In this interview, Russ Grunewald talks about collecting, restoring, and touring with vintage Ford Model T’s, and gives a brief history of vintage Ford cars. Based in Texas, Russ can be reached through the website of the Model T Ford Club of America, which is part of our Hall of Fame.
The Model T Ford Club of America is headquartered in Centerville, Indiana. We have about 115 chapters in the United States and other countries like Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Germany, Austria, Great Britain, Holland, and New Zealand. The club started in Indiana, but it’s one of the smaller states as far as members. I think they’ve got six or eight families. It just happened to be where the couple that runs the club lives.
The club was founded in December of 1965, and I’ve been a member since 1980. I got talked into running for the board, and didn’t get elected the first time, so I gave up, but they said, “No, you’ve got to run again.” The second time I ran, I was elected. That was six years ago. As president, I run the board meetings and write a president’s column for our magazine – the magazine comes out every other month, six times a year – and just watch the overall running of the club. Some people become life members, and I get to sign their life membership certificates.
I got interested in vintage Fords the same way a lot of people do. As they get older, they go back and start looking for a car they had in high school or wished they had in high school. Back in the 1940s when I was in high school, I had a 1925 Model T Runabout until I left home. So when I finally retired and had some money, I went looking for another Model T.
Collectors Weekly: Did you find the same exact car?
Grunewald: No. I had a ’25 Runabout, which is a single-seat. You might call it a Roadster. They were called Runabouts in the Model T era. They became Roadsters in the Model A era. But I bought a Touring Car. A Touring Car has a front and a backseat. It can hold four people or more.
The Model T was manufactured for eighteen model years, and it was called the Model T because it was just one model, but they did change the body styles. The first Model T was actually made in the fall of 1908, but just like today, they were 1909 models. The first 2,500 were pretty much the same, with few changes. Although the body style changed, the basic engine transmission stayed the same. I can take the engine out of my 1926 Model T engine transmission and plop it right into the Model T 3000, which had been a 1909 model, and it’ll fit.
Ford made coupes and town cars and the pickup truck and some heavier duty trucks, which they call TT trucks. They had a little different drive train and differential on them. But the Model T is unique because it’s so well known. From the 1909 model until they quit making Model T’s in 1927, they made 15,007,033. There was no other car by model that exceeded that until the 1980s when the Volkswagen Beetle finally made 16 million or something. By that time, they weren’t making them in the United States; they were made down in Mexico or South America.
There were so many Model T’s made, that people were still driving them during the Second World War and we still had a bunch of them on the streets in the 1940s. They have a planetary transmission, which doesn’t mean anything to you unless you’re into gearing, but if you own a modern car with an automatic transmission, the automatic transmission is a planetary transmission. So it’s a pedal car. We shift the gears with our feet.
We have no idea how many vintage Model T’s are still out there now. There are estimates from 50,000 to 150,000. We’re way up in the thousands just within our club because we have about 8,000 families, and almost every family has one. Some families have three or five, and a few people have ten of them. So there are probably 12,000 to 15,000 just within our club.
Most people have just one vintage Model T, but maybe 40 percent have two or more, because you get one and the next thing you know, you want another one. A lot of people will have one or two running, and they’ll be restoring a third from scratch. One of the good things about a Model T is that it’s just easy to go grab parts and put one together.
Collectors Weekly: How long does it usually take to restore a vintage Model T?
Grunewald: Three months to 30 years. It depends on how much time and money you have, how many parts you need, whether you try to find all the parts at swap meets or you buy them all reproduced. Someone that’s retired and puts their full time on it and has unlimited money could do it in three to six months, but people who can only work on it nights and weekends, it’s going to take them probably three years. There are some businesses that will do it for you, but get out your checkbook, because it’s going to cost lots of money.
“People were still driving Model T’s during World War II.”
Once the restoration is done, the value depends on condition, body style, how much somebody’s willing to pay. We got a new magazine out today and there’s a 1917 Ford Runabout round-up restoration listed, upgraded to 1919 style – for $14,000. There’s also a 1922 rusty Model T pickup with an extra transmission in it, extra brakes, chassis completely rebuilt, and new wheels. But the body looks like it was just picked out of a junkyard; it’s rusty and dented. Mechanically it’s a great car, but it’s one you probably wouldn’t want to restore because it looks so junky.
In terms of parts, there’s any number of companies that reproduce them. The only parts you cannot plunk down money and buy reproductions of are the basic chassis and the engine block. Out of 15 million cars made, there are so many chassis and engine blocks and engines still left that it’s no problem to find them. You’ll find them at junk piles and such, and maybe they’ll need overhauling, but the basic parts are there.
Collectors Weekly: Do vintage car collectors tend to focus on just one manufacturer?
Grunewald: Some have many different cars. Jay Leno has about 1,330 cars of all makes and models, including a Model T. But most of us will pretty much stick to one brand. There’s also related categories to collect. I’ve got a few vintage signs and a lot of Ford tools, made strictly for Fords. I’ve got tools from the 1910s and ’20s that could be used on different makes of cars. For example, a socket set has a ratchet handle, and you can stick on all different size sockets. It will fit all different size bolts and nuts. Back in the 1910s, each of those sockets had their own handle, so you would have a whole wall rack of all these T handles with a socket more or less welded at the bottom. So you can collect those kinds of things and line them up on your walls.
Auto swap meets are one of the best places to find all these tools and the cars themselves. And so many people are going to eBay. If people want to sell their cars, they put them on eBay; antique cars and antique parts. eBay makes it easier to find the cars, and you don’t have to go running all over the countryside to swap meets.
