The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

Visit us on FaceBookGenerations of Memories
from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

The Flighty Model T

By John Hassell Yeatts © 1991

Issue: August, 1991

The Flighty Model TEditor's Note: The following is an excerpt from John Hassell Yeatts latest book, "Tracks Across The Blue Ridge." John's articles have appeared in The Mountain Laurel since the very first year. When we were getting started back in 1983, his advice and counsel were invaluable. His articles and books recalling his boyhood in the tiny mountain community of Mayberry, Virginia, have delighted our readers these many years. He is, and has always been, one of our very favorite Blue Ridge authors. John recently underwent major heart surgery and is still feeling under the weather. Needless to say, our prayers are with him at this time. Those wishing to send John a card or note may send it to: John Hassell Yeatts, C/O The Mountain Laurel, PO Box 562, Wytheville, Virginia 24382.

Information for ordering, "Tracks Across The Blue Ridge" is given at the end of the story.

If anyone knows why the first Ford car was called the Model T and the improved new version in 1928 was called the Model A, he hasn't come forward with the answer yet.

Pa always said the "T" stood for tired, which was the way many people got from pushing the cars around the hills along the Blue Ridge. He should know.

When Pa finally weakened to the spiel of the salesman, who had earlier come from Mount Airy, North Carolina, to take the family for a drive, he had to push his Model T purchase most of the way up the Willis Gap Mountain road that led from Mount Airy to Mayberry. But even so, Pa never became very discouraged. He dreamed of better days ahead; days that really never came until 1928 when the Model T was relegated to the barn shed and a new, blue Model A took its place in the garage.

When the Model T was brought for demonstration, all of us at home - which was eight or ten not counting Eileen, the youngest, who peeped around the chimney corner at the new vehicle - piled in and went for a spin and found the new car's features to be mostly pleasant.

There was one major drawback. It was a topless touring vehicle, and moving along the high-banked country roads forced much of the car's exhaust into the passenger section. Ma complained, Pa reserved opinion, and we children were too joyful to smell a thing. Except Eileen.

From her chimney corner, Eileen smelled a rat, but she was outvoted, so Pa signed the paper upon our return. Next day - wonder of wonders - I was invited by Mother and Dad to accompany them and Cousin Allen, who was to be the designated driver, to Mount Airy to pick out our family car. At age 6, I wasn't expected to be of much assistance in keeping the contraption running and could push even less. But they took me along anyway.

Ma and Pa picked a black one. There was no other color available. When Ma asked, "What will we do when it rains?" the expert salesman demonstrated the torturously slow procedure of getting side curtains from beneath the back seat and latching them onto the sides. The car had a top which could be stretched splendidly from the back to the two-section windshield - which had no wipers. Neither was there a self-starter. Cousin Allen cranked and cranked on several occasions during the 18-mile trip home from Mount Airy.

Allen was patient and showed Pa how to adjust the hand-controlled spark and gasoline during the cranking procedure. The car didn't have a key. The switch was a button that was turned to "Mag" for magneto, to start it and then had to be turned to "Bat," for battery, during driving. The car contained an electric generator which was supposed to charge the battery for night driving. It seldom worked.

The Model T smelled quite pleasant, like new leather, glue and ether combined. And it was certainly a beautiful shiny possession, but it sure seemed inclined to stall out on the steep slopes that marked our way up Willis Gap.

To solve the stalling problem, Allen introduced Pa to a technique called "goosing." Goosing worked this way: He was to urge the flivver to its maximum ability, but stop it before the engine died. Then one of the passengers would jump out and jam a large rock behind the rear wheel while Allen disengaged the clutch and revved the motor to its maximum RPM. Then the driver would engage the clutch and we'd make it another hundred or so feet until the motor was making dying gasps again.

When we finally topped Old Willis Gap and Pa took over the driving again, he told Allen that he hadn't bargained for that much pushing. Within the week, Dad had built a wooden chock with a smooth handle and it became standard equipment from there on.

