Yosemite suited to a Model T

LA Times | Travel

With all due respect to H.G. Wells, there are no time machines. Except for the ones we rented recently on a trip back in time to Yosemite National Park. In authentic Model Ts or Model As, visitors can experience Yosemite as their grandparents or great-grandparents did, bouncing along rutted...

By Paul Whitefield // 06.19.09

With all due respect to H.G. Wells, there are no time machines.

Except for the ones we rented recently on a trip back in time to Yosemite National Park.

In authentic Model Ts or Model As, visitors can experience Yosemite as their grandparents or great-grandparents did, bouncing along rutted, one-lane dirt roads, splashing through streams or waking up the echoes as you pull up to the historic Wawona or Ahwahnee hotels.

Few places are more glorious than Yosemite Valley on a sunny June day. Driving a classic American convertible heightens the experience as you move at the leisurely pace of yesteryear, Bridalveil and Yosemite falls roaring above you, the Merced River rushing through wooded glens.

But be warned. You may be aboard a historic machine, but you'll also be rewarded with that Holy Grail of 21st century life: You'll be a celebrity. We knew we'd have fun. What we weren't expecting was to be so . . . recognized. People smiled. They waved. They took our picture. They asked questions.

And some, like William Sea of Salem, Ore., told us stories. On the overlook at the entrance to the valley, he recalled fondly the 1930 Model A he owned in his youth, how it burned oil and overheated, how he bought it for $250 and then, when he entered the military a few years later in 1943, sold it -- for $250.

During our three-day, two-night stay at David and Sheran Woodworth's gracious, Victorian-style Tin Lizzie Inn in Fish Camp, my wife, two teenage sons and I saw the sights in both a 1929 Model A, complete with rumble seat, and a 1916 Model T. The Woodworths keep several Model Ts and Model As at their elegant two-suite bed-and-breakfast, available as a package for guests or for day rentals. They'll also arrange multi-car, multi-day tours of Yosemite and other historic areas of California, including the Gold Country and San Simeon.

To today's driver, the Model A is easily the most familiar of the two Fords. In fact, driving it, I was immediately reminded of my dad's 1964 Ford pickup: the yard-long shift lever and the three-speed gearbox, which makes that satisfying crunch as gears mesh imperfectly with each shift.

Of course, things were simpler 80 years ago. Take the key, for instance. Forget the multifunction fobs of today; this car's key looked exactly like the one I use to lock my file cabinet. And that stalk on the left of the steering column? Nope, not a turn signal (it has none), but the spark advance. There's also the tiny (and only) rearview mirror -- or, as they were called in the day, the "hind-view reflector" -- which is of little use. And if it rains? Well, there's a top, but no wipers -- or, as they were originally known, "rain rubbers."

We made several circuits of the valley floor, about 34 miles from the inn. We stopped at Bridalveil Fall, then near the Ahwahnee Hotel to check out some climbers, followed by another stop for a picnic lunch. Each time my wife exited the rumble seat, she marveled at yesteryear's women: "How in the world could you do this in a dress?"

We made our way up to Glacier Point and then back to Mariposa Grove and its giant sequoias. The boys vetoed the hike, staying with the car -- only to be set upon by Danish tourists who peppered them with questions about the Model A. Finally, as we stopped to show our permit on exiting the park, we were rewarded with a broad smile from the park ranger, who exclaimed: "I remember you guys!" Ah, the life of a celebrity.

The next morning, fueled by another of Sheran's delicious breakfasts, it was time for the Model T. First, the boys, using an original gasoline cart, took turns hand-cranking gas into the tank, which is located -- gulp -- under the front seat. Wrench in hand, David crawled under the car and did a quick tightening of the transmission.

The automobile of today is something of a necessary evil. It is expensive. It pollutes the air. It bedevils our foreign policy with its thirst for oil.

But the Model T is of a different era. Remember the thrill of your first driver's license? Imagine an entire country gripped by that fever. The Model T is the missing link between the horse and buggy and the automobile. Built on the world's first moving assembly line to help drive down costs -- introduced at a price of $850, it eventually sold for as little as $290 -- more than 15 million were produced from 1909 to 1927.

As I climbed behind the wheel, it became apparent that driving the Model T would require some adjustments. There are three pedals on the floorboard, but none is a clutch or accelerator. The far-left pedal functions as the gearshift: halfway up is neutral, all the way to the floor is first gear, all the way up is second. The middle pedal is reverse, which can be engaged at any time. And the far-right pedal is the brake, although the car actually doesn't have brakes.

When pushed, that pedal engages a mechanism that grips the drive shaft, causing one wheel to stop turning. On the steering column are the spark advance and the throttle stalks. Turn the key, stomp the starter button on the floor, adjust the spark arrester, mash the left pedal down, move the throttle lever down, and you're off. Simple.

In truth, with about five minutes of David's clear, concise instruction, I felt like great-granddad back on the ranch in West Texas.

We made a quick trip down California Highway 41 to a lovely waterfall for some picture taking. Now, 35 mph may feel downright pedestrian in your BMW. Aboard a Model T, however, the experience is somewhat more, er, exhilarating.

Soon, however, we left the paved highway and started off on a one-lane dirt national forest road. It was here that the Lizzie showed its mettle. It was easy to imagine approaching Yosemite in the early 1900s this way.

The T bounced along, pulling strongly up hills. It's all mechanical noises, backfires and creaks and groans and rattles, but it's also surprisingly agile. One has an undeniable feeling of confidence, odd given the car's age. What else do you have that's almost a century old and still works?

We approached a stream, perhaps 30 feet across and 2 feet deep. Without hesitation, the T splashed across, water lapping at the running boards. Try that in your minivan.

Although the T is equipped with an electric starter, no trip would be complete without hand-cranking the car. I went first. Several failed attempts later, the words "It can't be done" escaped my lips.

Up stepped my 13-year-old son. A quick jerk of the crank and -- vroom!

OK, beginner's luck. I tried again. No dice.

The 13-year-old again. Vroom.


How much fun was it? That night, back at the inn, we slightly chilled yet sunburned parents offered to take the boys to dinner.

"Can we go in the Model T?" they chorused.