Surrounded by lush vineyards and orchards, under the snow-capped peak of Oregon’s highest volcanic mountain, Hood River is a great little destination just 60 miles east of Portland. There’s not much that you can’t do here, in this green nook along the Columbia River: skiing, hiking, wind-surfing, wine-tasting and—best of all—learning to drive a 1916 Model T Ford.
On a multi-stop airplane camping trip from BC to California, we visited the marvelous Western Antique and Airplane Museum (WAAAM) located right at the Ken Jernstedt Airfield (4S2, CTAF/UNICOM: 122.8, Elevation: 638 ft.) While touring the incredible collection of planes and antique vehicles in the museum, we learned about the Model T driving school and promptly signed up for the only class that was still available that summer. Each class is limited to 10 participants, and they sell out early!
Weather almost defeated us when we flew down from Canada to Hood River some months later for our scheduled driving class. But despite sulking clouds and petulant winds, we made it, to the delight of the folks running the driving school, who vowed to now declare theirs an international establishment. In keeping with the early 1900’s theme of our day, we booked a room in the historic Hood River Hotel, a wonderful floorboard-creaky, brass-spigot place that’s been around since 1912.
We spent the morning in the museum, learning the history of the `Tin Lizzie’ and some esoteric facts, such as: the first cars produced were red, grey, green, and blue, even though Henry T. Ford declared that his customers could buy a Model T painted any color they wished, as long as it were black. The iconic black was introduced as a cost saving measure during WWI. He also offered kits to convert the Model T to just about anything his customers wanted, such as the Snowflier, where a second set of drive wheels were added and skis replaced the front wheels. (The first snowmobile!) Apparently, another `conversion’ was for a traveling minister, so he could set up his Model T to power a portable pipe organ.
After a BBQ burger & salad lunch (included), we were released into a grass field, to drive a variety of Model T’s about willy-nilly and around a slalom course of orange traffic cones (a demonstration of chaos theory in action, make no mistake). Neither of us could believe how vastly different driving the Model T is to driving today’s standard—or automatic—car. With three pedals on the floor (none of them in the configuration that we’re familiar with today), two levers on the steering wheel, and a third bar/lever necessary for operation, driving Henry’s `Fliver’ was kind of like patting your head, rubbing your tummy, and writing riddles using only your feet. It was a challenge and a delight, and our volunteer instructors—ranging in age from 60 to 90 years old—had oodles of patience and wisdom. Most of the instructors, we learned, actually forge the replacement parts for the Model T’s, by hand, right there at the WAAAM.
How to drive the Model T:
There are three pedals located on the floor, left, middle, and right.
To the left of the driver, there’s a large hand-operated bar-lever (said bar-lever makes it impossible to get into the car on the driver’s side, don’t you know). Driver must enter on the passenger side. There’s two more levers located on the steering wheel.
There are three positions for the left pedal. All the way out, the car is in high gear. Pushed ½ way in, the car is in neutral. Pushed all the way in, the car is in low gear.
The bar-lever pulled all the way back forces the left pedal into the middle and applies the handbrake.
If you move the bar-lever ½ way forward, it releases the handbrake and restricts the left pedal to middle and `all the way in’ only. If you move the bar-lever all the way forward, then the left pedal is free to move into all positions and the handbrake is released.
The right pedal is the brake (just like a brake in our cars today). Always drive with right foot hovering over the brake!
Middle pedal is the reverse gear. To go backwards, hold the left pedal in the ½ way position and push the middle pedal in. Anytime you’re engaging any of the gears (low, high, or reverse), as with today’s standard vehicles, you need to apply the throttle or the engine will quit. The throttle is one of the levers on the steering column; the other lever on the steering column is the spark timer. You can’t apply the throttle without changing the spark timer, which you have to do simultaneously with the throttle lever. How fun is that?!