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Model T Ford


Model T Ford Operation

Operating a Model-T is pretty unconventional compared to both modern cars, and even cars of the same era.  I have heard that certain municipalities even went so far as to issue two separate drivers licenses: one for Model-T's and another for everything else.

This car is basically stock, but it does have a Ruckstell rear axle.  The Ruckstell was a popular accessory way back then that added a two-speed gearset to the rear end.  Basically, by pushing the Ruckstell shifter forwards, you could select a straight-through gear.  By pulling the Ruckstell shifter backwards, you could select a reduction gear.  See here for a complete description of how to use a Ruckstell.

The throttle on a Model-T is a small lever on the right behind the steering wheel.  The left-hand lever behind the steering wheel lever controls the spark advance.  Modern cars have been taking care of their own spark advance since the 1930's, but by the end of its manufacturing run, the Model-T was ancient technology even in its own time.

A Model-T is a pretty simple beast.  There is no speedometer, no odometer, no gas gauge, no engine temp, and definitely no 'check engine' light.  The lone gauge is an ammeter to tell you if the battery is being charged or discharged.  In the picture below, you can see the bottom of the gas tank as it sits behind the dash, on top of your legs, and just in front of the [aptly-named] firewall.  There were no lawyers involved in the design of this car, to be sure.

The small rotary control on the left side of the dash adjusts the carb mixture when rotated, and activates the choke when pulled.  The Ruckstell shifter is on the right with the knob on it.  The high-gear/parking brake lever is on the left.

Starting Drill

Although Model-T's got electric starters at some point in their manufacturing history, everyone knows that electric starters are for sissies.  They have a crank on the front for a reason, and that reason is to be able to start it in style.  The process for starting a 1927 model in style would be:

Done!  Wait for the engine to warm up a bit and get ready to face the true test: operating a Model-T transmission.


The transmission on a Model-T is a strange and peculiar beast.  It is a two-speed affair where the two speeds correspond to really-really low, and really-really high.  In fact, it is pretty much like a 4-speed transmission that is missing 2nd and 3rd gear.  Basically, you rev the heck out of the engine in 1st gear, and then lug the heck out of it as you shift it into 2nd gear.  It was a lame enough situation that plenty of aftermarket manufacturers built entire accessory transmissions for the car. 

In a Model-T equipped with a Ruckstell 2-speed rear end, things are even more complex.  A Ruckstell driver is faced with three floor-mounted pedals, two floor-mounted hand levers (left and right), and two levers behind the steering wheel (left and right).  There is no gas pedal.   

As for the pedals, the pedal on the left is for low gear.  The pedal in the middle is reverse, and the pedal on the right is the brake.  The pedals are clutches, but they operate backwards to a modern car clutch.  What that means is that to engage low gear, you push the low gear pedal forward and hold it there.  Same for reverse: push and keep pushing for as long as you need to reverse.  The brake operates like a standard brake which means that at least one thing will be familiar to a modern car driver. 

To select high gear requires using the low gear pedal and the hand lever on the left.  Basically, it goes like this:

  1. When the left floor lever is pulled all the way back, the parking brake is applied.  To get moving, you move the left floor lever to its straight up-and-down position.  This is neutral, with the handbrake released.
  2. Using the throttle lever on the steering wheel, give the engine some gas.
  3. Push down on the low gear pedal, and the car will take off in first gear.
  4. While holding the engine in first gear, move the left floor lever all the way forward.
  5. Carefully release your foot pressure on the low-gear pedal.  As your foot comes up, the engine goes into neutral.
  6. Keep lifting your foot.  Now you will find that the low-gear pedal acts like a modern clutch: as you continue to release pressure on the pedal, the high-gear clutched is engaged. 

The low gear pedal is more like a two-way clutch: in the middle is neutral, forward engages low-gear, and backwards engages high-gear.  When pulled back half-way or more, the left hand parking brake lever keeps the high-gear clutch from engaging by not letting the pedal move backwards.

Ruckstell Two-Speed Rear End

With a Ruckstell, you can effectively get 4 gears out of the drive train: really-really low, really low, medium high, and really high.  The process is a bit involved though:

  1. With parking brake applied, pull the Ruckstell shifter (right hand floor lever) back to engage low gear in the rear end
  2. Step on Low gear pedal.  This gives you low-low gear (1st)
  3. Release the low-gear pedal back to neutral
  4. Push the Ruckstell shifter forward to engage high gear in the rear end
  5. Push the low gear pedal forward again to engage low-high gear (2nd)
  6. Still holding the log gear pedal down, move left hand lever all the way forward
  7. Release low gear pedal to its neutral position
  8. Holding the low gear pedal in neutral, pull the Ruckstell shifter back into low range again
  9. Let the low gear pedal out to engage high-low gear (3rd)
  10. Push the low-gear pedal to its neutral (middle) position
  11. Push the Ruckstell shifter forward to its high gear position
  12. Release the low gear pedal to engage high-high gear (4th)

It involves a lot of hand and footwork (especially going from 2nd to 3rd), but the results are worth the effort.  The new 'medium high' 3rd gear is the important one, especially when you consider that the engine only develops about 8 horsepower.  The new gear lets you get up lots of hills that would otherwise have a non-Ruckstell car down in 1st gear.


It will be worth it in the end.