In this era of cruise control, backup cameras, blind-spot monitoring and other driver assists, the Ford Model T seems primitive.
But when it made its debut in 1908, Henry Ford's "Tin Lizzie" was revolutionary. Suddenly, car ownership was affordable for working-class families.
"The Model T was absolutely the most influential and game-changing mechanical device of the 20th century," says Steve Herron, a former Ford factory engineer and volunteer at LeMay Family Collection Foundation. "Nothing changed American life more than the Model T."
Through its new driver's education program, LeMay is taking car enthusiasts back to school — and back in time — to experience the history and driving characteristics of the iconic American car.
"People ask us all the time, 'How do I get to drive one of the cars?' " says Stacy Rushton, office manager at LeMay. "This is a way to get knowledge you really can't get anywhere else."
A dozen students (and one reporter) attended the program's first class, held this month at the Marymount Event Center at the LeMay family's 88-acre campus in Tacoma. It was a day of hands-on driving instruction, history and folklore about the Model T.
The affable crew of instructors included Herron, as well as local auto restorers and Model T experts Mike Conrad and Dave Smith.
At the ready for the driving lessons was a trio from the LeMay collection: two open touring cars from 1924 and '25, and a 1920 "depot hack" as a backup. LeMay displayed several privately owned cars as examples of the Model T evolution: a 1910 "pie wagon," a 1915 roadster and a 1931 Model A roadster, the Model T's successor.
Perry Wales and Mark Just, 50-something friends since college, signed up for the class after discovering it on Facebook.
Model T classes are $90 for non-members of the LeMay Family Collection Foundation. The next class (June 28) is sold out, but LeMay has a waiting list for future classes. Model A classes also are offered. For details, visit lemaymarymount.org.
"Mark said to me, 'How would you like to drive a Model T Ford?' " Wales says. "And I thought, 'How fun would that be?' We're both history buffs, and here was a chance to experience the Model T and actually drive one."
Part of the fun of driving on the LeMay estate is that much of it is wooded, with rutted roads weaving through the trees. "A lot of the roads ... are typical of what you may have seen in 1920s rural America," Conrad explains.
In a slide show and lecture, Herron recounted the history of the Model T. More than 15 million were produced from 1908-27. The class was divided in half to switch between the driving and lecture portions.
For the driving, students were divided into groups of three and given two 45-minute sessions with an instructor. Each student took the wheel for 15 minutes a session while the others in the car watched and listened.
A Model T starts with a delightful clatter. Steering is stiff but quick, with only a three-quarter turn from lock to lock. The three pedals on the floor are counterintuitive for modern drivers. There is a foot brake on the right, a reverse pedal in the middle and a high- and low-speed gear selector on the left. The pedals are close together, and the starter button is on the floor.
There were no mishaps, but students occasionally used the wrong pedal, unintentionally sending a car into reverse, lurching forward or stopping suddenly. Instructors were patient and helpful, but quick to take control if a student began hurtling toward a tree.
Conrad, who restores Model T's, cautioned that drivers can easily become confused or overly confident, reverting to their regular driving habits.
"Even in the heyday of the Model T, it was a unique vehicle," he says. "It was not uncommon for certain cities and municipalities to issue a separate driver's license just for the Model T."
At the end of the day, students were presented with a certificate of completion and a Model T driver's license.
Julie Touchette, who had signed up for the class as a 50th birthday present to herself, was beaming: "I thought it would be a lot more complicated to drive a Model T, but it was easier than I thought."