For the good of the Forum and the hobby I thought I would share the story of how I came to own my grandfather's Model T. The story below was published in our local paper and written by sherri butler. There are a few inaccuracies (the car is still 6 volt) but its pretty close. I hope you all enjoy. Oh, and by the way I have been driving the car!!
by Sherri Butler
It’s a 1923 Model T Ford, but it’s not original. The parts may be factory originals but they weren’t installed on the same car. And there are touches here and there that reveal more modern work.
The spoke wheels have a few spindles that aren’t Ford products. Some of the body boasts sheet metal work done a long time after 1923. To a collector of vintage automobiles, these things would bring the value down a good bit. To Rob Hughes and his parents, Danny and Martha Ellen Hughes, those more modern touches make it precious beyond price. Because those modern touches were made by the hands of Horace Howell, Rob’s grandfather and Martha Ellen’s father.
Horace Howell came to Fitzgerald in 1936, with $1 in his pocket. He had arrived from Alabama at the old passenger depot, now the Blue and Gray Museum, where he spent the night on a bench. The next morning he set off walking out Ten Mile Road to the farm where he had been promised work.
He came here to farm and farm he did. In 1971, he was named Ben Hill County Farmer of the Year. He was a member of the Farm Bureau and served on the ASCS committee for the county.
Sometime in the 1960s, Rob says, he decided to build a Ford Model T.
Mr. Howell would have driven one of the original Model Ts in Alabama, Rob says, and was the only one in his family who could drive.
Ford’s Model T was made from 1908 through 1927 — a total of 15 million were produced. Henry Ford used assembly line production and parts were interchangeable. Earlier automobiles were handcrafted and production was slow. For said he would build a car for the “great multitude,” simple in design and low in price, “so that no man making a good salary will be unable to own one.”
In 1923, a car like Horace Howell’s creation could have been purchased for about $250, Rob says.
“He saw a chassis, engine and fire wall in a backyard on Monitor Drive,” Danny recalls. He also bought a radiator. And that was the beginning of a dream.
The chassis turned out to be rotten, but “He made a new chassis out of wood,” Danny says. “He whittled it until he made it fit.”
And, long before the Internet existed, he began searching for and accumulating parts. “He was a self-trained mechanic,” Rob explains. “He read about the cars in magazines and catalogs.”
Classified ads in magazines offered parts for sale, and Mr. Howell began to send away for them. Soon boxes were arriving, full of rusty parts. Fortunately, Mr. Howell knew a lot about engines and cars and where he would need to put those parts.
“He ordered the body from the Midwest,” Danny says. “It came in pieces, rusty pieces.” Mr. Howell put in sheet metal and welded it.
Wade Malcolm was a good buddy of his and he took an interest in the project, too. Mr. Howell “said he couldn’t afford the kind of paint jobs Wade got,” Danny says. He got Sage Strickland to do the upholstery.
The wooden spoke wheels he got had bad spindles, and Mr. Howell recreated them by hand. “He did his own welding and body work,” Rob says, “and he changed it from a magneto to a 12-volt engine.” He also added an exhaust cutout to produce a louder sound from the engine.
Over a two-year period, Mr. Howell assembled parts and put them together to build a period-correct 1923 Model T. He entered it in local car shows and drove it in Fitzgerald’s parades.
“He enjoyed it,” Martha Ellen says. “Then one weekend, he sold it.”
He had been diagnosed with colon cancer, and his wife Eunice’s health was also beginning to fail. The car seemed to be more than he could handle. He decided to sell the car to a cousin still living in Alabama, William Melvin Crowe. Among the family photos is one of Mr. Crowe and his wife, Mildred, beside the car. Another shows the car, already on the trailer for the trip to Alabama, with Mr. Howell sitting behind the steering wheel one last time, one hand thrown up in a wave. “See how sad he looks,” Martha Ellen says.
That was 1987. Rob was 6 years old. His grandfather lived on until 2008, and Rob was very close to him. When the family moved back to the area, the old family farm brought back a lot of memories, and suddenly, finding that old Model T that had occupied so much of his grandfather’s time and ingenuity became something that Rob had to do.
“I started looking,” he says, “but nobody had seen the car since 1987, and nobody remembered the name of the man who bought it.”
He talked back and forth with his cousin, Yolanda Smith, who is the family genealogist. He sent her a photograph of the buyer with the car, and she knew immediately who he was and was able to tell Rob that Mr. Crowe died the following year, in 1988. His widow, Mildred, sold the car to a Rev. Bobby Morgan, pastor of a Church of God in Decatur, Ala. The pastor sold it to a Mr. Vincent, who owned Vincent’s Furniture in Cullman, Ala. Mr. Vincent died after falling off a roof. He left his business to his family.
