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Learn to drive a Model T at the Gilmore Car Museum

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Driving class(ic)

A 1919 Model T sits at a 1930s gas station at the Gilmore Car Museum.

The Gilmore Car Museum is a haven for classic car buffs, especially those who want to get behind the wheel of a Model T – just don't expect a normal driving experience

Hickory Corners, population 322, is a two-hour drive west of Detroit Metropolitan Airport. More significantly, it is home to the Gilmore Car Museum, where you'll find 400 vintage cars in a dozen buildings on 90 acres.

You'll also find the reason I'm here, the Model T Driving School, but more on that in a minute.

The Gilmore Car Museum opened in 1966 with 35 cars and today features areas dedicated to the Pierce-Arrow, Franklin, Lincoln Motor Car, Model A Ford, Cadillac LaSalle, as well as motorcycles, vintage children's pedal cars and the Classic Car Club of America.

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A Mercedes-built replica of the 1886 Benz Motorwagen.

You'll find a bit everything automotive, from a Mercedes-built replica of the first automobile, Karl Benz's 1886 Motorwagen, to an 1899 Locomobile steam-powered car (the oldest in the museum), and a 1903 Columbia Electric Runabout, which boasts a 40-mile range that was "popular with ladies and country doctors."

For classic muscle cars or cars favoured by the wealthy, there's a 1910 Packard five-passenger touring, 1916 Packard Twin-Six Racer and a 1929 Duesenberg.

A 1929 Duesenberg inside the museum.

There's also a restored 1941 roadside diner open for business, a 1930s gas station, and several recreated vintage dealerships. Time your visit for a rotating exhibit, regular cruise-in nights, swap meets, and more.

The non-profit museum is a hive of educational activity, including Gilmore Garage Works, an after-school program for maintaining and restoring vintage cars. This year, a team of adults and high school students ran a restored 1935 Packard from Michigan to Florida in the annual Great Race.

A research library holds ads, repair manuals, trade publications and hundreds of thousands of automotive patents, including one of the most revolutionary: the electric starter that in 1911 ended the requirement of a hand-cranked start – first sold with Cadillacs in 1912 and Fords in 1919.

A restored 1941 roadside diner is open for business on the museum’s 90-acre grounds.

In summer, the Model T Driving School offers pre-registered visitors an experience like no other. As we begin the half-day course, the museum's Education Director informs us that "women always do so much better in the class; you know why?"

No, but I'm all ears.

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"Because they listen."

And listen, you must: Henry Ford's motorcar for the masses doesn't work on the same logic we know today.

There are levers, knobs and pedals, and they don't operate as you'd expect. For one, the throttle is on the steering wheel (down for fast, up for slow), as is the timing advance. You adjust the choke and carburetor with knobs on the dash. There are three foot pedals; The right pedal locks a brake in the transmission, and the middle pedal is reverse. Press the left pedal to engage the lower gear, and if you want to go into the higher gear, take your foot off.

A 1926 Model T hits the road.

Confused? The T is a mental and physical challenge.

It's a 2,200-rpm car with a top speed around 40 mph, which is a blessing. While a ball to drive, Model Ts are top-heavy and sway. Straightaway is fine, but too much speed in a corner could spell a rollover, or more likely, a broken wooden-spoked wheel.

We drove Model Ts that dated from 1914 to 1926, with instructors providing steady guidance and handling the more difficult tasks. They fill up the fuel tank, which is – disconcertingly – under your seat, and they hand-crank the start if a novice stalls out. (From my count, this only happened to men.) In its day, some drivers broke fingers, jaws and arms when the car backfired during a start. Or worse, they were run over when it sprang to life. A mechanic is also on hand, dressed in a traditional overcoat, to cover small problems that can arise. These are, after all, ancient cars; production ceased in 1927 after 19 years.

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Joanne Will learning to drive a 1919 Model T.

Included in the driving lesson is a guided tour through history. Benz's wife Bertha helped usher in the first automobile with her dowry and, unbeknownst to her husband, took their children on the first long-distance road trip in which repairs with her hairpin and garter were required to complete it. Another tidbit: when cars and horses shared the roads in the early days, laws required that drivers cover their car with a blanket when horses were near, so as not to spook them.

The day ends with a graduation ceremony and an official Model T Driving School Certificate. If you're not smiling by the end of it all, you're definitely not at the Gilmore.

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