WASHINGTON, DC—Putt, putt, putt, we are heading through downtown Washington, D.C. in, of all things, a 1915 Model T Ford, the state of the art in motoring 100 years ago. Riding shotgun is Mark Gessler, president of the Historical Vehicle Association (HVA), a spark plug for recognizing the contribution cars have made to American culture.
This Model T, built around the time one million of these American people’s cars had hit the highway, is a veteran that appeared in inaugural parades here in Washington. And it’s no trailer queen—last summer, the HVA drove it from Detroit to San Francisco, recapping an event that Edsel Ford and friends took in 1915 to visit the Pan Pacific International Exposition. They had a hard time of it, but the modern adventurers made it in a month, with only one flat tire to slow them down.
I was riding in the T as part of a convoy of “connected cars”—sporting the latest in advanced communications technology—to the Washington Auto Show. The Ford might seem an odd choice, since it lacks even a radio, but there’s a mission here.
Gessler’s vision for celebrating the American automobile heritage isn’t just about old cars, it’s about honoring the significant ones—a list that includes an early Tesla Model S and a Google car. There’s hope for a museum in the DC area, built through a public-private partnership, that does for cars what the Smithsonian does for planes and space travel. In the meantime, the HVA is going to entice the public with a glass cube filled with historic cars on the National Mall.
“Our automotive history has been overlooked and neglected,” Gessler said. “The car has been left out of the national equation. We want to mark the key inflexion points in the story of mobility. That’s not just cars from the distant past, but from today, too, because we’re at another key turning point now.”
The HVA is celebrating 75 years of the Jeep—did you know the very first one was built by Ford, which along with Bantam lost the military contract to Willys? The first Ford-built Jeep still exists, with 1,100 miles on its odometer. And looking at it, it’s clear that Ford, not Willys, developed the classic front end we all know and love. If that car disappeared, we wouldn’t know that, which is why it’s now included on the HVA’s National Historic Vehicle Register.
Other Register cars include the Shelby Cobra Daytona Coupe, a 1954 Mercedes-Benz 300Sl Gullwing, and the incredible 1940 GM Futurliner #10, which was shown at the Washington Show last year.
Gessler is a man of enthusiasms, and he loves the automobile’s unique byways. Did you know, for instance, that in 1896 Cosmopolitan Magazine was a sponsor of car races from New York City to Irvington, New York?
It’s true. That year, an Armstrong, built in Bridgeport, Connecticut, ran against five competitors in the contest, which started at the Manhattan Post Office and ran up to Cosmo’s office in Irvington. The prize was $3,000, which is like $100,000 today. John Jacob Astor was a judge. According to automotive historian Michael Worthington-Williams, “The race came off like a Barnum and Bailey circus, with competitors rattling and careening over treacherous cobblestone pavements in a desperate effort to avoid collisions with horse-drawn carriages, cable cars, and (war) veterans dispersing after a parade.”
A Duryea Motor Wagon won. This kind of delightful historical tidbit is at risk of being lost to history, and that’s why we need the Historical Vehicle Association. Here's a look at the Model T on video: