Page last updated at 16:59 GMT, Thursday, 24 July 2008 17:59 UK

Black backdrop to Model T celebration

By Rajesh Mirchandani
BBC News, Indiana

Geff Bland drivers his 1915 Model T to the centennial celebration of the classic car
Devotees of the Model T came from across the country to join in the fun

At the Wayne County Fairgrounds in Indiana, not far from where the Wright Brothers' nurtured dreams of flight, a huge birthday party is taking place for something else that changed the world.

Hundreds of Model T Ford vintage cars are gathered to celebrate a century since the first ones rolled off the production line.

"You can have any colour as long as it's black," Henry Ford is reputed to have said of the world's first mass production car and most of the several hundred on display here are in keeping with that.

The older models - made before the revolutionary introduction of the assembly line - are resplendent in maroons and royal blues.

Not just black

A few come in grey, bright red or white, are more streamlined and lower to the ground.

Most are open topped since covered cars cost more while a few have rounded, tapering back ends: they may have been early racing cars.

There are even a handful of vintage Ford vans, decked out with fake fruit to show how they were used as mobile grocery shops.

It's a heck of a lot better than a horse, which it replaced
Gary Page on his 1915 Model T

Chrome radiators and wide-eyed headlamps are polished, black studded leather is buffed.

They sparkle and gleam, almost as much as their proud owners. Many have come from all over America to show off their vehicles, some from overseas, including as far as New Zealand.

These classic cars pre-date gridlock and road rage, and for many here that's their appeal.

"It's wonderful to ride out in the country and the open air, and it makes you slow down," says Christine Benedetto, from Texas, as she shows off her 1913 touring model - made up entirely of original parts.

She points out the gas headlamps and the wooden firewall, the panel separating the driver's cabin from the engine.

"That's what I love about it. When you get in it you don't have life passing you by at 100mph, you have to go slow. It makes you take in everything around you."

Next to her Gary Page has a slightly later model, a 1915 touring car in royal blue.

He shows me the innovations between the two models: his has electric headlamps and a metal firewall.

"It is a lot of fun," he says. "You are enjoying the road, you are part of the road, you're with the car. It's a heck of a lot better than a horse, which it replaced."

Freedom rides

Driving a Model T Ford makes for quite a bumpy ride, as I found out when I got behind the wheel of an exact replica of a 1914 touring car, provided - along with a brief lesson - by the Henry Ford museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

The method of driving is somewhat counterintuitive if you've grown up in modern manual transmission cars.

Todd Wirth drives his 1912 Model T
The Model T exudes elegance and charm rather than comfort or safety

Instead of keeping the accelerator pressed and only using the clutch when changing gears, in a Model T you keep the clutch pressed all the time - in low gear, at least - and adjust the speed by hand, using the throttle located by the steering wheel.

Compared to modern cars, they can reach healthy speeds and feel solid and easy to control. There's not much in the way of airbags or seatbelts (none, in fact), but then the Model T wasn't designed for safety.

It wasn't designed for speed either and it certainly wasn't built for comfort. The Model T Ford was designed to offer affordable freedom for millions.

At its height in 1928, Ford's River Rouge production line in Detroit was a mile long and employed a 100,000 people.

Raw materials like rubber and iron ore went in one end and, just 72 hours later, cars came off the other end. Ford paid its workers well, slashed prices and so helped create a new car-owning middle class. America's love affair began.

But even fans of that bygone age have concerns that are parked in the present.

Dressed in period costume of breeches and braces, Morris Dillow shows me around his beloved 1914 Model T Ford, complete with charming features like the detachable pocket watch on the top of the steering column.

Whenever there's a gas crisis, they always get smaller and people gravitate towards them
Bob Kriepke, Ford historian

He wonders how much longer he will be able to afford to keep it on the road.

"Due to the gas prices, [we] don't drive near as much as we used to," he says.

"We try to save up just to drive to these events. We used to go for joyrides periodically every two or three days but it's down to going to shows on the weekends and coming to major events like this.....I think the golden age of driving around the country just to look around and have a good time is about to die."

Morris points out that his Model T gets around the same number of miles per gallon as the modern Ford Chevrolet truck he uses to tow it.

Back to the future?

In the last couple of years, rising fuel prices and a slumping economy have seen consumers desert the gas-hungry SUVs and pick-up trucks that Ford pioneered.

Its F-Series truck has been America's biggest-selling vehicle for nearly two decades. But in the year to May, F-Series sales dropped 41%.

America's big three carmakers - GM, Ford and Chrysler in order of size - have seen sales plunge, billions of dollars in profits turn to losses and have shed a hundred thousand jobs.

Clearly the market is shifting in consumer taste towards small more fuel-efficient vehicles
Mark Fields, Ford's US president

America's dominant status in car manufacturing has gone, with Japan's Toyota overtaking GM this year as the world leader.

So, at the Model T Ford celebration - an event marking one revolution - Ford bosses set the stage for another: a move away from making gas guzzlers to smaller cars.

"Clearly the market is shifting in consumer taste," acknowledges Ford's US president Mark Fields, "towards small more fuel-efficient vehicles.....and that's how we are going to go about planning our future".

Analysts say this is a watershed moment for US carmakers, but Ford historian Bob Kriepke thinks we haven't seen the end of the big car just yet.

Henry Ford posing with his Model T creation in 1930
Black was the only choice for Henry Ford but drivers are now more fussy

"Whenever there's a gas crisis, they always get smaller and people gravitate towards them. But then again, much like design, you have to have A and B, you can't keep making the same style. So they get smaller and larger, it's kind of like a cycle."

Outside in the field, eagle-eyed judges scrutinise the Model Ts for authenticity and originality. In this competition, the older the car, the more likely to win.

Success here brings a trophy and a handshake.

But success for Ford - and other US carmakers - depends on changing their product lines quickly enough to meet the demand for small, fuel-efficient cars, and developing their own hybrid models to compete with Toyota's best-selling Prius.

And keeping their fingers crossed for a turnaround in the economy.

Few are thinking of that as, in the bright Indiana sunshine a convoy of classic Model T Fords holds up the traffic.

The vintage cars trundle down country roads flanked by fields of corn. Their drivers sound their comedy horns loudly, waving and smiling.

On-lookers wave and smile back, startled by the sight of history bumping along at thirty miles an hour. This week, at least, they are reliving Ford's glorious past.

But in a hundred years from now, will there still be something to celebrate?

A look at the Model T Ford
23 Jul 08 |  Americas
History of the Model T Ford
24 Jul 08 |  Americas
New Ford targets fuel efficiency
22 Jul 08 |  Business
Motor show defies economic gloom
21 Jul 08 |  Business

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