel pump... About the only major jobs I did not do were those requiring a full garage with an engine lift -- the clutch plate and the differential were untouched by me.

But anyone remotely machine-competent could DO any of those things, you just had to have a PLACE to do them.

I think it wasn't until the mid-70s that cars became specialist-grade mechanisms that really required a lot of time to work on, just to learn the relevant skills, and even then, it was a slow progression until the 1990s.
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
What a neat and fascinating comparison across, what is it?, more than a century. It's a good thing that EB White was around to make it clear for all the ages just what a good deal we are getting in today's cars.

As fate would have it, I came to this article right after looking at and researching yet another early auto that today would be seen as wildly alternative and highly politically correct, The Stanley Steamer.

The only problem with the original Steamer from 1896 is that you would have to go out and build a fire it in before it would roll. Not as dangerous as the crank but certainly not as convenient as zero to sixty in one push of the button.]
29 weeks ago
29 weeks ago Link To Comment
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