Looking Smart In College


Richard Bishop

© Copyright 2011 by Richard Bishop 



Photo of a 1925 Model-T.

At the beginning of my junior year in Mattawan Consolidated High School, Van Buren County, Michigan, I bought an “old-timer”automobile from two brothers who were my cClassmates. In late 1945 I turned 15 years of age and the car, a 1925 Model-T Ford Coupé, was already 20 years old. It had wooden wheel-spokes that were painted yellow while the rest of the passenger car was painted Mr. Henry Ford’s color of choice: “you can have any color you want, as long as it’s black!” I felt that when I later went to college I would look “smart”tooling around the campus in such a vehicle. This ego trip cost me $25.00. Little did I know just how much of my life could be taken over by a mere vehicle (later in life, I learned that buying a computer could do the same thing!)

I was lucky that my Father, Elmer J. Bishop (who had the gift of being mechanically inclined), had once owned such an automobile and fully supported my efforts at maintenance. With his help and advice, we installed a belt-operated generator and 6-Volt battery-charging system complete with “ampere meter” to work around the original magneto, which was permanently defective (beyond repair). We also mounted sealed-beam headlights within the headlight housings and put an electric windshield wiper on the windshield in place of the old hand-operated device. He also showed me how to install an air petcock on the intake manifold (controllable from the dashboard) to let fresh, cold air into the carbureted air stream when running all-out at 45 M.P.H.; result, a 10 M.P.H. increase of top speed to 55 M.P.H.!

It had a pile of negative idiosyncrasies. The gas tank was part of a “gravity-feed” fuel system. When almost out of gas, it would not climb a steep hill because the fuel line connection was at the front of the gas tank and whatever gas remained moved to the back of the tank and could not reach the outlet. This was solved by backing up the hill in reverse gear!

Another negative peculiarity was encountered in the Summer time. It had a tendency to get wet and quit running after plowing through water puddles. The spark-advance lever on the steering wheel accomplished its function down low on the right front side of the engine. It was a round metal cap and was not especially water proof. Splashing through one deep puddle of water was sufficient to flood this cap and short-out the spark to all four spark plugs. You were lucky if you could “coast”on through the puddle to slightly higher ground ---because the solution was to get out and go around to the right side of the vehicle, going almost down on one knee, to reach over, take off the cap, and dry it inside with your handkerchief. Many Model-T drivers tried placing a plastic or cellophane sheet over and around the cap, held with a strong rubber-band, but the extreme heat softened the rubber-band and the slip-stream of air soon tore it off.

Evidently I was born twenty years too soon because I read someplace, that later on, when the innovative new “silicone”sprays became available, this problem was mostly solved by spraying the inside of the cap. This reduced the tendency to short-out when wet.

Some peculiarities were not design faults. The ring-gear on the fly-wheel had a spot on it where the starter-gear once had engaged incorrectly and chewed a few teeth out. If, on shut-down, the motor stopped at exactly that place (which was often), then the starter motor just whirred uselessly when trying to start it again. He showed me how to start it in that event. The normal “trick” was to get out and go around front and turn the crankshaft a little with the hand-crank to a different place on the flywheel where the starter could successfully engage (From him, I learned also never to try to fully start the engine with the hand-crank since a broken thumb was often the result of the kick-back from a backfire). By leaving the car in gear and rocking it backwards or forward, the same thing could be accomplished.

In the beginning, the starter always was erratic in its turning when it’s gear was engaged; varying during each revolution from high speed to almost stopping on its go-‘round. It sounded: Rrrr, Rrrr, Rrrr, Rrrr (like the battery was almost dead). We detached it and sent it to an electrical shop specializing in the repair of electric motors. They found that the shaft was bent (probably from the occasion where the starter gear had jammed against the flywheel ring-gear) and its wobbling caused the variations in its spin under load. They somehow straightened the shaft and returned it good as new, at a modest price without any electrical work except testing!

Notwithstanding this “fix,”on cold winter mornings of below zero temperatures when the oil was very stiff and the starter motor just whirred or where, under load, it barely turned-over (too slow to start the engine), the “trick” had to be more drastic. Then, you jacked up the rear-wheel on the driver’s side, left the transmission in high-gear (left-side hand-lever forward), and spun the engine by turning the left rear-wheel by hand, counter clock-wise. Then, after the engine caught, you jumped into the driver’s seat with the left rear-wheel still on the jack and spinning like crazy, pulled the hand-lever back slowly while stepping onto the first-gear pedal. This shifted the cold and stiff bands of the transmission out of high-gear into the low speed gear and then finally into neutral to where the hand-emergency-brake could become engaged gently (left-side hand-lever fully back --slowly stopping the rear-wheel spin); too much brake here, at that moment, would kill the engine. Then down off the jack, putting the jack into the trunk, and off you went. I carried a special hydraulic jack with a very wide, stable base that pumped-up fast, just for these occasions.

