Ford Model T: A history of driving

One sunny day in May, four New Jersey men gathered on a leafy street in Cranford to drive four vehicles built by the same manufacturer a combined 392 years ago.

"People always ask me one question," Mike Bevilacqua said. "How did you get the car here? I say: I drove it!"

Mike Bevilacqua, Bob Calvano, Joe Henshaw and Jeff Jones all own Ford Model Ts they show by driving.

"It's a very, very simple machine," Calvano said. "It'll run in the face of adversity."

Before driving it to this meeting, Calvano last started his woody two years ago. Half a century before that he and Jones found another T in a farmer's field they bought for $25.

"He pulled a spark plug out with his hand," Bob said, "and he looks down and it's full of water. Two years later the engine was running. He bought a piston at a flea market for 50 cents. That was 50 years ago and it's still in there."

Between 1908 and 1927, the Ford Motor Company sold 15 million Model Ts, which remained the single highest production of any vehicle until the Volkswagen beetle surpassed it more than 40 years later.

"When I was a kid," Calvano said, "I used to run it on kerosene."

Other companies manufactured other cars before the Ford Motor Company introduced the Model T. Ford manufactured other cars before it sold its first T. But the company's pioneering of the assembly line and that process' ability to remove the man from the manufacturing allowed ford to sell a motorcar for cheaper than any automobile before it.

"By the mid-teens," auto historian Lenny Shiller said, "[Ford] got the price down so low that anyone could afford to buy a Model T."

Inside the remains of a pie company's oven in Downtown Brooklyn, Shiller keeps 56 classic cars and trucks that he says all run but might not all stop.

"I'm renowned for not liking to drive," Shiller said. "I just love tinkering with old cars."

If the T taught every American to drive, Shiller believes the golden age of the automobile dawned a couple of decades later, after World War Two when the car companies that survived the war and the Great Depression before it redesigned their fleets so seemingly no two cars on the road looked or ran alike.

But after the mid-1960s, Shiller observed the end of this era of American automotive innovation, durability and design.

"The American manufacturers started taking their customers for granted," Shiller said, "assuming their customers would start buying a new car every two years."

And in 1966, Toyota introduced the Corolla.

"You could say that's the car that really put the kibosh on Detroit," Shiller said.

Smaller cars with better gas mileage and a smaller carbon tire-track dominate both the car industry's present and the starting line for its future.

"These cars that I'm standing next to are terrible polluters," Shiller said, leaning against a black 1942 DeSoto. "They don't really belong on the road."

Henry Ford's dream of a man buying just one car in his lifetime and retrofitting that vehicle himself as he saw fit died with the invention of plastics and the disposable automobiles of today.

"Today you pick up the hood and you go: 'Uh uh.' And you close it," Bevilacqua said. "Because I don't even know what's going on [under there]."

And in the future -- even in this wild, giant country the motorcar allowed us to tame and pave -- vehicle ownership may no longer come standard.

"We're studying what kinds of vehicles fit in that world," Nissan Future Lab Executive Director Rachel Nguyen said.

Nguyen's team oversaw the creation of a new mobility concept vehicle. Already on the city streets of Europe silently motoring along at up to 45 miles per hour, this 100 percent electric, smaller-than-a-golf cart-sized car might one day fill a need for those commuting short distances in an urban environment.

The future of driving should change not only what we drive but who or what drives our vehicles. Mercedes, Tesla and other manufacturers already offer semi-autonomous cars that seem a lot closer to fully autonomous than company spokesmen and spokeswomen admit on the record.

So, more than a 100 years after Ford put the steering wheel on the left side of the car, all but putting railroads out of business and giving every man, woman and child the freedom to roam, this country with more miles of road than any other looks toward a future where most of us never operate our mode of transit, leaving the machines that drove this nation to the status of superpower dusty and rusting, and rendering the once-communal romance of navigating the open roads that connect our land's two shining seas and all its gleaming cities between an experience foreign to those who live here.

"It gave people mobility that they never had before," Shiller said.

"Then you need roads and everything else and the country spreads out," Jones said. "People are no longer confined to the town they grew up in."