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Model T Owners Celebrate 100th Anniversary as Ford Struggles to Downsize

Ford Motor Company is struggling to reduce the number of workers at plants in Ohio and elsewhere to match production with slumping sales. But the company can enjoy one bright spot this week.

Antique car enthusiasts from central Ohio and elsewhere are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the car turned Ford into the most successful car company in the world. WOSU's Christina Morgan visited with members of a Model T car club as they put the finishing touches on their cars and prepared to join the anniversary celebration.

Dave and son Ben Nolting have an easy, good natured way about them as they talk about the vehicle that revolutionized automobile assembly and made Henry Ford the richest man in the world. Ben Nolting jokes about the hours he and his dad spend restoring and driving Model T's.

"There's something wrong with us." He laughs. "We're not normal people."

More than two dozen members of their car club were expected to travel to Richmond, Indiana for what's dubbed the national T- Party.

The family interest in Model T's began with Dave Nolting's father who had a 1909 Model T Touring. He bought it in 1954. Dave Nolting says, he was born a few months later.

"The first picture I have of myself is in that car with mom and dad in the centennial parade here in Ashley." Says Nolting.

Automotive historian Bob Casey says the Nolting family is typical of Model T collectors.

"This is a real family activity," says Casey. "You bring your kids up in this."

Casey is the curator of transportation at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn.

Designed to be simple and, for its time, reliable, the Model T has by today's standards a spindly if not fragile look to it. Dave Nolting says, despite its appearance, the car is tough and durable with a steel body that twists and turns but does not break.

The latest addition to the Nolting collection is a 1914 Model T with brass grill and headlights. The headlights run on gas, powered by a generator that sits on the driver's side running board. The only door is a tiny one on the passenger's side.

The tube tires are 30 inches in diameter by 3 inches wide. They look more like bicycle tires and seem unlikely candidates to provide anything close to a smooth ride as defined by today's cars.

A surprise awaits as Dave Nolting and I squeeze into the front seat, reminded that people 100 years ago were smaller in size probably much smaller.

Ben Nolting volunteers to crank the engine on the Model T. After three tries, the engine starts up. Dave pulls the car out of his garage and heads for the open road.

In response to a question about what the starting of the engine makes him think about, Nolting says this one is similar to the one his father had, and it reminds him of when he was a child ..." the way it drives, the way it rides, even the smell. It takes me back."

His voice softens and falls beneath the sound of the engine. The car has no gauges of any kind, and no speedometer. Nolting says he generally drives between 30 and 35 miles per hour. The car will go faster, he says, but it brakes really well at 30-35 miles per hour. Nolting smiles as he drives past a sheriff's deputy parked along the side the road.

"Hope he doesn't get us for speeding," Nolting quips. Ben Nolting says, driving the Model T is fun, but restoration is his favorite part. Then again, he clearly enjoys swapping stories with others about the early days of the vehicle. He says Ford would give a dealer one car, and the dealer had to sell that car before getting another one. It might take three months for a dealer to make a sale. And many of the buyers were farmers, accustomed to driving a team of horses. Ben Nolting picks up the story from there: "When they bought the car, the dealer gave them driving lessons. They ran many of [the cars] through fences and into barns yellin' whoa! Here you had a new car in need of a new fender. Not only was Ford making a lot of cars. He was also making a lot of spare parts because they put a lot of new fenders on these cars. "

Historian Bob Casey says demand for the car and all those spare parts spurred Henry Ford to develop a faster way to deliver the product.

He initially contracted out work on Model T engines, transmissions and frames, and then assembled them at the Highland Park plant north of Detroit. Casey says, Ford gradually brought the outside work in-house and in 1913, fewer than five years into the production of the popular Model T, the first assembly line was running.

By the time manufacture of the Model T ended in 1927, Ford had made more than 15 million of them

"That 15 million number," says Casey,"was finally exceeded by the Volkswagon Beetle. That's the only other car that's been made in greater volume." Nolting is relaxed and smiling as he drives the country roads near his home in Ashley in north central Ohio. He says the Model T's are fun, but a lot of the enjoyment he experiences is where he goes and who goes along. He explains: "My wife and I travel in my little green sedan. You made good friends in the club. There's good people in every hobby, but this is how we meet them."

He smiles as he looks out over the tiny hood of his Model T.

In Richmond, Indiana this week, Dave and Ben Nolting are meeting many more people who share their hobby. Hundreds of Model T owners are gathered to observe the car's 100th anniversary.

And many of them brought the family.