How to Drive a Ford Model T...



Controls of the Ford Model T

Starting the Engine

Making the Car Move...


Hill Climbing


Drawbacks of a Two Speed Gearbox

Maneuvering a Model T

A Three Point Turn

The Transmission

Interactive Gearbox Simulator
How to Drive a Ford Model T in Plain English (Summary)


For the visual learners out there, the following video shows you what to do. If you learn better by reading, the "how to" section is below the video.



With the car on level ground and the engine off, climb up behind the wheel. Notice the hand lever on the floor to your left, the two levers on the steering column beneath the steering wheel, and the three pedals on the floor.

Let's start with the hand lever. All the way back it sets the rear wheel parking/emergency brakes and puts the transmission in neutral. Half-way released it maintains neutral, and fully released it engages the planetary transmission in high gear. Feel it a few times, notice that it holds the left pedal in neutral mid-position, then release it, and notice that the left pedal is all the way up.

Next, the lever to the left beneath the steering wheel is the spark adjust advance/retard from before top dead center ignition to after top dead center. To retard the spark it is moved up, to advance the spark it is moved down. The Model T is always started in the retard position, as it was designed to be started by hand cranking. Unless it is retarded the engine can and will KICK BACK and do damage to hands, wrists and arms. NEVER crank it except in the retard position. After the engine is running, the lever can be moved down to advance the ignition until the engine chuckles smoothly, and when rolling to get the best performance.

Controls of the Ford Model T

The lever to the right is the throttle lever, there is no foot pedal like a modern car. Up is idle speed, down is as fast as it will go. Maximum performance in a Model T is like with a mule, with both ears laid back.

Next, the foot pedals on the floorboard -
The left foot pedal changes your forward gear ratios, up is high, down is low. The Model T has just those two forward ratios, high gear and low gear. Midway between high and low is the neutral "out of gear" position of the left pedal.

To engage first gear, let the handbrake lever off and push the pedal all the way down until it becomes HARD. Pull the handbrake up and feel how the lever holds neutral position on the gear pedal.

The center pedal is for reverse gear engagement, but either the hand lever or the left pedal must be in neutral position before engagement, or the engine will stall. All the way down HARD is reverse position.

The right pedal is the brake. It engages a band around a braking drum in the transmission, operating in the engine oil bath. Therefore, to avoid burning off the oil due to friction heat, and wearing out the band quickly, apply the brake in relatively short duration thrusts to allow the oil to wash and continue lubricating and cooling it.

Note: The Ford Model T only applies braking to the rear wheels.

Braking by right pedal is via the driveline to the rear wheels only, does not actuate the rear drum brakes, and can cause dangerous skids in slick road conditions, as the differential will allow one wheel to spin forward and the other backward. Therefore, in slick conditions, use the hand lever to apply braking to the rear drum brakes.

Get the feel of the controls, they will become familiar quickly.


Starting the Engine

1. Raise the right side of the engine hood and check that the engine oil level is adequate, within the limits prescribed. This is done by opening the lower petcock at the rear of the engine. If it does not flow, close the lower petcock, open the upper petcock and add oil until oil flows from the upper petcock. Close the upper petcock, lower and latch the hood.

2. Remove the radiator cap and top off the radiator with fresh water and/or antifreeze solution in freezing weather. A 30-40% methanol (wood alcohol)/ water solution may be used, but a 50% ethylene glycol/water solution is recommended for all seasons.

Please observe that the hand crank is located in the center of the car below the radiator. To crank the engine, one must stand in the path the car will take if the engine starts while in gear. The car is NOT OUT OF GEAR UNLESS the Emergency brake/neutral lever is all the way back and the rear brakes set. This must be done FIRST, or you will get run over by your own car should the engine start, MOST EMBARRASSING!

NEXT, move the spark advance/retard lever all the way up to retard position. Move the throttle lever down approximately of the quadrant.


Observe that the Magneto/OFF/Battery Switch (or key) on the coil box or dash panel is in the OFF position. The Model T may be started in either Magneto or Battery position, usually in Battery position unless the battery has lost charge.

