Vintage car enthusiasts learn to drive Model T Fords in LeMay Family Collection

Staff writerJune 28, 2014 

Model T Fords changed the world, so it only makes sense that people would jump at a chance to drive one, right?

For a lot of people, that’s apparently true.

The Model T driving classes that the LeMay Family Collection Foundation started this summer have been packed.

“It’s amazing,” said Mike Conrad, one of the volunteer driving instructors. “We started with one class of 12, and it filled out in 2ß days. We’ve already filled two more classes, and there’s a waiting list of 31.”

On Saturday, a class of 19 beginners hooted and hollered as they steered a half-dozen varieties of Model T’s — some from private collections and others from the LeMay Family Collection — through trails and rutted back roads on the Marymount Event Center’s 88 wooded acres in Spanaway.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” said Thomas Erber of Lakewood, grinning like a 10-year-old behind the wheel of a 1924 touring car. “It’s a piece of history. As many times as you see them in museums, you never get a chance to drive one.”

For 90 bucks each, students got two hours of classroom instruction with Steve Herron, a former development engineer at the Ford Motor Co.; a box lunch; and then two hours of hands-on driving experience with Conrad and other instructors.

Afterward, there were photos and the presentation of certificates of course completion and Ford Model T driver’s licenses.

Most of the students agreed, however, that the class didn’t qualify one to actually get behind the wheel of a tin lizzie with confidence.

“I didn’t realize how much hand and foot coordination you would need,” said Chris Ullrich of Kent. “There’s a lot of levers. You have to completely focus on what you’re doing.”

Model T’s have three foot pedals, but they’re not the clutch, brake and accelerator as you might think. That’s not even close. Model T’s don’t have clutches; the throttle is a lever on the steering column, and the pedal that you would think would be the gas is actually the brake.

“It can be nerve-wracking, a little bit,” Conrad said. “Model T Fords are completely different vehicles to drive than your normal, average car. Most people grasp the idea pretty quickly, but it takes quite a bit of practice to become proficient in these cars. People usually are their own worst enemy because they get so nervous.”

Even longtime T drivers can lose it in emergencies, he said.

“These cars can get away from you,” he said. “In a panic situation you’ll revert back to what you think you know. Even experienced drivers have been known to drive through their garage doors or into trees.”

By day, Conrad works at the Seattle Water Department. His true passion, though, is Model T’s. He owns nine of them, one of which he holds in such high regard that he keeps it in the dining room of his house in Buckley.

Conrad bought his first Model T when he was just 17, he said, and he’s never been without at least one since.

“They’re just wonderful, simple machines,” Conrad said.

He recently took one on a 1,500-mile tour in Canada, he said, and was so nervous about the possibility of breaking down, he packed the back seat with spare parts.

“I never needed them,” he said. “It didn’t break down once.”

Herron, the Model T historian, said more than 15 million of the cars were produced between 1908 and 1927. By the mid-1920s, he said, half of all the cars in the world were Model T’s.

“Of all the inventions in the last half of the 19th century and the first part of the 20th century, the Model T was the invention that changed Americans’ lives more than anything else,” he said.

“Earlier cars were toys for the rich,” he said. “Everyone could afford a Model T. And you could fix them with a screwdriver and a pair of pliers.”

Rob Carson: 252-597-8693 rob.carson@thenewstribune.com

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