Sunday, May 18, 2008

Car man remembers the Model T craze

Telegram Staff Writer

A portrait of Henry Ford hangs in the garage.
It overlooks a multitude of Model T photographs, some Ford signs and a mechanic's set of tools.
The word 'Ford,' however, doesn't show up anywhere on the two cars parked inside.
'Yeah, I'm a Mercedes-Benz man now,' said John Flanagan of Temple. 'I've owned more than 10 Model Ts in my life, and I've worked on hundreds of Fords, but now I'm interested in the Mercedes-Benz.'
But that's no sin against Mr. Ford, said the 89-year-old retired GM mechanic.
'I admire him,' Flanagan said. 'They said he couldn't do it, but he did it. There's nothing but cars on the road today, and that's because of Henry Ford.'
Yes indeed, Mr. Ford's dream of mass producing the automobile came true. This year marks the centennial of the Model T - the vehicle that put wheels on America, the Tin Lizzy, the flivver. The Model T 'started it all,' Flanagan said.
The first one sold in October 1908 for $850.
Flanagan paid $5 for his first Model T, sometime in the early 1920s.
'It was an old ratty one,' Flanagan said. 'I found it in a junk yard for $5. Mind you it needed a lot of work, but there it was laying there.'
Finding cheap used Model Ts was common before the Depression. Flanagan said they were everywhere, in junk yards, gardens and fields.
'They were rusted and stripped for parts, but they could be salvaged,' he said. 'Fixing 'em up was a fun hobby. I may take up bike repair, now that the price of gas was so high.'
Flanagan grinned again. He was chuckling at his own joke.
The 100th anniversary of the Model T wasn't exactly a serious subject for the car collector; it was no reason to bring out the fireworks, either.
But why would it be? He lived through the real excitement.
'I remember when the Model T was new,' Flanagan said. 'The Model Ts, they replaced a lot of horse traffic. They were sold in the millions. The family had one, so did our friends.'
The transition wasn't easy.
'The roads weren't paved,' said. 'People got stuck in the mud, and they'd swerve.'
Cranking the Model T was also dangerous.
'People broke their arms working that crank,' said wife Betty Flanagan. At 89, she too remembers the advent of the Model T.
Her husband disagreed.
'That only happened if you didn't know how to do it,' Flanagan said.
Flanagan then started talking about the first time he drove a Model T. He thinks he was 10 or 11 when it happened.
'You had to drive to work in the farm,' Flanagan said. 'I got up to 25 and 30 m.p.h., and that was fast compared to horses.'
The farm work was Flanagan's second job. He had been contributing to the family's income since he was 7.
'Everybody worked. It was the Depression,' he said. 'I worked for a very large New York-owned dairy there in Kansas City, Mo. Perhaps you've heard of it - Kraft Cheese.'
Work at the dairy was good until Flanagan and his 10 siblings were separated and 'farmed out' to relatives and friends who needed help raising crops.
Even though the Flanagan family worked on different farms, they managed to keep in touch. The Model T helped them to visit on a regular basis.
It was the Touring Car, he said. The term was dubbed by Ford advertisers.
'Whenever people went anywhere, they'd get in their Model T,' Flanagan said. 'It had that open top, for a good view.'
Betty's childhood family had a Model T Touring Car as well.
'We had one, but when I was growing up, I was always wishing my parents would get a new one,' Betty said, laughing a little.
Holding on to the old car makes sense to Flanagan.
'Your parents paid for that car,' Flanagan said. 'You paid for what you got.'
'Oh I know that,' Betty said. She paid $65 for a three-year nursing education. 'I started out earning $5 for eight hours of work. 'God knows it's better now.'
So are the cars, in her husband's opinion.
'It's all gotten better,' Flanagan said. 'The mechanics, the safety, everything. Especially those Mercedes.'

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