What wasn't standard equipment on any of the vehicles, was a spare tire. We had to dismount and patch our frequently flattened tubes and re-inflate the clincher-style tire to 65 pounds pressure with a hand pump. Occasionally, the patches wouldn't hold and had to be done over. This patching procedure required skill and hard work. Lots of hard work. Luckily, one usually had neighborly help. Sometimes several cars would stop and the tube-mending effort would turn into a social event.

My brother, Coy, quickly became the family driver and thereafter, for a time, I was exposed to many scary tales of hunting coons, foxes and bears while he and I worked on flat tires. Sometimes, even though we departed the spot with a fully rounded tire, I left with dejected spirits because of Coy's unfinished tales.

The same was true when a breakdown occurred - which wasn't all that unusual. The spark plugs would frequently foul with carbon, necessitating removal and individual cleaning, a time-consuming practice. Coy again entertained me with stories.

There were no filling stations as such. The few country stores that sold gasoline transported it in 55-gallon steel drums from the nearest train depot. It was measured out into half-gallon cups then carefully poured into a car's tank. This procedure required all passengers in the front seat to alight and wait for the fueling. There was no fuel gauge on the vehicles and the contents of the tank could only be determined by inserting a 12-inch ruler or some other measuring stick into the tank.

In 1922 in the Blue Ridge, the belief was widely held that all gasoline-powered vehicles would eventually explode. People who drove and rode in them were regarded as daredevils or fools; and admittedly, a few of them acted the role by careening down the dusty roads, trying to miss the chickens and pigs while sounding their car's horn loudly.

There was only one horn tone. It went "E-u-gg-a," somewhat like a hoarse frog. Most horses in the neighborhood ran or reared at the sound.

It was several years before horses and automobiles became compatible, even though horses were the main reliance when the autos careened into ditches. Team owners had their laughs, and made pocket money as well, almost daily. Roads were poorly maintained and undrained, which meant that low spots became mud holes or quagmires with the passing of our frequent summer torrents. And in the winter - just don't mention it.

Only the hardy and brave attempted motor transport. Mountain streams were not bridged and, if a driver plunged into a crossing too fast, the engine would usually drown out. Drivers finally learned to stop before crossing and to slip the fan belt so it wouldn't throw water onto the spark plugs.

Anti-freeze hadn't been discovered at that time, and some inventive auto owners filled the radiators with kerosene. This practice added to the predicted explosion worries.

Another among the things the Model T's did not have was a speedometer. But since the car wouldn't exceed 40 miles per hour, this was seldom bothersome. Model T's also did not have front-wheel brakes, and when the back drums were wet from creeks and mud holes, we virtually had no brakes at all.

The car had front and rear cross-member springs like a buggy. This meant that it rode about as hard as a buggy or wagon. There were no shock absorbers or struts at that time.

When you get right down to it, the whole Model T contraption was little more than a buggy without a horse. But it changed the habits of America. Nothing was ever the same after the Model T. It would take volumes to elucidate the magnitude of the changes which tumbled one on top of another.

But it was the coming of the Model A Ford in 1928 that actually changed the mores and the character of the nation. Everybody wanted one of the new models and most folks managed to own one.

The Model A brought with it the rumble seat; and the rumble seat probably converted more smoldering mutual admiration incidents into full-blown flaming love affairs than any invention since the wheel. I was there and I can swear to it, for rumble seats stuck around for several years and then departed to the sound of agonizing groans and sighs from millions of lusty American males.

Editor's Note: This enjoyable hardback book, "Tracks Across The Blue Ridge," contains 108 pages and is available mail order from Mayberry Publishing Company, 9110 Echo Hill Lane, Pfafftown, NC 27040, $12.00 (includes shipping and handling); or stop in at Mayberry Trading Post, Mabry Mill, Morisette Winery, Orchard Gap Deli or Cabbage Patch Antiques along the Blue Ridge Parkway; or Highway 52 at Fancy Gap at The Homestead, Pines and Needles, Bookworm (Mayberry Mall, Mt. Airy, NC), Pages Book Store (Mt. Airy, NC); or in Galax, VA: Rooftop Crafts or Long and Short Tales Bookstore; or in Danbury, NC, at The ArtMarket.