Truck Restoration Projects
Restored to a ‘T’
The quality of restoration applied to this Model T truck is exceptional and reflects the craftsmanship of Model T enthusiast owner Paul Ashby.
In Floyd Clymer’s 1955 book that extensively covers the Model T, Chapter Three is titled The Ubiquitous Model T – Part One: The Paradox. Les Henry said the following:
Remember Model T! While mundane, it was never mediocre. In its day it commanded honest respect for the service it rendered and for the revolution it wrought, and in our day, it commands a place of honour in our museums and private collections of venerable motorcars.
Uncompromisingly erect, unquestionably ugly, funeral drab, Model T combined the web-footedness of a duck with the agility of the mountain goat; it could go anywhere – except in society!
And though seemingly conceived in madness, there is something of immortality in this strange car.
According to US publication WardsAuto, which has reported on automotive engine and vehicle technology since 1924, Henry Ford suffered eight failed attempts to design an engine for his 1908 Model T. He finally got it right with his ninth attempt – a 2.9-litre, four-cylinder engine that generated up to 20 horsepower.
This engine helped boost the Model T car’s acceptance because it was cheap, even for the time and could be serviced easily with the vehicle parked under the shade of a large tree.
One innovation was that the four-cylinders block and upper half of the crankcase were made as one casting. Gravity and a good splash of oil lubricated the internal parts and the thermo-siphon system kept it cool. It followed the K.I.S.S. philosophy – Keep It Simple Stupid.
The big deal however, was an initial price of $850 that tumbled to only $260 by 1925. It’s ubiquity during the second and third decades of the 20th century is legendary. Ford was able to sell more than 15-million Model Ts, before production ended on 31st May 1927.
The Model T Owners Club estimates there are still some 90,000 of these iconic cars and trucks on roads, in backyards and sheds throughout the world. This large car park of the marque and the availability of reproduction spare parts, which are readily available, encourages many who are interested in motor vehicle restoration to choose a Model T to refurbish.
Henry Ford’s volume production line model began more than 100 years ago, in Dearborn, Michigan. On a crystal-clear autumn morning – October 1, 1908 – at Ford’s Piquette Avenue plant, a vehicle that was to change the course of automotive history cranked into life and rolled out the doors of the Ford factory into the sunlight, with its black paintwork glistening in the sun’s rays Thus began the longest production run of any automobile model in history, until the Volkswagen Beetle surpassed it in 1972.
At the dawn of the 20th century, in America, ‘trucks’ were often modified passenger cars with the back three-quarters of the body hacked off and replaced by a homemade box or a flat tray.
The widespread availability and low price of Henry Ford’s Model T made it a prime target for this type of transformation – from family car to general-purpose goods carrier – so an after-market sprang up, offering kits to make these conversions easier.
In fact, the Graham Bros (of Graham Trucks fame) started converting Model T cars into commercial vehicles, beginning in 1916. Their modular Truck Builder program topped the standard Ford frame with a supplementary structure that was longer, resulting in a double-reinforced chassis. These conversions were widely sought by farmers, who used a worn Ford chassis as a functional truck.
The growing market for a Model T-based truck didn’t go unnoticed by shrewd old Henry and in 1917 he unveiled the Model TT (Ton Truck) – a one-ton truck platform that used the model T’s powertrain, but with a stronger worm-drive axle and heavier duty suspension and wheels. It was initially sold without a cab or body, but in 1924 Ford began offering crude cabs, trays and canopy bodies for the TT.
These weren’t particularly powerful trucks, so to compensate for the lack of grunt, TTs were equipped with lower gear ratios, thus assisting them in moving ‘heavy’ loads. This gearing meant they weren’t particularly fast, with a top speed of around 20mph (32km/h). However, with its price actually decreasing from US$600 in 1917 to US$325 in 1927, Ford sold thousands of TTs.
In 1914, a Detroit lumber dealer approached August Fruehauf (later of legendary Fruehauf Trailer fame), asking if his new Ford Model T passenger car could be modified to tow a sailboat and possibly carry a large load of lumber. Gus suggested building a 20-foot (six-metre) trailer and went to Henry Ford to discuss possible changes to the Model T.
Old Man Henry wouldn’t warrant any changes, but the customer let Gus proceed with an extended wheelbase and an articulating connection. This was the first modern semi-trailer truck, regardless of the fact that it was based on a passenger car.
Restoring automotive history
Septuagenarian Paul Ashby was a ship’s joiner by profession and he’d plied his trade initially on ships along the NSW South Coast, but the work dried up, so he moved to Sydney. There, he worked repairing and fashioning woodwork on vessels that were tied up for maintenance along the wharves in Port Jackson.
A ship’s joiner is an intricate and specialised profession, because, as Paul said: “There are no square angles on a ship.” He demonstrated the fact by showing a tool he’d made as an apprentice, with two lengths of timber joined by a wing-nutted screw at its fulcrum. It was a variable type of set square that could be locked at a desired angle, to transfer the many complex angles in ships’ woodwork.
After years of city life, Paul and his wife Alice returned to the seaside hamlet of Ulladulla, south of Sydney. Paul used his experience, working initially for many of the local house builders.