Observe the wire ring at the lower left corner of the radiator as you face the car. This is the pull wire of the hand choke. PULL IT OUT.

With the switch (or key) OFF, push the crank in and crank the engine over one or two turns, finishing by coming up against compression and just past.

Turn the Magneto/OFF/Battery switch to Battery. The coils will buzz, and sometimes the engine will start without further cranking, especially if warm. If it doesn't, the engine must be cranked through one more cycle of intake/compression. Do this carefully with your LEFT hand, pulling up ONLY by ratcheting the crank as necessary. Do not grip the crank handle but cup it in the palm of the hand with the thumb on the same side of the handle as the fingers. As the cylinder begins to come up on compression, ratchet the crank down to the bottom. Now pull up swiftly, and the engine will start. If not, repeat the process.



NEVER start the car with your right hand. If the engine were to misfire or kick back, you would likely suffer a broken wrist and/or arm. The right hand may be used for priming the engine, as you need your left hand free to operate the choke, but when ever the ignition switch is ON, you MUST use your left hand. again, do not grip the crank handle but cup it in the palm of the hand with the thumb on the same side of the handle as the fingers.



In cold weather the choke may need to be left out until the engine warms. It may be released (or set) from the driver's seat by pushing down the choke/carburetor adjust knob to the right side of the dash panel.


Speed up the engine with the throttle lever, advance the ignition with the advance/retard lever about half-way, then return the engine speed to an idle. It will now chuckle over smoothly at about 400 rpm.


Making the Car Move...

Taking what you have learned so far in both hands and both feet, hold the high/low gear pedal half way down in neutral position with your left foot and let the handbrake off, holding the car in position with the right foot on the brake pedal. Increase the engine revs and gently press the gear pedal down, letting off the brake pedal. The car will move forward. Hold the gear pedal down firmly and increase engine revs up to near full speed, this should only take a couple of seconds. Let the gear pedal off to engage top gear, slowing the engine with the throttle lever to get a smooth gear change. (This will take a little practice to perfect, but there is no cause for fear of crashing gears. The transmission bands may be slipped by relaxing foot pedal pressure to control smoothness of engagement.)


Having learned how to get the car in motion, now might be an opportune moment to learn how to stop it! One of the odd things about bowling along in a T is how you have nothing to do with your feet, unlike an ordinary car where you are always on the accelerator pedal. I like to have my right foot beside the brake pedal so it is ready to transfer onto the brake as you would with standard controls. So far the right foot is doing the same as it would in normal driving, it is the left foot which (provided it is not an old dog) must be taught a new trick. In its simplest form this consists of just holding the gear pedal half way down to get neutral as you come to a halt. One of the nice things about driving Fords of this age is that they can start and stop with reasonable speed so as to keep up with modern traffic, extra braking being easily obtainable by pushing the gear pedal further down to engage low gear. It follows that having engaged the gear it has to be disengaged to actually come to a stop. After some practice it becomes second nature to ease the gear pedal down and up again as you roll to a halt.

Hill Climbing

A Model T Ford will climb an 8% (1 in 12) gradient in top gear with full throttle, and will come down it in top gear with no throttle and no brake application. They can safely negotiate 20% or more grades in low range, so hills should hold no fears for Model T Ford owners, but a few words of advice at this point.

Going up is relatively easy, just give the Lizzie full throttle and retard the ignition a little as the speed falls, and she should slog up the hill in fine style provided there is a reasonable amount of fuel in the tank. The T needs about a quarter tank full to climb a 20% grade, as the gravity feed system becomes less effective the steeper the grade. It was common practice, if the grade was too steep and the engine starved for fuel, to back a T over the grade.

As a general rule going down hills should be done at about the same speed as going up. However, the real secret is to successfully use engine compression to slow the car speed on a hill. Move the throttle lever up to minimum or to a setting which will maintain a safe down-grade speed. As there is no return spring on the throttle lever it can be set as slow as necessary, and will hold position. If braking is still necessary, let the pressure off the pedal every so often to prevent burning the linings. Reverse pedal can also be used to brake for added effectiveness if needed. (see "Saving Your Bands" below).

