The Ford Model T is one of the most important cars of all time, if not the most important. It popularized the use of the assembly line as a manufacturing technique, and it was the first "world" car (a car designed to fit the needs of consumers everywhere in the world) to really exist.
That being said, the Ford Model T was never exactly a speed demon (nor was it ever designed to be). The top speed of the Model T was 42 mph (68 km/h), which was adequate for the time but far removed from what the fastest cars of that period were capable of.
In this article, we'll be taking a look at how the Model T was made and what allowed it to reach the speeds it did, as well as how it stacked up against some of the other cars of the period.
Construction of the Ford Model T
Let's talk about the technology used in the Model T that helped it achieve the speeds it did. We'll be covering two main areas here: the engine/fuel system, and the transmission.
Engine and Fuel System
For its powerplant, the Model T used a 2.9-liter (177 cubic inch) inline-4 cylinder engine with a compression ratio of 3.98:1 (considerably lower than what you'd find in most modern engines). This engine made about 20 horsepower and offered a fuel economy of between 13-21 mpg.
While this was far from the most powerful engine of its time, the Model T's engine was noteworthy for being reliable and easy to work on. Its fuel economy was also considered to be pretty solid compared to a lot of other cars from the same period.
One interesting aspect of the Model T's engine was its ability to run using multiple types of fuel. Even though the engine was designed primarily to burn gasoline, its simple, durable design allowed it to use a variety of other things as a fuel source, including ethanol and benzene. It could even run on kerosene with a few simple modifications.
The fuel system used in the Model T was also an interesting one. The Model T had a 10-gallon tank mounted to the frame below the front seats. Unlike modern cars that use a fuel pump to move fuel from the tank to the engine, the Model T used a gravity feed system.
Basically, the fuel lines and carburetor were located under the lowest point of the fuel tank, which allowed the fuel to drip down from the tank into the fuel system. While this system was simple and cheap to make, it did present its share of problems.
Most notably, there was the fact that the design of the system made it almost impossible to drive up a steep hill. If you didn't have enough fuel in your tank, going up a steep hill forward would cause the remaining fuel to move towards the back of the tank, and away from where the tank connected to the fuel lines.
In other words, going up too steep of an incline without enough fuel in the tank would starve the engine of fuel. However, drivers realized they could circumvent this issue by just driving up hills in reverse.
Eventually, Ford redesigned the Model T and changed the placement of the fuel tank, moving it behind the dashboard so that it was further forward and up from its original position, which helped with the gravity feed. It was also pretty common for a lot of Model T owners to install an aftermarket fuel pump to deal with this problem.
The transmission used in the Model T was significantly different from any modern manual transmission you might find today. It was originally marketed as a "three-speed" transmission, although it technically only had two speeds; the third speed was actually the reverse gear.
The Model T had three pedals as you might expect from a manual transmission car, except these pedals did considerably different things than what you might be used to. All three pedals were located on the left side of the driver's footwell, and they weren't the standard clutch-brake-gas combo that you might expect.
Instead, these pedals controlled the clutch, brake, and reverse gear. To engage reverse in the Model T, you would put the transmission into neutral and then press the reverse pedal with your foot. There was no gas pedal in the Model T; instead, you would control the throttle with a lever on the steering wheel.
In addition, the Model T didn't come with normal brakes, but instead with a transmission brake. This also doubled as a parking brake when the car was off.
How Did the Model T Compare to Other Cars?
A top speed of 42 mph doesn't sound like much by today's standards, but in the early 20th century there weren't that many other similar cars on the road to compare it to. However, there did exist other cars at the time, and many of them were considerably faster.
For example, in the 1910s, the fastest car you could buy was the Austro-Daimler Prinz Heinrich. This car came with a 5.7-liter inline-4 engine that made 60 horsepower and could take the Prinz Heinrich all the way up to 85 mph (136 km/h).
And in 1928, just as the Model T was finishing up its production run, you had the introduction of the Duesenberg Model J. This beast of a machine came with a 6.9-liter straight-8 that made a massive (at the time) 265 horsepower, which allowed it to hit a top speed of 119 mph (192 km/h). Later versions of the Model J added a supercharger for even more power.
In that case, why did people buy the Model T when these other cars existed? Well, those other cars had the Model T beat in terms of speed, but not in terms of price. At its cheapest, the Model T only cost $260, but cars like the Model J were absurdly expensive for the time.
In 1928, a new Duesenberg chassis cost around $8,500 (which is almost $140,000 when adjusted for inflation). Duesenberg didn't even give you a body or an interior for your money; for that, you had to take your car to a coachbuilder and get a custom-made body for an additional cost.
So while there were certainly faster and more luxurious cars available at the same time as the Model T, pretty much nothing else was even remotely affordable for your average working-class individual.