Blaz­ing a US trail with Mike

The Daily Telegraph - Telegraph Magazine - - News -

Writer Tim Moore crossed Amer­ica in a 93-year-old Ford Model T (nick­named Mike) in search of the Trump-era Amer­i­can dream. What could pos­si­bly go wrong?

‘With Don­ald Trump in the White House, is the Amer­i­can dream over?’ This was the head­line that dis­patched travel writer Tim Moore on a coast-to-coast road trip in his 93-year-old Ford Model T nick­named Mike, a car that de­fined the USA’S trail­blaz­ing glory days. His route, a 6,000-mile me­an­der through Trump-vot­ing hin­ter­lands – and the men he met along the way – are doc­u­mented in his thought-pro­vok­ing new book

By noon on the last day of Au­gust, eight weeks af­ter I’d set off from the At­lantic coast, the size­able town of Bend, Ore­gon, lay in sight: just west of it my map’s base layer turned from sandy beige to for­est green, and thence to ocean blue. I’d never man­aged more than 250 miles in a day be­fore, but this was surely the day to do it. Come sun­set I’d have my front wheels in the Pa­cific. Hol­low dis­be­lief set in. I had some­how tra­versed this gi­ant na­tion from sea to shin­ing sea, up to the Cana­dian bor­der, down to the Gulf of Mex­ico, over the Rocky Moun­tains and the Con­ti­nen­tal Di­vide, and I had done it in a 93-year-old car chris­tened Mike with a lawn­mower car­bu­ret­tor.

Ex­cept I hadn’t, be­cause two miles out­side Bend, the crank­shaft broke.

‘Now there’s one club you don’t want to join, Teeum, and that’s the two-piece crank club.’ Ev­ery T guy I’d met had spo­ken of this mother of all break­downs, some­times in a tone of jaunty bravado, more of­ten with mur­mured dread. A bust crank­shaft was a game-over grand slam, the Com­po­nent Fail­ure That Must Not Be Named. The crank con­verts up-and-down pis­ton move­ment into a more use­ful ro­ta­tional force, a pro­ce­dure that re­quires an ec­cen­tri­cally crenel­lated metal cast­ing of ob­vi­ous vul­ner­a­bil­ity. Henry Ford’s team de­signed a car that farm­ers could fix by the road­side, but a bro­ken crank was the T’s Achilles heel. No one could sort that on a hard shoul­der. Few both­ered to sort it at all: re­plac­ing a crank­shaft meant a full en­gine-out re­build that very rarely made eco­nomic sense.

‘How will I know if the crank breaks?’ I re­mem­bered ask­ing a me­chanic back in Ohio. ‘Oh, you’ll know,’ he’d replied, with a mirth­less laugh. Well, he was right. A muf­fled, heavy-metal ex­plo­sion shook Mike’s front end, a fla­grantly ter­mi­nal cat­a­clysm that be­gat an in­stant and to­tal loss of power and a death-drone into the sandy verge.

An elec­tri­cal sub­sta­tion be­side me buzzed fit­fully. What a crush­ingly ba­nal back­drop for our great ad­ven­ture’s fi­nal act.

I sat with both hands on the wheel, my fea­tures crum­pled into some­thing piti­ful and wet. Over the years I’d set off on umpteen un­der­pre­pared, over­am­bi­tious jour­neys, none of which I de­served to com­plete but all of which I some­how had. At last, my luck had run out. This was the reck­on­ing. ‘End of the road, Mike,’ I man­aged to croak. At least he’d got me across the Great Sandy Desert, I thought, and pon­der­ing this heroic fi­nal ges­ture had me off again.

‘Howdy. All good here?’

I com­posed my­self, looked up and met a sunny old face. ‘Not re­ally.’ My at­tempt at a manly sniff had way too much mu­cus in it. ‘Bro­ken crank­shaft.’

‘Holy mack­erel,’ said the face, look­ing al­most im­pressed. A smile and a teas­ing pause. ‘Thing is, I’m a Model A guy, and I’m pretty sure my me­chanic knows his way round a Model T. Want me to go get him?’

If you break it, they will come. Don Pen­ing­ton was back an hour later with his fixer, Mike Stenkamp, and a lit­tle packed lunch his wife had pre­pared for me. It was all ex­tremely touch­ing.

They lashed Car-mike to the back of Man-mike’s old Land Cruiser, then hauled me around Bend’s de­serty hin­ter­land at ter­rific speed, which in com­bi­na­tion with a three-foot tow rope and my neg­li­gi­ble brakes made for quite an ad­ven­ture.

Hunkered up against a low, Flint­stones-boul­dered bluff, Man- Mike’s in­dus­tri­ally pro­por­tioned work­shop was an un­char­ac­ter­is­tic sham­bles, be­strewn with tools, dis­mem­bered en­gines and dusty ra­dio equip­ment. There wasn’t room for even an ema­ci­ated Model T in there, so we got to work out­side on the sand, amidst a sprawl of old trac­tors and un­fin­ished projects sit­ting bon­net-deep in weeds.