If you need to stop on a steep grade, use low gear as you brake, but be careful to not over speed the engine in low gear. Be aware that there is no engine braking, if the left foot pedal is held in neutral between high and low gear positions. Jamming all three pedals down will stall the engine and skid the rear tires, not an acceptable solution to emergency braking, except on dry pavement, and even then not recommended. NEGOTIATE HILLS AT SAFE SPEEDS, do not allow the car to "Roll Out."


The steering on the Ford Model T is very direct and lively by today's standards. It is a direct ratio of the sun/planet gears in the steering column below the steering wheel. Direct steering is common with most cars of this age. The Ford, with a transverse front spring, is subject to "twitching" over lumps and bumps in the road. As the front wheel hits an obstruction it causes the front axle to move sideways on its shackles, "twitching" the steering. You can fight the steering every time it jumps, holding the wheel with a vice like grip in which case you will have arm ache after a twenty minute drive, or you can relax your grip and let the steering wheel twitch rather than the road wheels.

It goes without saying that there should be no slack or play in the steering linkage. The camber, caster and toe-in of the front axle should be checked carefully for correct steering geometry.

Drawbacks of a Two Speed Gearbox

In normal driving the two speed pedal operated gear change works very well. It gives a very simple easy gear change enabling you to nip up and down the gears with a minimum of effort. However it does have its drawbacks. The obvious one is the large gap between the gears, there are some circumstances when bottom gear is too low and top is too high. A Ruckstell two speed rear axle alleviates this to some extent.

Places where you may find difficulty are:
1. Changing up a gear on hills.
2. Going into junctions or roundabouts (traffic circles) where top gear is too fast.
3. Going over rough ground or grass.

All that can be done is to grind along in low gear until top gear can be used again. The only other answer is to install an auxiliary gear such as the Ruckstell two speed rear axle. In practice a bit of coasting around obstructions and then with a quick burst of low gear before going back into high again will negotiate most of these situations with ease.

Maneuvering a Model T

Maneuvering the Model T can really separate the men from the boys. It is suggested that the novice driver avoid tight situations until some practice has been obtained.

To reverse hold the left gear pedal half way down in neutral with the left foot, gently press the reverse pedal to go backwards with the right foot. Relax the pressure on the reverse pedal and press the brake with the right foot when you want to stop. Alternatively, apply pressure to the left pedal to brake bringing the car to a stop. This can also be accomplished by use of the hand lever to place the left pedal in neutral, so that when the reverse pedal is released, the brake pedal can be applied. We only have two feet to operate 3 pedals.

The reason why instant action may be needed is this, it takes some time for a driver used to ordinary controls to come to terms with pressing pedals to go rather than stop. In a second you can find that the car is going too fast and the harder you press the pedal the faster it goes. If you keep the right foot ready on the right brake pedal, disaster can be averted. This is the only pedal that will hold the car stationary.

A Three Point Turn

Once the finer points of maneuvering have been mastered, the Model T three point turn-around much loved by the likes of Laurel and Hardy can be tried. This consists of getting an instant reverse by pressing the reverse pedal when going forward and then doing the same thing with the low gear pedal when going back to give a second instant change of direction. This should be done with some care so as not to strain the transmission. Other drivers are mystified as to how this is done without any grappling of gear levers.

The Transmission

The Ford Model T planetary transmission has three bands, one for low gear, one for reverse and one for the brake. These bands need to be changed from time to time, but if you can wear them all out together you will get the longest time between band changes. The brake band has the hardest life while the reverse band gets relatively little use. The wear can be equalized by using reverse pedal for some of the braking. Use reverse first to slow the car, then slide the foot across onto the brake pedal to come to a halt.

These bands and gearing run in the engine crankcase oil. If they are allowed to slip too much the oil is burned off and the lining of the band will be worn very quickly. To avoid this always hold the low gear pedal down firmly and do your braking in relatively short bursts releasing the pressure to allow the oil back round the lining.

The transmission is an Epicyclic or Planetary gear transmission. Using 3 triple gears rotating around a driven gear, like the planets orbiting the sun.

Because the different gear teeth are always in mesh, it is not possible to "crash" or "grind" the gears as can be done in a more traditional style gearbox.

