A hundred years ago Henry Alexander took his Model T Ford up Ben Nevis. It wouldn’t be allowed now. No, really, it isn’t being allowed. The greenery-yalleries have forbidden it. The John Muir Conservation Trust, which is apparently responsible for the Ben Nevis summit, will only permit a replica carried up by volunteers and then reassembled in commemoration.
Edinburgh Ford dealer Alexander wanted to show how rugged a Model T was, but knew he probably couldn’t drive it all the way. He was right; I’ve climbed there. The track is narrow and rocky. Anything off-track is steep. You might manage a mountain bike.
Henry’s team had to manhandle and dismantle to manage up to the summit, 4,406ft when I was at school. A Model T was only 1200lb (544kg), ten hundredweight in old money so manageable for a robust team of helpers, who took five days over boulders, through snow-drifts and over dangerous loose sand paths. A lot of press, including a chap from The Autocar, assembled at the top to greet the pioneers, who had built little bridges over streams and waterfalls. It took them less than three hours to come down gradients steeper than 1 in 3.
The Ben Nevis Challenge Tour, from 16 - 21 May, is organised by the Model T Register celebrating the 100th anniversary of Alexander’s achievement. Over 60 Model Ts will give daily runs, providing opportunities to see privately-owned examples of Ford's first Universal Car on the picturesque roads around Fort William. There will be a display of Ford vehicles and memorabilia at the Nevis Centre. Other vehicles from the Ford Heritage Collection will include a replica of Henry Ford's first vehicle, the Quadricycle, and a 1910 Model T.
Henry Ford sent eight American Model T’s to Olympia, London, on 13 November 1908. He was keen on exports and they went on to Paris afterwards. Fords had been imported since 1903, the Model Ts coming in through The Central Motor Car Company Ltd, of 117 Long Acre, London WC. Among radical features were cylinders cast in one block and an integral engine, clutch and gearbox. The epicyclic gears drew inspiration from the works of Frederick Lanchester along principles that would form the basis of modern automatic transmissions. There were three pedals; the middle one engaged reverse, the left engaged low when pressed, high when released, and the right operated the transmission brake. A steering column throttle controlled engine speed. Transverse road springs meant only two were needed instead of four; a useful economy. Crosswise springing also offered less resistance to side-roll and twisting on corners. Ford was a passionate advocate of vanadium steel, which he believed made cars stronger and lighter to it was used for the Model T’s frail looking but sturdy drop forged front axle, spindly crankshaft, and parts of the transmission.
Ford Motor Company (England) Ltd began making Model Ts at Trafford Park, Manchester in 1911. The first British Ford was assembled from imported parts on 23 October, Ford’s Irish factory supplying chassis items until Joseph Sankey, of Hadley Shropshire, took over but it was the 1920s before Model Ts were wholly home grown. A Detroit-style moving production line came in September 1914. Assembly had been a stationary affair with axles and chassis laid out on the floor, now building a Model T took 12 hours. Moving assembly tracks had been used elsewhere, but Ford waited until components could be made accurately enough to be interchangeable, cutting build time to an hour and a half. The following year the flywheel magneto operated an electric lighting set, not altogether satisfactorily, since being dependent on engine speed, the lights grew dim when driving slowly. The Model T’s success was so overwhelming all other Fords were discontinued.
INTRODUCTION 27 September 1908, produced until 26 May 1927.
BODY Various styles; 2 or 4-seats; weight 1200lb (544kg).
ENGINE 4-cylinders, in-line; front; 3.75in (95.25mm) x 4in (101.6mm), 2896cc (176.7 cu in); compr 4.5:1; 20bhp (14.91kW) @ 1800rpm; 6.9bhp (5.1kW)/l.
ENGINE STRUCTURE L-head side valve; gear-driven camshaft; non-adjustable tappets; detachable cast iron cylinder head and block; Holley or Kingston single jet updraught carburettor, mixture adjustable by driver; low-tension flywheel magneto, distributor and separate trembler coil for each cylinder, standby battery for starting; splash lubrication; gravity fuel feed; 3-bearing crankshaft; cooling by multi-tube radiator (brass shell in UK until 1916 thereafter black), thermosyphon, and fan.
TRANSMISSION rear wheel drive; epicyclic 2-speed and reverse gearbox, steel disc clutches for low speed and reverse by contracting bands on epicycle drums; multi-disc clutch for direct drive top; propeller shaft enclosed in torque tube; final drive passenger cars and light vans straight-tooth bevel gears; ratio 3.64:1 high 10:1 low.
CHASSIS straight steel channel-section chassis; transverse leaf springs front and rear with radius rods; mechanical brakes foot – contracting band on direct-drive clutch, hand – expanding shoes in rear wheel drums; steering by epicyclic reduction gear in steering wheel boss, drop arm on end of steering column, transverse drag link, 1.25 turns lock to lock; 10gal (45.46l) fuel tank; 30 x 3in front, 30 x 3.5in rear, variations on balloon and straight-sided tyres; hickory-spoked artillery wheels, non-detachable, fixed rims; detachable rims after 1919; wire-spoked wheels 1925.
DIMENSIONS wheelbase 100in (254cm); track 56in (142.2cm) later 60in (152.4cm); length 134in (340.4cm); width 66in (167.6cm); ground clearance 10.5in (76.2cm).
EQUIPMENT from 1909-1915 no electrical system; 1915-1919 8v headlamps and horn from flywheel magneto; 1919-1927 dynamo and battery for 6v starting and lighting.
PERFORMANCE maximum speed 45mph (72.2kph) approx, claim by Ford, 15mph (24kph) in low; 27.2kg/bhp (36.5kg/kW); fuel consumption 28mpg (10.1l/100km).
PRICE Various models, roadster, tourer, 2-door, 4-door saloons, and town car, chassis 1919 £170, 1921 £250, 1924 2-seater £110.
Data from The Ford Centenary File: Dove Publishing, 2011
Seventeen years after taking the Model T up Ben Nevis, Henry Alexander made the ascent with a new Model A. I don’t expect that would be allowed now either. The John Muir Conservation Trust is sure smelly old petrol cars with nasty exhaust emissions will ever catch on.