The great grandmother of all swap meets is held in Hershey, Pennsylvania in early October, and it’s the biggest in the world. Hershey is pretty good for old cars. You’ll find some Model T’s and such there but most of it is ’50s to ’70s, a lot of speed hot rod stuff. The only trouble with Hershey is it’s so big that you’ve got to get there early. If you walk up and down every aisle, it’s 20-something miles back and forth.
I’m also in the Model A Club here in Fort Worth, and we put on the world’s third largest antique auto swap meet. Last year, we sold out at 7,000 vendor spaces. You probably only have to walk 7 or 8 miles at our meet.
Collectors Weekly: How often are vintage car shows held?
Grunewald: Around here, there’s probably one just about every weekend if the weather’s good. There aren’t too many national big car shows. Charlotte, Carolina’s swap meet, they have big car shows there. There’s one out on the West Coast, I think in the Los Angeles area.
Vintage car shows are usually just people showing their cars off, not selling. When we have our swap meet here, we don’t have a car show, but we have what they call a car corral, and if you have a car for sale, you put it in the car corral. It’s like a used-car lot. There’s nothing else in there but cars, and if you’re looking for a car, it’s much easier to walk up and down the aisles, just looking.
Collectors Weekly: What were the major differences between the Model A and the Model T?
Grunewald: The Model T evolved a little bit over 18 years in looks and things, but mechanically it stayed basically the same. In 1925, Chevrolet sold more Chevrolets than Ford sold Model T’s, and Henry Ford’s son Edsel said, “Dad, we’ve got to do something.” Henry said, “Nope, we’re going to make Model T’s forever.”
Henry Ford was the sole owner of the company, so whatever he wanted to do, he could do. Some other people with ways and powers told Henry, “You’ve got to do something, because you’re going to go out of business.” So he put his engineers to work, and they took the Model T engine and doubled the horsepower – they went from 20 horsepower in the Model T to 40 horsepower in the Model A.
They switched the transmission from the planetary, because they could only get two speeds forward in the planetary transmission, and they put a standard gearshift transmission in the Model A to give you three speeds forward, and they diced up the body a little bit. It’s hard to tell the difference between a 1927 Model T and a 1928 Model A in some models, because the fenders and such pretty much look the same. If you bought a 1928 Model A closed cab pickup truck, the door on the Model A pickup truck was going to be a Model T door off of the Model T pickup. It’s not unusual for car manufacturers to use the same parts over and over.
It was such a radical switch to more horsepower, the standard gearshift and other things they did that Ford started re-lettering the cars and named it the Model A in 1928. Actually Ford made its first Model A in 1903, and from 1903 he made B, C, D, F, Z, R and S. Then we get the T, and they thought they were going to make Model T’s forever.
The Model F was a big car. Ford still had stockholders then, and they wanted a big, fancy car they could drive around. Well it didn’t sell, so they made very few of them, and they went on to some other models. So some of those letters didn’t even get past a prototype, and they went on to the next one up. And then the few, particularly the Model N, they made quite a few of those, and the R’s and S’s, they made quite a few of those. But when they got to the Model T’s, they said enough of this changing stuff, we’re just going to make one car.
They probably decided to stop making the Model T in 1926. We don’t know for sure, but by the beginning of 1927 they had convinced Henry he had to change, and the engineers designed the Model A in a matter of months. The last Model T was made in March of 1927, and they shut the factories down and switched over to make the Model A.
They made the Model A for four years – ’28, ’29, ’30 and ’31. By that time, the other auto manufacturers were coming up with newer and better inventions and things, and Ford switched to the early V-8 Fords and made V-8s for years and years. That’s all Ford made was V-8 engines.
Collectors Weekly: Has the vintage car collecting hobby grown a lot since you started?
Grunewald: I’m too narrow to say, I’m just focused on the Model T. Within Model T collecting, we’re staying pretty level. As the old folks die off, younger folks like my son and son-in-law, they’re too busy with work and with kids. Particularly in the Model T side, we’re getting less young people involved. We’re holding onto our membership though, so enough are coming in. But the current money crunch in the country is going to hurt all collectors and parts suppliers.
In July, we had our 100th celebration of the Model T Ford in Richmond, Indiana, and we had 900 Model T’s. About 2,000 people showed up. We had a parade from the fairgrounds to downtown Richmond, Indiana, and we set a record for the most cars at one marquee or one make and model in a parade. Fiat had it before with 170-something cars I think, and we had 375 Model T’s in the parade.
Collectors Weekly: What is a vintage Model T tour like?
Grunewald: We take off about 8:00 or 8:30 in the morning. Usually the police help us get out of town. We stay off of the interstates; keep on back roads. People have scouted out the routes, and we have maps and we’ll go into little towns and hit their antique stores. A lot of times we’ll go to a small town and this is all set up ahead of time. Then a church will open up and have cookies and coffee and hot chocolate for us, and we’ll go somewhere and have lunch. Sometimes it’s on your own; sometimes it’s part of your registration package. We usually have an opening, welcoming banquet or buffet when we start, and then on Saturday night we’ll have a closing banquet. Then on Sunday everybody gets in their cars, and the Model T’s, we normally trailer them. Some people will drive them round and round. I trailer mine.
The point of the tour is to drive the cars. And anytime you stop somewhere, people start gathering around and want to know this and that like what kind of gas mileage do you get? How fast will it go? What do you do if it rains in this open car? You get wet!
There’re all kinds of vintage car clubs that tour. There’re national clubs, the Antique Auto Club of America, Horseless Carriage Club of America, Model A Ford of America, Model A Restored Club, Model T Ford of America, Model T Ford Club International and on and on.
(All images in this article courtesy members of the Model T Ford Club of America)