AVON PARK, Fla. -- On a warm and sun-dappled afternoon, a cortege of Model T Fords chuffed into the heart of this small Florida Citrus Belt town, where Al Capone once roomed at the brick-fronted hotel on Main Street.
There were roadsters, touring cars, coupes, speedsters, depot hacks -- gleaming vestiges of the dawn of the age of the automobile. Jamie Bateman, 26, the owner of a store that sells party goods, strolled among the rolling antiques as they stood at the curb, and confessed she was dying for a ride.
"If these old walls and buildings could talk, they'd be glad to see their old friends back," Bateman said. Her mother, Charlotte Cooper, 65, said the sight evoked yellowing pictures of her grandfather standing beside a Model T in the family's photo albums.
A group of Model T enthusiasts from 16 states assembled last month to indulge their passion for what is generally considered the most influential car of the 20th century.
"This is the car that replaced the horse," said Tom Henry, 63, of Winter Park, Fla., who organized the five-day Model T tour through Central Florida. "It used to be a boy and a girl sat on the porch, and her parents would watch. When the Model T came along, the boy and girl could take off down the road."
As well as Americans' dating habits, "it changed the whole country," said Terry Ryan, 59, a retired brewer from Pacific, Mo., who came to Florida with his wife to ride in their stripped-down '26 T speedster. "It opened up schools for kids who couldn't get there before, and jobs for people who couldn't have taken them before."
For Avon Park, a town of 8,400 whose business district has been migrating to U.S. Highway 27 to the west, the presence of the old cars at a recent Sunday lunchtime was a welcome, crowd-drawing event.
"Really, they're bringing life to our downtown," said Louis Bates, Avon Park's development director. His municipality celebrates its 108th birthday in May, Bates said, "and we're hoping they'll come back."
From 1908 to 1927, the Ford Motor Co. manufactured almost 15 1/2 million Model Ts, so many that for a time, more than half of the cars in the world were Henry Ford's brainchildren. About 200,000 of those vehicles remain today, lovingly tended and driven by a tightly knit fraternity of the road.
They are valued at $5,000 to $25,000, depending on condition and rarity.
Throughout the year, T clubs throughout the United States organize driving tours, daily jaunts to drive and show off their cars. A national association of owners and aficionados, the Model T Ford Club of America, was holding its annual meeting in Anaheim, Calif., from Friday through Sunday, the first three days of March.
In the view of some cultural historians, no single invention exerted a greater influence on the development of modern America than the 20-horsepower vehicle that Ford turned out for 19 years with minimal changes. The T paved the way for Americans' greater mobility and the explosive growth of the suburbs, but also gave a mighty push to the trends that led to the withering of urban areas
and the nation's dependence on foreign oil.
The car affectionately known as the "Tin Lizzie" was also one of the most adaptable contraptions in history. Some World War I tanks were powered by a quartet of the Model T four-cylinder engines. Those engines also became a vital force in the modernization of the American countryside, being harnessed to drive everything from hay bailers to sawmills and snowplows.
The car was simple, and relatively cheap -- a Runabout in 1927, Lizzie's final year of manufacture, sold for $360, $15 more if the buyer wanted bumpers. Ford's unwavering goal was to provide the masses with a better way to get around.
"Henry was trying to give everyone a car, and everyone else was trying to make a car for the well-to-do," said Don Reggets, 60, of Jefferson, Pa., owner of a '26 coupe. "I have to give our ancestors a lot of credit -- the way they engineered all those gears and the other things going on."
To demonstrate how simple a T is, participants in the Central Florida tour were planning to reassemble a completely dismantled car in 15 minutes or less.
Not that driving one is a breeze for today's motorist, notes Tim Henry, 40, of Oviedo, Fla., the tour organizer's son. To give his three children rides, he acquired a '24 depot hack, the wooden-sided ancestor of the station wagon created to carry passengers from railway stations to hotels and back again.
"There's nothing to worry about -- you could leave the key in it, because people today don't know enough to start it and steal it," the younger Henry says. Unlike modern cars, the Model T starts with a hand crank, and a neophyte can break his arm if he doesn't turn the handle the right way.
Driving a T, which millions of Americans were able to do generations ago, is today a virtually lost art. It involves using three pedals on the floor, and two levers on the steering column. Go any faster than 30 mph, the elder Henry told the crowd here, and you're pushing it.
Ralph Clayton, 70, a builder and developer from Egg Harbor Township, N.J., admits to a conflicted love affair with the car, which he says is unsafe in modern traffic because of its primitive braking mechanism, a belt that tightens around the transmission.
"Also, they didn't get the nickname of 'Tinkering T's' for nothing," noted Clayton, who has trucked down two of the cars -- a truck and a depot hack -- for the Florida event. "Go on a tour, and something's always breaking."
Many owners point out that as well as having fun, they are preserving and restoring valuable pieces of the country's automotive and industrial history. For the most senior of T buffs, might there be the added satisfaction that something that came into the world so long ago still works well?
Some of the cars that took part in the Avon Park display were prominently decorated with this bumper sticker: "I may be old, but I still get hot."
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