Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Driver John Matthews, John Dawson (front passenger), Norman Luttbeg (behind driver) and Reed Webb.
Driver John Matthews, John Dawson (front passenger), Norman Luttbeg (behind driver) and Reed Webb.

Road Trip

Across America in a Model T - at age 17 Add to ...

Protected by trees and granite boulders rising from Nova Scotia’s landscape, the T Barn sits parallel to John and Beth Matthews’ “Shopudio” – his woodworking shop downstairs, her painting studio upstairs. They live in Hubley, a blip located 30-minutes southwest of Halifax – triple that in a Model T.

More Related to this Story

Road trips are common for the Matthews. During a 27,000-kilometre tour in a Westfalia camper, serendipity drove past via Banff’s Model T rally. Noting his wistfulness when he reminisced about a 1957 trip, Beth conceded: “Maybe it’s time you get one.”

In the summer of 1956, in sleepy St. Louis, John Matthews – then 16 – and his father drove home a 1923 Model T that they had purchased for $200, dismantled it and then performed a rebuild. He drove to school sitting atop the gas tank, attracting suitable attention and, by the following summer, Matthews and three friends – John Dawson, Norman Luttbeg and Reed Webb – had acquired a running board luggage rack, spare tire, cook stove, sleeping bags and tents. It was July, 1957, and California was in their sights.

“Our parents let us go because they didn’t think we’d get more than 20 miles away,” Matthews said. From St. Louis, across Iowa, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, northwest to the Oregon coast, then south to Del Mar, Calif., they drove that Model T 6,600 kilometres – “likely longer than almost any trip taken in the 1920s.”

Through towns and without interstate highways – a venture not unlike John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America – there were few transport trucks bearing down, and the maximum speed was 60 km/h. Matthews said they talked to hundreds of strangers – “mostly old timers” – who took an interest in the car. After the first few encounters, Matthews said they’d roll their eyes seeing oldsters approach, but “at this more sentimental stage of my life I know what those guys were feeling with their dreamy looks, running their hands over the fenders.”

There were numerous mechanical fixes along the way, such as the sudden engine rattle forcing a tow to a shop, where the owner knew they’d thrown a rod. Matthews said he borrowed a car to visit a farmer rumoured to have one in Yankton, N.D.

“A Model T connecting rod hung like a trophy on his barn wall,” Matthews recalled. Two dollars later, it was his and “we returned to see the [shop] owner sitting down to a birthday dinner. But he had it fixed by 11 p.m., wanting no payment, sending us off with the tip to substitute the Babbitt bearing with bacon rind or leather.”

Some grades were too steep, so three of them would run behind, sometimes pushing the Model T – “a sight, as well as aggravating, to drivers behind us.”

Matthews thought they could put off changing transmission bands until southern California, but he was proved wrong.

“We started down a hill, let it coast to 90 km/h and I tried to brake. Nothing, even when I pressed both brake and reverse pedals,” he said. “Speed climbed, the car shimmied, the stoplight at the bottom of the hill was red and we were going too fast to jump. Just before the intersection, the light turned green and we shot though, coasting up the hill to its other side.”

Police routinely stopped them out of curiosity and, in late August, near San Jose, Calif., they were waved over by two men in suits driving a black Ford.

“They had FBI written all over them,” said Matthews. “They were from Ford Motor Company inviting us to the factory, to have pictures taken, be interviewed and treated to lunch, then ‘a grand surprise.’”

Being four hungry teenagers low on cash, they didn’t hesitate. “They took us onto the factory floor, for the rare treat for outsiders – the Edsel production line.”

Matthews said the four were silenced by the car’s design, and were immediately worried for its survival when they saw a worker trying to make a door close by slamming hinges with a sledge hammer. The now-legendary lemon made its public debut just weeks later.

After arriving in Del Mar, they drove the T back up to San Francisco for Matthews’ uncle to sell, and the return trip back home was by bus.

John Matthews’ current Model T.
 

Fifty-five years later, Matthews found his first love in Prince Edward Island; Canadian-made with its distinctive fourth door by the driver. It cost him $12,000 and he removed the modern ignition to reinstall original wiring.

Matthews has inquired about those who have taken long T trips, finding most had support vehicles. “Although I was 17, the trip changed my life,” said Matthews, a retired palaeontologist. “I came to appreciate older people more and believe in the kindness of strangers.”

Would he do it again, if the opportunity arose? “In a heartbeat.”

Special to The Globe and Mail

If you have questions about driving or car maintenance, please contact our experts at globedrive@globeandmail.com.

Follow us on Twitter @Globe_Drive.

Add us to your circles.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

In the know

Most popular video »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most Popular Stories