Then he met a local fellow who offered him the opportunity to become involved in the restoration of 1920s’ and 1930s’ motor vehicles. This was an era in which wood was a major structural component of motor vehicles. Paul caught the bug and has been ‘playing’ with old vehicles ever since.
By 1991 Paul had accrued some mechanical knowledge and a degree of skill working with metal, so he decided to find a vehicle of his own to bring back to life.
Paul’s father had always had great respect and admiration for Henry Ford’s Model T, so, with those memories as an endorsement, the search was on and it wasn’t long before a suitable donor was found, luckily quite close to his home.
This Model T truck was in extremely bad shape, but, being a truck, it was constructed with a veritable forest of timber and that sealed the deal for a bloke who had the sap of spotted gum running through his veins.
The truck – a pile of decayed wood and rusty steel running gear – was extracted from its resting place in the undergrowth in a paddock and its remains were piled up in Paul’s backyard.
There was only one piece of the wooden cab that could be used as a template and even that was a little shorter than it was originally. It was the driver’s side panel and, from that template, left and right sides would need to be fashioned. With that done the cab ’s rear panel and roof would have to be manufactured to suit the contours of the remade side sections.
In surveying the rest of the vehicle Paul knew that, apart from purchasing parts, it would be of great assistance to find another Model T to also use as a donor. He hunted around and found a suitable specimen at Yackandandah, in northern Victoria; a deal was struck and he was now a Model T ‘fleet’ owner.
The first job was to get the truck’s chassis and running gear sorted and sitting up on its wooden spoke wheels. The spokes were in restorable condition, really only requiring a good sand-back and revarnish.
Paul’s then six-year-old grand-daughter, Syeira (an Irish/Gypsy name meaning princess) loved the old truck and was keen to help grandad. Paul recalled: “Syeira stuck with me cleaning and ‘helping’ every inch of the seven-day-a-week journey for some nine months, until completion – God bless her.”
Paul’s friend Doug Bailey was somewhat of a mechanical wiz, Paul Ashby reckoned: “He stripped the transmission and replaced the internal tongue-cut, steel-faced clutches with more modern fibre-lined clutch-pack plates.”
These plates came from a GMT 400 automatic transmission; an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) fitment in 1990 to GM pickup trucks.
“To do that he removed 30 teeth from between the six needed to fit perfectly on the T’s internal transmission drive hub,” said Paul.
The Model T transmission, with its epicyclic gear train and use of clutch plates, was the forerunner of today’s modern automatic transmission, and its three-pedal control system acted as brake, clutch and reverse gear. Henry also used an epicyclic gear train in the T’s steering box.
Apart from the Model T’s foot-actuated transmission brake, it had a hand-operated lever that applied the rear-wheel drum brakes.
For additional engine retardation Paul fitted a butterfly in the engine’s manifold that operated via a cable from the cab.
The engine in the truck had a Rajo overhead valve conversion. This was one of several ‘hot-up’ after-market engine kits that have been produced for Model Ts over the years, but, being non-standard, it was swapped for a standard engine.
Doug also used modern capacitors in the ignition coil system, thus giving a more reliable and stronger spark. Paul reckoned: “That really made a difference to the truck’s performance.”
Standard TTs had a lower reduction rear axle ratio to give better lift-off and gradability, but Paul’s TT was fitted with the rare Rocky Mountain three-speed (under-drive, direct, and overdrive) auxiliary transmission. As a result, in overdrive the truck runs quite easily at 80km/h.
“The only gauge on the dashboard is an ammeter,” Paul said. “I know when it’s charging at five amps I’m travelling at 60km/h and at 10 amps it’s doing 80.”
As proof of its top speed, Paul said he had driven along the flat road towards Braidwood, for an historic vehicle event and, after he’d arrived and the truck was sitting in the display in Braidwood’s main street, a fellow came up to him.
“Do you own that truck?” he asked and Paul said he did.
“Well, I was following you along on the straight towards the town and was clocking 80km/h just to keep up,” the visitor said.
“It’s the quickest damn Model T truck I’ve ever known”.
The saw dust was flying and Paul was in his element as he got stuck into the cab and tray-manufacturing tasks. He used mainly Honduras Mahogany, a tropical hardwood. Then using his circular saw, docking saw, hand saw, jig saw and electric planer, he formed and contoured the cab sections, joining them with time-honoured doweled joints and modern epoxy resin.
He set glass panels into the wind-wings on each side of the windscreen, then masked them before sandblast-etching the glass, giving that authentic 1920s era charm.
With the cab set in place on the chassis, the next step was to build the tray, in situ on the chassis. Once the all the timber work was completed, it was coated with marine varnish.
Paul loves a little bling on a motor vehicle so the radiator surround, Ford script on the radiator and the headlight surrounds were all polish-finished brass, as fitted to Model T cars. These items on TTs were always coated basic commercial black.
“Our local Milton Ulladulla Vintage & Classic Car Club was formed in 1991 and my T truck was the very first to be bought and restored in that year – hence the original 001 vintage number plates,” Paul Ashby proudly recalled.
When Historic Vehicles last caught up with the Model TT, some 26 years after its restoration, it was still in pristine condition, as testimony to the quality of the rebuild an ongoing attention. A 30-year-old Syeina still enjoyed attending car displays.