2008-11-06 / Local & State

Old Ford Is Model Of Affection For Central Pa. Man


READING, Pa. (AP) - At the wheel of his 1918 Model T Ford, 91- year-old Ray C. Miller Sr. grins like a teenager cruising in his first car.

Miller, of Exeter Township, waves to bystanders and unleashes blasts of the "oooga" horn as if he was driving the lead car in a Fourth of July parade.

One year older than the vintage car, Miller has a priceless piece of American history, and he knows it.

"The Model T put America on wheels," bragged Miller, a devoted Ford man.

It's been 100 years since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line at Ford's Piquette Plant in Detroit.

Ford Motor Co. was only 5 years old when founder Henry Ford unveiled what he dubbed "the universal car" Sept. 27, 1908.

America has never been the same.

For the first time, the average American could afford a car.

Where handcrafted cars of the era could cost $2,000 to $3,000, the assembly line-produced 1909 Model T touring car sold for $850.

Eventually, due to the efficiency of mass production, some models sold for as low as $440.

By 1918, half of all cars in America were Model Ts.

From 1909 until production ended in 1927, Ford made 15 million Model Ts and established a production record that stood for 45 years.

Horse and buggy was still the preferred mode of transportation when Ray Miller was born in 1917 - the year the United States entered World War I.

In Strausstown, where Miller grew up, his family walked a halfmile to Sunday services at Zion Blue Mountain Church.

"A fella had a Model T," recalled Miller, a retired millwright. "When he'd come along, we'd jump on the running board and get a ride to church."

That childhood encounter with the Model T fueled a lifetime of devotion to Ford cars - don't even talk to him about Chevys.

In 1954, when he was 37, Miller bought the 1918 five-seater touring car from a farmer in Bernville. The vehicle recently took first place at the Hershey Auto Show.

The car, as Miller recalls, was bought at Earl Stoyer's dealership in Schuylkill Haven. In those days, though, buyers had to go to Buffalo to pick up the car.

The farmer did, and ran it into a ditch on the way home.

"He put it in the barn and left it there until I bought it in 1954," Miller said. "I'm only the second owner of a 90-year-old car."

Miller passed on his love of cars to his sons, especially Ray Jr., Merlin and Michael.

Ray Jr., of Leesport, an accomplished car collector, has two Model Ts - a 1926 coupe and a 1926 pickup truck.

Merlin, also of Leesport, works on the family's Model T collection but prefers racing his championship Sunbeam Tiger at hill climbs and on road courses around the East Coast.

Michael, of Birdsboro, manages Ray's Kawasaki, an Exeter Township dealership founded by his father.

"A Model T was my first car," says Ray Jr., 69, owner of Berks Leisure Living, an assisted-living facility in Bern Township. "It was a 1927, and I bought it in 1955 when I was 16 years old."

The old car didn't have a heater. In winter, Ray Jr. made a makeshift heater out of heated bricks in a burlap bag.

"Once, I took a girl to a dance at Exeter High in the old Model T," he recalls. "It was me, the girl and a bag of heated bricks in between."

The Model T was equipped with a small four-cylinder engine that operated on gasoline or ethanol. It got 13 to 21 miles per gallon.

Nicknamed the "Tin Lizzy," the Model T could hit an outrageous 20 miles an hour.

"You can coax 35 miles an hour out of it, but it's not easy," Ray Sr. said.

The universal car, it turns out, was universally difficult to drive.

Its two-speed transmission - high and low - is operated by a pedal on the floor. Reverse gear involves using another pedal. There's no gas pedal; the accelerator is mounted on the steering column.

And, the early Model Ts had to be started with a hand crank.

The complexity of operating the car, ironically, is making the Model T undesirable to a new generation of collectors.

"Model Ts are getting cheaper all the time," Ray Sr. said. "Nobody knows how to drive them anymore."

Ray Sr. does, and he showed off his skills recently on the grounds of Berks Leisure Living in Bern Township. One of the people he chauffeured was 99-year-old Mary Balthaser, a resident of the assistant living facility.

Mary was born the year after the Model T's debut.

Her father, Harrison Kramer, was one of the first people in Bern Township to buy one. She recalls riding to church in the back of the open-air touring car, then the family's pride.

Riding with Ray Sr. brought back memories, Mary confessed.

Stepping out of the vintage car, Mary reverted to the Pennsylvania German dialect in describing the bumpy experience.

Return to top