Our previous post covered a world-renowned aviatrix, adventurer, and heroine, a “natural” to own and drive a speedster. However, what options were there for the everyday guy or gal who just wanted to have some open-air fun and adventure?
We answer that question in this entry.
Carl Smith and the Shiloh Speedster
In 2013 Curtis Morris, exhibits manager at the Shiloh Museum of Ozark History in Springdale, Arkansas, wrote about Carl Smith and the sole photograph of Smith’s mystery car that was in their collection. Morris is a self-professed “car guy” himself, and the mystery car clearly had a Ford Model T chassis. But without a Ford body mounted on it! This compelled Morris to do some research on just what this could sporty-looking car might be, what with all the cute girls in it.
Well, classic speedster fans would quickly tell you that this was an aftermarket speedster body that was sold in the nineteen-teens or twenties, easily fitted onto a T. By 1924, which shows up on the car’s license plate, Model T’s were readily available, as Ol’ Henry had by then manufactured about 15 million of them. Used examples were literally lying around in everyone’s back yard or some mechanic’s side lot, ready for purchase at pennies on the dollar.
Options to Modify the T
As we covered in a previous post, The Model T speedster was never manufactured by Ford Motor. Instead, it was a grass-roots phenomenon involving literally thousands of young gearheads from all across the United States whose need for speed was infectious. This disease, it has been reported, spread world-wide, and to this day Model T speedsters can be found all over the world. For instance, one example was on display in the car museum at the F1 track in Selangor, Malaysia. Fancy that!
There were literally hundreds of options to make the T go faster and perform better, so much so that a “Ford Supplement” was produced by a national parts index service and distributed to list the many parts suppliers. Some parts were even Ford factory-endorsed, such a the two-speed axle.
To sportify the exterior, over 80 manufactures for sport and speedster bodies went into business in the teen years to answer the need for a somewhat enclosed body for a speedster. This occurred after many “early adopters” realized that a cutdown frame with no body on it sure was fast, but also dangerous! (Illus 3 Cutdown body)
Photos and Forensics
Morris used his sleuthing skills to get some background on Carl Smith and his car, affectionately known as “The Arkansas Traveler.” Apparently Smith was a student at Arkansas State and a resident of Fayetteville when the photo was taken in 1924; Smith’s car sported optional disc wheels and may have benefitted from a lowering kit. Since Fayetteville was not located near a dealer in speedster bodies, Morris opines that the body was probably obtained from a mail-order catalog, as seen in the library’s copy of the 1923 Sears and Roebuck catalog, page 815 (sorry, don’t have a copy of that!). Below are a couple of catalog examples.
Sears, Western Auto, and Montgomery Ward catalogs were the means by which people all over the United States could buy what they needed, especially during the early part of the twentieth century. You could purchase clothes, you could obtain a car, you could even buy a house (in kit form, on a pallet, shipped via railroad). Wow!
From the photo of “the Arkansas Traveler,” it is likely that the car was a Morton & Brett car body sold by Fordspeed, although the actual company source is not known. Details on the body point to a Fordspeed, a New York City firm that retailed bodies and speed parts.
Morton’s bodies had been produced as early as 1917 and made an immediate impact on the burgeoning market for Model T (and Chevrolet 490) speedster bodies. Several companies licensed M&B’s design and re-badged it as their own, such as Frontenac, Laurel, Craig-Hunt, and Speedford.
Morton’s original design was patented in 1920. By this time, the demand for aftermarket T bodies was ginormous, and it is estimated that up to 10,000 Model T speedsters were made before the advent of the Model A retired the T speedsters in the early 1930s.
Confusing in Carl Smith’s car photo is that there are so many people in what is essentially a two-seat speedster. Aside from the driver, there are two girls sitting in the passenger seat. Then there is another behind them in where a rumbleseat would have been if this model had one. Or maybe she’s trying to snug into the passenger seat. And then blurred and behind the driver is something or someone who looks to be moving in on the car. Maybe little sister wanting a ride too?
The Model T was an everyman car that opened up the world for rural America. It mobilized and empowered the American farmer and rural resident, got them out of their homes and into town or on the road to market. Just as Henry Ford had envisioned it.
A phenomenon in Chaos Theory (mathematics) called the “Butterfly Effect” notes that every action has unintended consequences. The advent of the Model T inadvertently created this ripple effect, opening doors for thousands of youngsters who wanted some cheap wheels to work on and to have some fun driving. The Model T speedster was an unintended consequence and a blessing for the young and the restless. The American hotrod movement that thrives to this day is a branch from this root.
Model T speedsters possessed some serious mojo in their day, and Carl Smith was no doubt someone who wanted in on this action. As seen in the photo, his car was a serious chick magnet!
Thanks to Curtis Morris at the Shiloh Museum in Fayetteville, Arkansas for his original blog post about Carl Smith, as well as his further correspondence. There are literally hundreds of early 20th century photos “out there” of folks enjoying their Model T speedsters, and many can be found in local libraries and posted on car club sites on the internet. Each one tells a story… Go check ‘em out!