There it was: a clean break through thick grey metal: I’d joined the two­piece club. The one chink in Mike’s ar­moury of mea­sured calm was a tone­less cackle that ir­re­sistibly re­called Robert De Niro in psy­cho-gang­ster mode. ‘Well, I guess all my other work just went out the win­dow.’

Th­ese were the words that launched my jour­ney’s most ex­tra­or­di­nary re­pair ex­pe­ri­ence, its crown­ing over­haul, the Daddy Fix against which all oth­ers would be judged and found want­ing. It wasn’t quick. It wasn’t cheap. But it would never have hap­pened at all, not for love nor money, with­out the benev­o­lence, com­rade­ship and bound­less prac­ti­cal­ity of the men and wives of the High Desert Model A club.

‘This man set off across the whole coun­try in a Model T he’d never seen be­fore, by him­self, never know­ing what might hap­pen around the next cor­ner.’ Ron Al­ley clamped a meaty old hand to my shoul­der and gazed around the Black Bear Diner in Madras, where 28 mem­bers of the club sat in si­lence be­fore their break­fasts. ‘Gen­tle­men, I say he’s got two sets of balls.’

Th­ese were hum­bling words in­deed from a man hardly un­der-en­dowed in the metaphor­i­cal trouser de­part­ment. Ron was 85 and a fix-all force of na­ture. He’d been knocked off his feet twice while mas­ter­mind­ing my en­gine ex­trac­tion, but had leapt straight back up both times, and fin­ished the oper­a­tion with blood cours­ing down his left fore­arm. At his bid­ding I now stood and looked out at a sea of checked shirts and hear­ing aids, topped with a bob­bing layer of trucker caps.

‘That’s ex­tremely kind, Ron, but I don’t re­ally have any balls at all.’ Mur­murs, a shift­ing seat, then a voice from the rear. ‘Can’t hear ya, buddy.’

‘I have no balls,’ I an­nounced, more firmly. ‘In fact, I’m here to kind of bor­row yours, in a way, be­cause I’m hop­ing that one of you might, um, have a spare, ah…’

Ron had heard enough. ‘God dammit, man needs a crank­shaft, 10/10 ground un­der­size for a Model T.’

Later, we re­turned to Mike’s car, and set off on a crank­shaft hunt that took us deep into the gravel-paved, high-desert out­back, at the tail of a con­voy led by Ron in the Model A pickup that had been his since 1947. The day un­folded like the tale of Red­neck Cin­derella, as Mike knelt be­fore a suc­ces­sion of rusty crankshafts, mi­crom­e­ter screw gauge in hand, on a quest to find The One. Give an old car guy a barn and he’ll never throw any­thing away. Men who’d never even owned a Model T would dig out a cou­ple of old cranks for us from some spi­dery fun­da­ment. But we were look­ing for a nee­dle in a haystack, al­most lit­er­ally. The mov­ing parts in my en­gine had be­come mar­ried to­gether in a very be­spoke fash­ion dur­ing their 93-year part­ner­ship, and I needed a crank­shaft whose busi­ness sur­faces were pre­cisely 10 thou­sandths of an inch be­low their fac­tory-fresh girth.

Tom had a lovely blue Hud­son and a con­tainer full of Ts, but his spare crank was too big. Dave showed us through four cav­ernous out­build­ings piled with Model Ts, trac­tion en­gines, pi­anos, bi­cy­cles, hur­ri­cane lamps and church bells, but none of the dozen-odd cranks he hauled out were quite the right size. And so it went on un­til we ar­rived at a neat farm­house fronted by a mu­nic­i­pal-grade cir­cu­lar flower bed, at the cen­tre of which sat the ox­i­dised wreck of a Model T tourer.

Chuck, owner of 11 func­tion­ing Ts, pre­sented his spare crank with a con­fi­dent flour­ish. Its ap­peal­ing gleam set it apart from its scabby or­ange pre­de­ces­sors. Mike clamped his mi­crom­e­ter around bits of glint­ing steel with an air of fo­cused por­tent. Af­ter a while he stood up, re­moved his tinted spec­ta­cles and mur­mured, ‘That’ll work.’

In­stalling this mir­a­cle to Mike’s ex­act­ing stan­dards would re­quire a solid week of toil. So I hired a car, booked into the cheap­est mo­tel I could find and spent many happy, idle days hon­ing an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of Bend and its en­vi­rons. The land­scape of Greater Bend had seemed unar­rest­ingly flat and sandy as I’d too­tled around it in Don’s Jeep, but a fist­ful of brochures from the mo­tel re­cep­tion di­rected me to scenes of breath­tak­ing grandeur that would be na­tional at­trac­tions in any other coun­try. Rivers hurled them­selves off pine-clad bluffs and me­an­dered through mighty canyons. Five-hun­dred-foot out­crops sprouted from the desert plain, like flint hand tools cast aside by some cave­man de­ity. The re­gion’s vol­canic le­ga­cies ran

The men­tal­ity was: to hell with every­thing, vote Trump

Tim Moore with Mike, his beloved Ford Model T

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