With this automobile, the saying: “get out and get under” became a repeated routine. Once, when I had the cylinder-head off of the 4-cylinder engine of the Model-T for the purpose of grinding the valves, I noticed that one piston had a 2”long hair-line crack in the top and black carbon marks on the inside . . . indicating some leakage during combustion. At the time Sears, Roebuck & Company still provided many kinds of parts for the ancient Ford, but a piston was not in their catalog. I had noticed that there was an old, abandoned Model-T Sedan chassis in the woods on a boyhood friend’s farm with grass and bushes growing up through it. My friend arranged for his father to give me permission to “cannibalize”a piston from it. I did this in about an hour by jacking it up and removing the oil pan from the motor for access to the piston and connecting rod. Inside, it was still covered with old oil and had not rusted in all those years! Despite being reasonably worn, it substituted perfectly for the damaged one, rings and all. This was a tribute to Henry Ford and his innovative mass-production system; the heart of which was the complete “inter-changeability”of parts so machined to fine tolerances that they would substitute and fit exactly! I was also greatly indebted to my friend and his father, as well, for helping me keep my “old-timer” going.

The four pistons got to making a lot of “rattling”sounds which my father diagnosed as excessively worn wrist-pins. Surprisingly, he was able to locate a machine shop that was willing to re-bore out the horizontal holes across the pistons to a specified size. Sears, Roebuck & Company still provided oversize wrist-pins of stated sizes in their catalog to fit newly machined pistons (as well as the tops of the connecting rods). So it was “get out and get under” again. While the motor was torn apart, I also tightened the lower ends of the connecting rods. This was necessary because the bearings were fairly soft, poured “Babbitt” and would get worn (pounded) loose by the crankshaft. This required filing off the rod-caps after every two or three months and using “shims”for the right tolerance. For a Model-T Ford, the motor became unusually quiet-running after this dual treatment (for a while)!

On the plus side of its peculiarities, it had high wheels with narrow tires which made it a natural for bucking snowdrifts on the narrow country roads. The wheels gave it high clearance and with chains on the rear wheels and its light weight it would go through almost a Foot of snow with relative ease.

It also had more negative “peccadilloes.” In the very cold winter of 1946/47, late one afternoon, a buddy and I were coming back from a shopping trip and were cruising down the country road near his home at 20 M.P.H. It had just snowed and was still blowing small drifts angled across the road. I said: “Watch me plow the edge of that snowdrift there on the left side of the road.” Now that was a big mistake because the Model-T Ford had a direct-drive steering wheel --no worm-gear or comparable system to take up the road shocks --just a short lever to force the front wheels left or right.

The resistance of the snowdrift immediately caused the steering wheel to be ripped out of my hands in the direction of a hard left-turn; the car whipped to the left and the drifted snow kept it from skidding; making it flip over instantly onto its right side --its forward momentum caused it to start sliding and it finally came to a halt cross-wise to the road.

One moment I was driving and enjoying the trip while “showing-off” and the very next minute I was sitting on top of my passenger’s left hip (who was still sitting in the normal position relative to the car) and he was laughing almost hysterically. We extricated ourselves from the tipped-over car and walked the half-mile to his family house. His father was nice enough to drive their Farmall tractor to the scene and pulled it back upright. At first, I didn’t think it to be very funny but when I saw that there was virtually no damage of any kind, I began to loosen up and saw some humor in the situation. His father also laughed and made a “crack”about our becoming “drifters.”

During my first college days, the car that I thought would make me look “smart” wasn’t the instant hit that I had foreseen. The college girls didn’t chase me down for a ride in the “quaint” automobile because the “rides of choice” were the college boys and Ex-GI’s who were cruising around in shiny, late-model convertibles. It may be remembered that from 1941 to 1945, no brand-new automobiles appeared on the U. S. market and who could blame the poor starved public if they saw a juicy new model of automobile “to die for.”

The mature WW II veterans going to college on the GI Bill were accustomed to strange military vehicles of transport and were now too sophisticated to “take notice” of such an ancient civilian contraption. So, after a while of driving it around campus (without much notice) during my Freshman year in college, I sold the Model-T Ford Coupé to an old friend from my high school class of 1947, for thirty dollars.

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