Blazing a US trail with Mike
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