Rob called the furniture store and talked to Mr. Vincent’s daughter. To his dismay, he learned that after a tornado a couple of years ago, Mr. Vincent’s five old cars had been sold. Pictures of them were on Facebook.
“We were on pins and needles,” Rob says. “We had got this far in one day. Everybody was praying.”
He looked at three or four pictures, but none showed his grandfather’s Model T. “I was heartbroken,” he admits. Then, on the seventh or eight photograph, in the background, he spotted just a bit of the top of the Ford. Then, finally, a picture of the car itself. “I didn’t know what to expect,” he admits, “but it looked just the same.”
Those photographs had been taken around 2000. He was told he’d missed being able to buy the car by three years. It had been sold to a gentleman in Falkville, Ala. Mr. Vincent’s daughter, Vita, was hesitant to give Rob that gentleman’s name.
So it was his turn to send photographs, and he shared some of the family’s treasured images of Mr. Howell with his car. When she realized how much the car meant, personally, to Rob and his family, she told him that the last buyer was named Mark Young.
Rob called Young, but he was reluctant to talk about the car. Rob asked Vita to send Young the photos he had sent her.
“We spent a week or two praying and sweating it out,” he says. Young finally agreed to let him see the car, but he said that under no circumstances would he sell it.
Rob, his wife Amber, his mother, Yolanda Smith and Dottie Smith made the journey together. They visited members of Mr. Howell’s family and places he had known. “It was an emotional day,” Rob says.
They had a 2 p.m. appointment with Young. He lived 40 miles from where they were, on a mountain. Once they arrived, Young pulled up a roll-up door, and “there it sits,” Rob says. “I was choked up. Mama was choked up. It was very emotional.” They had journey 500 miles to find it, and the car looked just like it had looked so many years and owners ago. At first, he says, “We couldn’t talk.”
He knew he would make an offer for the car, and he knew the owner didn’t want to sell it. “We had a prayer chain the parking lot,” he says.
Young kept saying no. “He was a nice guy,” Rob says, “but it was his wife’s favorite car.”
He had located a similar car in Texas and was even prepared to buy that car and offer to swap it to Young for Mr. Howell’s creation. But Rob told him the story of how his grandfather had built the car and after about two hours, Young agreed to sell.
And on May 21 — Tuesday of last week — the tires of the old Model T touched Ben Hill County soil for the first time since 1987, almost 25 years. Mr. Howell’s lovingly built car had come home.
What next? “Get it running,” Rob says. “It’s been sitting up for seven or eight years, but it looks like it’s in good shape, and it’s an extremely simple car.”
“Rob has inherited his grandfather’s mechanical ability,” Martha Ellen says.
The car had been stored inside. The gas was drained out of it, but not the oil.
There are a lot of differences a modern-day American would notice about the old Model T. “People back then were smaller,” Rob says with a laugh. Amber and Attica Grace can sit comfortably in the car, but for two adults it is a bit of a squeeze.
On the driver’s side, there are three pedals, but none of them is for the gas. One is “forward,” one is “reverse” and the other is for the brake. And the brake is connected to the transmission, not the wheels. The engine has two forward speeds, low and high. The car has a hand crank on the front end, but it also has an electric ignition.
“It’s emotional just to go out and look at it,” Rob says. His careful eyes note the details that mark it as his grandfather’s creation. “The things he did, he had a certain way of doing them,” he says. He sees the little raised spot in the hood, the imperfections in the sheet metal that speak to him of Mr. Howell’s labor, done without the benefits of an assembly line in Michigan working with brand-new parts.
Though health issues had led Mr. Howell to sell the car, he lived on until 2008, time for Rob to get to know him and love him as he was growing up. “He meant a lot to me,” Rob says. “It feels really good to have his car back home.”
And keep an eye out — one day you might spot Rob driving the old Model T in a Fitzgerald parade, just like his grandfather used to do.
Rob -- Thanks for the touching story. The fact that it was your Grandfather's makes it very special. We'll look forward to some pics when you get it on the road.
Beautiful! A very special T indeed! I hope you enjoy it for many, many, years.
Thank you for sharing this.
Drive carefully, and enjoy, W2
Great story, with a great ending. Thank you for sharing.
Nothing I can add.......touching indeed!