12 February 2016

The 100-Year Journey

Tracing Edsel’s footsteps in a Ford Model T Touring

ON JULY 7, 2015, members of the Historic Vehicle Association departed Dearborn, Michigan, in a 1915 Ford Model T Touring. In retracing Edsel Ford’s famous 1915 cross-country trek from Detroit to San Francisco to attend the Pan-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE), we hoped to gain an understanding of how the world has changed in the century since Edsel set out from the same location.

When first presented with the idea of a cross-country trip in a 1915 Model T, most people predicted we’d encounter some kind of mechanical failure. How could we possibly expect a 100-year-old car to make it 3,500 miles without issue? While mechanical failure and breakdowns were certainly a possibility, given the nature of the trip and the roads driven — having to avoid interstates and major thruways — the Model T Touring proved to be a reliable, efficient method of transportation.

Having secured a 1915 Model T Touring for the journey, along with a copy of Edsel’s original trip journal, we began preparations for our own trip. Due to the proliferation of highways and the T’s inability to keep up with traffic, our route was largely dictated by bike routes sourced using Google Maps. These would lead us down seemingly forgotten back roads, far from the interstates. In its day, the T not only put America on wheels, it also made the very notion of cross-country travel practical and aspirational. Despite rough and rutted roads — often little more than dirt pathways that could vanish without warning — the Model T’s simple design and construction helped ensure the ability to traverse nearly any obstacle, slowly but surely. One hundred years later, the same held true as the Model T Touring faced any and all challenges with a sort of quiet confidence that proved remarkable.

Following the outline of the route taken by Edsel Ford, our own trip relied on Ford’s firsthand accounts for a clearer picture of what travel was like. In one especially prescient entry he writes of his fear of bandits near Kingman, Arizona. During our own stop there, we awoke to find our chase trailer had been broken into in nearly the exact spot mentioned.

Along the way we were able to fill in many of the gaps in Edsel’s narrative through encounters with local historians and through our own research. This fieldwork allowed us to create a more complete picture of not only the route itself, but the changes witnessed in the intervening years. Not only have there been countless cultural shifts in the last century, there has also been, somewhat ironically, a shift in the technological center from Detroit to San Francisco.

When Edsel set out from Detroit in 1915, it was the epicenter of innovation. Out in San Francisco at the PPIE, Ford’s assembly lines were cranking out Model Ts in a display of the then-modern advancements in auto production. Today, Ford has moved its product development and innovation centers from Detroit to San Francisco, tapping into the rapid technological advancements currently taking place in Silicon Valley. Fittingly, our journey began in the former hub of innovation and ended in what could prove to be the future of automotive technology.

While much has changed since Edsel traveled across a largely wild American expanse, 100 years later, the HVA discovered that the humble Model T Touring still provides a fantastic way to explore America.

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