How To Drive A Model T Ford


There is no comparison to the feeling you get from driving your Model T surrounded by a group of other Model T’s. Suddenly you and your car are transported back in time. Everything is simpler. The air is fresher. You stop worrying about unimportant things.

The Model T Ford does not drive like a modern car. The controls, other than the steering wheel and the brake pedal, do not operate anything like a modern car. In this article we will seek to inform the first time T owner / driver so that we can enjoy these cars the way they were meant to be enjoyed – out on the road, with the wind rushing by.

The Ford owners handbook for 1914 has a nice diagram showing the major controls and their names. We will examine each of the controls and their functions separately.

Above the 1917 Ford handbook shows the new stylish black radiator.

Before starting or driving a Model T for the first time on any given day you need to check a few things.

First, look at the tire condition. There should not be any bald spots or missing tread or cracks in the sidewalls. Make sure the tire pressure is adequate. Tube tires can leak down over time. Tire pressure:

30″ X 3″ = 55 – 60 PSI

30″ X 3 1/2″ = 60 – 65 PSI

21″ = 30 – 35 PSI

As seen in the drawing above there is no fuel pump. The “Stop Cock” – the fuel shut off valve – seen in the drawing above is turned to make the lever position down to operate the engine. It is turned to make the lever parallel with the floor when the car is parked.

Above, many Model T owners have added an additional fuel shut off valve at the carburetor. This is a handy way to avoid getting underneath the car every time you park. Make sure this valve is ON (as shown) before attempting to start the Model T.

Adequate fuel supply is dependent on the amount of fuel remaining in the tank. The tank can be considered empty even with some fuel remaining. Check the amount of fuel in the tank using a wooden fuel gauge or 12″ ruler.  If the fuel tank is under the seat, a minimum amount of fuel needed is 3 gallons. If the fuel tank is under the rear deck of a coupe the minimum is 4 gallons. If the fuel tank is under the seat of a sedan the minimum is 4 gallons. Later Model T’s with the gas tank mounted in the cowl are OK to drive with as little as 2 gallons.

Oil level needs to be checked daily. In the image above, #1 is the upper oil level petcock. With the car parked on level ground, open this petcock. Oil should not come out. If it does it means the engine is over filled. Let the oil drain out until it stops. The bottom petcock is the lowest acceptable oil level for operating the car. If oil comes out the bottom petcock there is sufficient oil. Make sure both petcocks are closed before starting the engine.

Always check the coolant level before the first drive of the day. The coolant should be above the fins in the radiator but lower than the word FORD on the radiator or radiator shell. Overfilling will result in water coming out the overflow when the engine gets warmed up. Not enough coolant will result in the photo above.

The yellow arrow is pointing towards the parking brake lever. This lever has three positions. They are:

1.The brake lever is moved all the way forward for normal driving.

2. It can be positioned about half way back which places the transmission in “neutral” which can be handy for long traffic lights or when operating in close quarters where only reverse or low gear are needed.

3. The brake lever is pulled all the way towards the rear to park. This position is also used for starting the car.

When moving the brake lever the pawl release is squeezed to release the ratchet. Always pull the lever when moving the lever either forward or back. Do not allow the brake to ratchet as you pull the brake towards the rear. This will prematurely wear out the ratchet.

Above, 1913 – 1918 Model T’s and others with coil box mounted ignition switch are “OFF” with the key centered.

Above, 1919 – 1927 Model T’s with the ignition panel on the dash have a key that is off when centered. These cars also have a dash board mounted choke control to the right of the ammeter.

Making sure that we have the parking brake set and the key OFF, let’s start the car.

All Model T’s came equipped with a hand crank and a choke wire at the front of the radiator. The choke wire is pulled forward with the left hand until it reaches its limit of travel. Then with the key off the crank handle is pulled up from 9:00 to 1:00 with the right hand. If you have a starter equipped T this can be done from the drivers seat by pulling the choke and stepping momentarily on the starter button on the floor with the key off.

When the Model T is cold it will require some use of the choke before starting. Some cars like a little bit of choking, say one or two pulls on the crank with the key off. Other cars like lots of choking, perhaps four pulls of the crank with the key off. You may have to experiment to find out the correct amount for your Model T.

The choke is not used when the engine is warm.


When hand cranking a Model T, the fingers and thumb are placed under the crank handle as shown. The crank is pushed towards the radiator at approximately 8:00 position. It will grab the crankshaft at about 9:00. Once it grabs, pull the crank “through” which will move one piston from the beginning of its compression stroke through top dead center to the power stroke. You can use either the right or left hand, contrary to popular myth neither one is safer than the other.

If the timing is not properly set the engine can “kick back” while starting. If you have a starter equipped car this will break the starter Bendix or break teeth on the ring gear. If you are hand cranking as described here with either hand, the crank will be safely pulled from your fingers and will rotate backwards as your hand is pulled instinctively up out of the way. If you are pushing downwards on the crank with either hand and this happens you will break your arm, hand, wrist or all three.

Just below the steering wheel we see the spark lever (left side) and the throttle lever (right side). When starting the car the spark lever is all the way up as shown. The throttle lever is pulled down about 4 – 6 notches. Some cars like more, others less. Again, you will eventually figure out what works best for your car’s personality.

With the spark lever all the way up, the brake set, and having already choked the car with the key OFF, you can turn the switch to BAT. Note: some 1909 – 1910 Model T’s have the BAT and MAG positions reversed. Read the plate on the ignition switch to be sure. For later cars equipped with a dash mounted switch rotate the key counterclockwise to start the car.

Note: it is normal for most Model T’s to get a “free start” when you turn on the key. Don’t be surprised if the car starts when you turn the key to BAT. Read on to see what to do next.

With the key on, pull the crank upwards from 9:00 to 1:00 a few times. If the car has a starter, press the floor mounted starter button briefly.  Most Model T’s will start in one or two pulls of the crank, or a brief touch of the starter button. As soon as the engine starts you must pull the spark lever (left) down about 1/2 way. Then adjust the throttle (right) to a suitable high idle speed.

With the engine running, flip the ignition switch rapidly to the “MAG” position. You will need to practice this with the engine off in order to be able to do it quickly enough. If you don’t do this fast enough the engine will die. For cars with a dash mounted switch you will turn the key clockwise to achieve this.

With the engine running at a fast idle it may or may not be time to adjust the fuel mixture for smoothest running. The fuel mixture on most Model T’s is normally about 1 turn open from the fully closed (clockwise) for best running. Be careful not to exert much pressure when turning the knob closed, you can easily damage the carburetor if you crank this knob closed with too much force.

At this point you have the car running with the parking brake set. Next article we will talk about driving.

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