Friday, August 7, 2015

Retracing history in a Model T Ford

Group follows same route as Edsel Ford's 1915 trip that included stop at Harvey House

Historical Vehicle Association president Mark Gessler is part of a group driving a Model T Ford to San Francisco, retracing the route taken by Edsel Ford in 1915. (Jose Quintero, Desert Dispatch)

By Jose Quintero
Staff Writer

BARSTOW — When Edsel Ford embarked on a trip from Detroit to San Francisco in 1915, once he reached Mojave Desert, he noted in the trip’s log about concerns of “highwaymen” in the area.

Highwaymen were robbers who would hold up travelers at gunpoint, usually on horseback. So when Historical Vehicle Association president Mark Gessler decided to trace Ford’s voyage a century later, horse riding gunmen were not a concern.

Coincidentally, though, Gessler and his crew were hit by thieves who broke into their trailer and made off with tools, some clothing and a small generator. Fortunately, the thieves were not able to get to the prized possession, a 1915 Ford Model T.

It is the same 20-horsepower, four-cylinder model that Ford drove from Detroit to San Francisco on his chronicled 1915 trip.

Gessler and HVA heritage specialist Casey Maxon are replicating the exact trip along the old National Trails Highway taken by Henry Ford’s son and a group of his buddies a century ago. Gessler and Maxon departed from Barstow on Thursday morning after paying a visit to the Harvey House. In July 1915, Ford stayed the night in Ludlow, and stopped by the Harvey House for breakfast before heading to San Bernardino, according to his logs.

The purpose of the trip is to bring national awareness to what Gessler describes as the importance of the nation’s automotive heritage and its impact on shaping American culture. In other words, Gessler is celebrating the birth of the American road trip.

“Over the last century the road trip became an expression of American lifestyle and the Ford Model T helped make it possible for most Americans,” Gessler said. “Edsel’s trip was purely a group of young men, striking out the road and traveling across the country. For us today, 1915 really catalyzed American culture because it was the first time that roads were in shape to be called passable and you could make your way across the country.”

Gessler expects to reach San Francisco on Aug. 18 for the centennial of Panama-Pacific International Exposition. Ford’s trip a century ago also ended at the exposition in San Francisco, where Ford Motor Company had one of the most popular exhibits at the fair — a working Ford Model T assembly line that produced about 18 cars each afternoon. When Ford reached the exhibition in 1915 he returned to Detroit by train. Gessler and his team will return home via plane.

The Model T that Ford used in the trip is not known to exist. But the vehicle Gessler and Maxon are driving across the country has a historical background that includes being driven in Ronald Reagan’s inauguration parade in 1981.

“This Ford has been in numerous parades in Washington, D.C.,” Gessler said. “That’s where we acquired it from. It was owned by the founder of the Washington, D.C. Ford Model T Club. The family that gave this car to us is thrilled that this vehicle is making its way across America.”

The vehicle is actually being driven on the entirety of the trip. Maxon said the throttle lever on the steering column controls the speed and three floor pedals operate the transmission for two forward speeds, reverse and brake. Their Ford is also equipped with “Rocky Mountain” drum-type brakes to improve stopping with a floor-mounted hand lever.

The car has a top speed of 40 mph, but is usually traveling between 20 and 35 mph, depending on road conditions.

“People see this and may say ‘gosh it’s so hot out, they must be miserable driving that car,'” Gessler said. “But the way the car is set up, it’s amazingly comfortable. Riding in this Ford Model T feels like you’re sitting on a porch rocker and there is a nice breeze out. It’s a simple vehicle, but well designed.”