Before there were SUVs, this is how people got out and had some fun.
Back in the days before the automobile, off-roading wasn’t too difficult if you were just riding a horse, but with a wagon it was considerably more complicated. Still, pioneers, traders, and others did it, demonstrating how the culture of traversing rugged trails dates long before the modern combustion engine. A lot of people don’t realize this, so when they hear of anyone off-roading a classic car like the Tin Lizzie they’re either outraged, amused, or both.
When you stop to think that the Ford Model T opened up automotive ownership to everyday people, and that a lot of those people needed to get to areas where the roads were rough at best, this makes sense. America and other countries were very different before cars became common, with many roads made of dirt, built to be narrow, and quite a few of them suitable only for horseback riding. Henry Ford understood this, so he built the Model T to handle the conditions people would face.
If you think a Model T is some delicate, fragile car you also have little to no experience with them. Yes, they’re extremely simple compared to cars today, but Ford made them to be incredibly durable and rugged. The Model T was a true workhorse in its day, hauling heavy loads as much as hauling families, and transporting farmers to remote locations.
To help promote the Model T when it was new, Ford took one over Ben Nevis, the highest mountain peak in Britain. The car had to traverse deep snow, rocky terrain, steep slopes, and other treacherous conditions, something it did with relatively little trouble. All of this was done to prove the new Ford was capable and tough, giving the average British citizen a vehicle which could rival far more expensive, luxurious cars when it came to utility. Considering the Model T scooped almost a third of the country’s automotive market within two years, this publicity stunt paid off.
As you probably have imagined, off-roading a Model T isn’t just like using a modern SUV. There’s no four-wheel drive, lockers, 35-inch mud-terrain tires, etc. They’re lightweight, so if the car gets stuck you can usually push it out.
There’s also little comfort when driving on trails in a Tin Lizzie. The cab is open, so you get covered in dust or mud. With a simple chassis the car is like riding on a buckboard, meaning you feel every bump, which can make you grateful for modern suspensions and their damping rate.
What’s really amazing is that driving a Ford Model T isn’t nearly as easy as driving cars from the latter part of the 20th Century, not to mention those made in this century. If you ever have the chance to drive one, you should take the opportunity. It can be a humbling yet learning-filled experience, giving you an appreciation for how far automotive technology has come in the past 100 years. The fact people were able to handle that kind of complexity while traversing rugged trails is a testament to their driving skills back then.
While driving a Ford Model T on a rugged trail 100 years ago might have been more of a necessity, to enthusiasts today it’s more of a challenge. It’s partly something done for bragging rights, because if you can get a Tin Lizzie through a certain area where other drivers couldn’t make it using a modern Jeep, you’re obviously more skilled. There’s also the novelty factor as well as a desire to feel a connection with how people lived back in the day. Of course, driving a classic car in rough conditions can also be fun, much more than just hopping in your luxury sedan to get coffee with friends on a Saturday morning.