Henry Ford’s funny flivver inspired a generation


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Bruce McCalley Laurel, Hardy, a tough cop and a Model T were center stage in Leave 'Em Laughing, originally made in the silent movie days of 1928.

Whether the form was stories, post cards, joke books and songs, movies, serious literature and poems or just the 15 seconds of fame, the Model T was constantly talked about, pictured or portrayed. There may not be another car that was so uniformly honored in so many forms. Here we will look at the rich lode of ways the Model T has been featured in all of these forms.

The Model T was a superstar that engendered hundreds and thousands of jokes and stories, yet the car was always there, dominating entertainment as much as it did sales. Here is a look at some of the ways the Model T made people sit up and take notice.

There are classic memories told about the Model T, as if the car was part of some ancient Viking lore, Native American tradition or Irish ballad. They go beyond a simple story and take on an epic quality, even in simplicity. Here is an example:

The Sister Was Happy

In one of the small churches in a country town the pastor took for the subject of his sermons “Better Church Attendance.”

The parson held forth on the theme that the automobile has taken more people away from the church than any other single invention. He concluded with this exclamation: “The Ford car has taken more people to hell than any other thing I can mention!”

An old woman began to clap her hands and shout: “Glory to God! Praise the Lord!”

“What’s the matter, sister?” asked the parson.

“A Ford never went any place that it couldn’t come back from, so I reckon all them folks in hell will be comin’ back some day. So praise the Lord.”

Model T Post Cards

There was a tradition that began long before the Model T was introduced to the public in October 1908. It was popular to send family pictures, favorite scenes and outrageous comedy in the form of post cards to friends and loved ones.

The overwhelming popularity of the Model T made it the perfect candidate to be butt or hero, depending on the card creator’s viewpoint. Post cards were a popular medium. With the Model T, they both promoted the car’s advantages and protested the car’s foibles. The cards showed everyone a sense of pride in what the little cars from Ford could overcome.

In hindsight, both the foibles and the praise were quaint ways of showing just how deeply the loyalty and love ran when it came to the Model T. It was much like rooting for the favorite college eleven or baseball team. Win or lose, experiencing the ups and downs, it was your favorite team.

In many ways, the post cards reflected the person reading the humor. We looked in the mirror and saw a part of ourselves.

Writer Gordon Gee broke down the various Model T-based cards in a 1999 article. There were novelty cards, usually from A. S. Johnson Company, that pictured a 1915 touring car in unbelievable situations like being run over by a steam traction engine. Sometimes the novelties were embossed with the name of a city.

Poetry cards had a 1922 Model T on a country road with the same passengers plus two unique dogs, one on each fender. The poetry was either folksy or somewhat poignant, depending on the cards. An example of the finer poetry was this one with the picture described earlier in this paragraph:

“Once she was straight and full of pep,
Had a fast gait and kept her step.
Now she is faded and beginning to wrinkle,
Her eyes look jaded and refuse to twinkle.
My eyes they fill when I’m tempted to part,
Because she still holds a place in my heart.
She carried me to hunt, she carried me to marry,
Without a single grunt or suggestion to tarry.
Along the countryside or down by the river,
I’ve enjoyed every ride in that dear old ‘flivver.’”
    — King A. Woodburn

Tourist cards were another style, with their “wish you were here” style message. One of the most famous versions was a Model T pulling a fish out of a lake.

Some of the rarest Model T cards, according to Gee, are from World War I showing Model T ambulances. And there was a style of cards that were very popular before the Model T called reality post cards—basically black and white family or business photos memorialized in a post card that reflected a “slice of life” situation.

The comic cards in the Model T era were by Witt or Cobb and Shimm. They were fun and colorful and portrayed the advantages of the Model Ts as well as some of their foibles, depending on the card’s style.

A classic example of the humor cards showed a farmer talking to his wife, in the driver’s seat of a multi-tasking Model T connected to a network of pulleys. She was giving the car more gas to power a washing machine, a dish washer, a butter churn and a mechanism that rocked a cradle. “Give her more gas,” said her husband. “I want to cultivate the back 40.”

Many times, Ford positives were encouraged. One famous card showed a tiny Model T pulling a huge touring car with the caption: “A Ford is A Handy Thing to Carry in Your Tool Box.”