Interactive Gearbox Simulator


So lets look at how everything works, remembering these simple rules:

  1. Each of the Triple Gears does exactly the same as the other

  2. The driven gear and therefore brake drum always do whatever the car is doing, be the car stationary, going forwards or in reverse.

  3. The clutch is only used in direct drive (high gear)

  4. The Triple gears are only used to drive in low gear and reverse.

  5. The low speed drum and reverse drums spin unless clamped by the pedal bands.

With the engine running and the car standing still the following happens:

The car is stationary, which means the driving plate is stationary because it is permanently fixed to the driveshaft and rear axle. The reason the engine can still run is because the link follows this:

Driveshaft, driven plate, brake drum, large clutch discs and driven gear are all stationary. (remember the driven gear spins freely on the transmission shaft, so when its still, the shaft spins inside it) because they are all joined together.
Flywheel, transmission shaft, clutch disc drum, small clutch discs all spin, because either the emergency brake lever or the driver (via the low speed pedal) is holding the clutch spring pressure off the discs, allowing the large to be stationary and the small to spin with the clutch disc drum and small discs.
All drums can, and to some degree will, spin when the car is in neutral, unless held by the bands when a pedal is depressed

In the following simulator, the gears that are attached to the drums are shown only as an example of the number of gear teeth, action and direction of rotation when a gear is selected.




How to Drive a Ford Model T in Plain English (Summary)


Ford made the Model T easy to drive compared to today's cars since the people he sold his cars to did not know how to drive anything other than a horse. It is not like driving a modern car, even though there are three pedals on the floor like a modern manual transmission car. A Model T has a steering wheel that works the same way as in cars of today, but almost everything else is different.

The first Model T's did not even have a starter like a modern car. This is the powerful electric motor in a car that turns the engine to make it run when it is turned off. The engine on the Model T was started with a hand crank on the front of the car. A wire loop near the radiator worked the choke on the carburetor to give the engine extra fuel to help start it when it was cold. This could be dangerous if a person was not careful. If the levers that controlled the engine were not set the right way, especially the spark control, the engine could backfire, or spin the wrong way. Many people got broken arms this way.

Doctors even had a special name for this kind of break: the "Ford Fracture." Many Model T owners added electric starters to their cars and it was not long before Ford started doing the same. A Model T is in high gear by default, so if the Parking/Clutch lever was not engaged, the car had a tendency to run over the operator when started.

To make a modern car go or accelerate once the engine is running, a person steps on a pedal on the floor to engage the transmission into low gear. To make a Model T accelerate, move two levers near the steering wheel. The lever on the right was the throttle (or engine speed), and the lever on the left adjusted the time that the spark plugs fired. These levers needed to be set properly before the engine could be started.

The three pedals on the floor of the Model T were for the brake on the right, reverse in the middle to make the Model T go backwards, and a pedal on the left to shift the gears from low to high speed. A lever on the floor worked the brakes as well as the clutch. Pulling the lever toward the driver would set the parking brake and help keep the car from moving while parked. When the lever was placed in the middle, the transmission would be in neutral.

Once the engine is running, the driver now has to make the Model T move on its own. Step on the pedal all the way to the left, move the throttle lever to "give it the gas" and gently move the floor lever forward. This is low gear, the powerful gear used to get the Model T moving. Once it's moving, move the right lever up, let the left pedal come all the way up, and give it more gas to shift into high. To make the car go faster still, move the throttle lever as well as the spark advance lever. Stepping on the left pedal only halfway puts the car in neutral, the same as the lever. This helps the Model T come to a stop without causing the engine to stop as well.

The brakes on a Model T work the rear wheels by the use of brake bands inside the transmission. Modern cars have brakes on all four wheels. No brakes are on the front of a Model T.
More than fifteen million (15,000,000) Model T cars were built. It was not until 1971 that the record was broken by the Volkswagen. Today, the record for the most cars built is held by the Toyota Corolla.
The Model T was nicknamed the "Tin Lizzie" and "Flivver" by the people who drove it. A new car took the place of the Model T in 1928, the Ford Model A.