Thanks to David Nolting, some of the more famous comedic post card images were made available and show the classic humor—such as the “10 miles straight and 60 miles up and down,” the displaced horse and dogs barking at the rattling Ford. The cards supporting the Model T’s advantages included the frustrated rabbit chasing a Model T and the dog that wanted to be owned by a Model T driver.

Joke books and songs

Perhaps it was an element of a simpler time—long before television, the computer, the Internet and so much “busy-ness” of life in our modern era. People seemed to enjoy telling involved jokes or standing around the parlor piano and singing the latest songs they learned from sheet music.

People had time for one another and the songs and jokes reflected their lifestyles. Perhaps they didn’t have so much but they had one another and one thing they understood was the Model T Ford. It was everywhere—in cities, small towns and rural areas. It had changed their lives in many ways and it was fun to make fun of or to sing about.

Here are some examples of Model T jokes from Funabout Fords, a booklet first printed in the late 1910s and reprinted, in this case, in 1921. It was contributed by Don Chandler, a Model T owner and president of the Model T Ford Club of America’s Wisconsin chapter.

“The man who claims that he never gets rattled has evidently never ridden in a Ford.”

“Beat it, beat it, little car. How I wonder what you are, Climbing up the hills on high, Passing all the others by.”

“Why does a one-year-old Ford look twice as old as a 10-year-old horse?”

“An enterprising garage uses the following sign: ‘Automobiles Repaired and Fords Mended.’”

“The Bible says that ‘Elijah went up to Heaven on high.’ What other ‘chariot’ than a Ford could have done this?”

As the 20th century dawned, one of the popular family traditions was buying and singing from sheet music. It was the way songs were circulated throughout the country in an era before the radio became a household item, for at least the first two decades of the century, much of the production life of the Model T.

According to the June 1978 edition of the Ford Times, Henry Ford understood that both music and jokes could promote his Model T and he encouraged both mediums.

In 1908, Ford commissioned composer Harry H. Zickel to write some music about the car and he penned “The Ford March and Two Step.”

“Love is seen in the many songs tying the Ford car to a girl, a kiss, a honeymoon,” noted the Ford Times, adding that the Model T was like a popular movie character.

“The Model T was looked on by several songwriters as a sort of Charlie Chaplin of combustion.”

People who bought songs were used to music about cars by the time the Model T appeared. The famous “Merry Oldsmobile” was a hit several years before the T appeared and Billy Murray was known for his songs “He’d Have to Get Under, Get Out and Get Under” and “Gasoline Gus and His Jitney Bus,” all before 1915 but the Model T took songwriters to new levels.

Among the popular titles were: “I Didn’t Raise My Ford to Be a Jitney,” “Let’s Take a Ride in the Jitney Bus,” “On the Old Back Seat of the Henry Ford,” “Flivver King,” the latter about Henry Ford, and two popular 1914 songs, “You Can’t Afford to Marry If You Can’t Afford a Ford” and “The Little Ford Rumbled Right Along.”

The latter song included the lyrics: “The car kicked up and the engine wouldn’t crank,” said the lyrics. “There wasn’t any gas in the gasoline tank” and ended with the chorus “His little Ford just rambled right along.”

Other songs included “It’s a Rumbling Flivver” with the memorable line “… when I time her for a block, both the hands flew off the clock.” “The Packard and the Ford” was a song that suggested that if the Packard married the Ford, the union would have a “little Buick.”

The Funabout Fords booklet added its own twist with Ford-inspired lyrics to “My Country Tis of Thee.” The song was written by J. C. Davenport in News About Fords and began: “My Fordie t’is of thee, short cut to poverty, of thee I chant.” It continued with the relationship between owner and car concluding with: “Thy motor has the grippe, Thy spark plug has the pip, and woe is thine, But we climb any hill, Nor know a repair bill, To give out pocketbook a chill, Hurrah, Hurrah.”

In 1928, as the Model T was ending its long run and the Model A was beginning, several songs commemorated the event including “Poor Lizzie” by Abner Silver and Jack Meskill and Walter O’ Keefe’s popular “Henry’s Little Lady Made Out of Lizzie.”

Model T and the Movies

Like two friends from the same neighborhood, the Model T and the movies grew up in a similar era. Edison’s “flickers” were gaining audiences beyond the penny arcades when the automobile was beginning to change from a curiosity to a possibility.

The Model T would make the automobile a necessity and the movies would become the most favored method of public entertainment.

Ford Motor Co. in the United States and the Ford Motor Company of Canada each made their car a star in company-produced movies about the Model Ts that, in some cases, grew to be beloved features. Filmmaking began in 1914 in the United States and in 1915 in Canada. “Ford Educational Weekly” film features were popular in the United States while, in Canada, “Ford Nights” were popular attractions and Canada’s Department of Trade picked up the features along with private films and railway travelogues. Many Ford Motor Company film features highlighted life and popular locations in each country and they also showed viewers what it took to put together a Model T.

“The Ford films had wide circulation, in theaters, clubs, church groups and industrial cafeterias and auditoriums,” noted In the Shadows of Detroit author David Roberts.

Ford features in both countries promoted travel and they often created interest in places with the United States and Canada that the average citizens had not seen before.

When Hollywood became the place to make movies, the ever-present Model T was a natural—a stand-in for street scenes and a scene stealer for the one-reeler dramas and comedies. As the movies grew in plot and complexity, the Model T’s roles increased.
Lizzie was a natural in the silent movie days. She was available at less than scale and always seemed to have a way to fit in. She was like the cross-eyed character actor Ben Turpin or the woeful “Little Tramp” of Charlie Chaplin. Even in a crowd or next to the prettiest ingénue, audiences were riveted to their screen presence. Lizzie, the Model T, began appearing in all sorts of scenarios.

“Just seeing a Ben Turpin, Spud Pollard, Will Rogers or any heavily mustachioed silent movie clown ride up in a Model T prepared one for a session of belly laughs,” wrote Bob Raitch in a 1992 Skinned Knuckles magazine retrospective.

The best directors noticed that the car was more than a bit player. She became a vehicle of choice in several of the popular Keystone Cops movies and in various Mack Sennett comedies. One of the Keystone Cops vehicles was a Model T that could fold almost to the width of two tires. The Model Ts were almost as famous in silent movie chase scenes as the stars themselves.

“… a wild chase of Model T Fords going everywhere madly just missing cliff edges and trains was a logical transition,” Raitch recalled. “Someone was forever losing the nut that held on the old Ford’s steering wheel and as it would go through several lines of laundry, muscles would be ruptured … laughing hysterically.” 

Producer Hal Roach was behind many popular comedies in the Model T era including the work of Harold Lloyd, the various casts of the “Our Gang” and “The Boyfriends” series as well as period comedians who are not as well known today like Charley Chase and Max Davidson and early female comedians Priscilla Dean, Mabel Normand and Mae Busch.

Roach also produced the famed supporting character actor Jimmy Finlayson, the mustachioed Scot with the “you’re fooling me, aren’t you?” look. And he teamed the beautiful Thelma Todd with the gangly Zasu Pitts in other comedies.

Under Roach’s guidance and the work of many others on his team, the Model T really reached long-lasting movie star fame when it joined the wildly popular pair known around the world as the fat man and the skinny one, Stan Laurel and Oliver “Babe” Hardy. When Ollie demanded that Laurel give him the wheel or “throw out the clutch,” Laurel complied, then cried and the mishaps with the Model T often began.

Laurel and Hardy had played in various movies separately into the 1920s. Ironically, they first appeared together in 1917 in Lucky Dog, with Hardy a crook with a gun and Laurel with the desired handful of cash.

Somehow, the Model T was the perfect foil for the hapless twosome who never really fit in whatever job they were working or whatever home situation they were taking part. The Model T was almost as hapless as Stan and Ollie who squeezed together in the front seat to form a trio of weathered characters—the two comedians and the car.

More Images:

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Dave Nolting The popular Model T post cards offered humor with the advantages of the car emphasized, like this vignette with the car and a talking rabbit.
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Dave Nolting This famous post card showed a sad dog standing by a road watching a Model T go by. The pensive dog wishes he was riding in the car with its owner.
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Dave Nolting Dogs were barking at the Model T in this early post card. Did the little Ford really bother anyone this much?
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Don Chandler "Funabout Fords" was an example of the many stories that were told about the Model Ts. The stories made people laugh and shake their heads.
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Song books and sheet music of the day sang the praises of Henry Ford's flivver. Don Chandler
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Bruce McCalley One of the most famous Laurel and Hardy scenes with a Model T included this special collapsing car--caught between street cars. It's now a museum piece in California.
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The Legendary Model T Ford, The Ultimate History of America's First Great Automobile By Tom Collins Price: $40 Available at www.krausebooks.com

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