SO YOU WANNA BUY A MODEL A?
I was recently asked by someone who was interested in becoming involved in the Model A hobby where to start. The following is my answer to that question. I also mention what can be done to “personalize” a Model A. Some of the items I discuss I would not do to my own Model A but these are based on the way I use my car. I have included changes that I would not make to my own car to enable you to understand what you might find on an existing vehicle. You need to evaluate these changes based on the way you will use “your” Model A. Minimize the changes you make to the Model A or you will lose the "character" of the car. When evaluating changes you also must consider that most changes will disqualify you from formal judging and some will disqualify you even from the touring class competition (check with the MARC/MAFCA clubs). Don’t become overwhelmed by the number of items discussed. You can get into a stock Model A and drive it and enjoy it.
1. The first thing you should do is to join one or both of the national clubs that specialize in Model A Fords. Membership information may be found on their web sites. The web site for the Model A Ford Club of America (MAFCA) is www.mafca.com(HOT LINK MAFCA). The web site for the Model A Restorers Club (MARC) is www.modelaford.org (HOT LINK TO MARC).
2. Join one or more local chapters of MAFCA or MARC. The local chapters are listed on the web sites for the two national clubs. Get to know the people and the cars. Try to ride in some of the cars. You need to spend some time with these cars to fully appreciate that compared to modern cars they are cold in winter and hot in summer, difficult to steer when compared to modern power assisted vehicles , have engines that vibrate compared to modern engines even when properly balanced, have a high noise level which makes conversation and radio listening difficult, require more tinkering than modern cars, have a stiff suspension and airplane wing like fenders which can make driving over 55 mph stressful for some, and don't get good gas mileage for the horsepower produced. (although mid teens or 20+ miles to the gallon is normal,jm). Having said all of that, I have had my Model A for thirty years and have no intention of selling it. Ask where the local sources of parts are and what local mechanics are good. Find someone to help you evaluate a car once you think you have found the one you want.
3. Post your general location on the message board at www.ahooga.com (HOT LINK TO MESSAGE SECTION) and ask if there is anybody in your area that could suggest local events of interest.(HOT LINK TO MARC EVENTS) (HOT LINK TO MAFCA EVENTS)
4. Plan on purchasing the car at some point in the future (6 months is good) and don’t be tempted to rush into a purchase. Decide what you want and then go find it. Otherwise you will be stuck with a car that you don’t want when you find the one you do.
5. Decide what you want to do with the car. How are you going to use it? Are you looking for a car to show or one to drive on weekends? This will also determine how original of a car you want but I will get into that later.
6. Decide what body style you want based on what you intend for the car. Trucks are nice for hauling stuff. Sedans are good for hauling people (I like the ’31 slant window because it is an all steel body, the earlier four door sedans had a lot of structural wood). Roadsters and phaetons are nice for show but not good if you intend to use them during the winter. And the list goes on, and on, and…. Remember that the chrome and upholstery on a pick up is a lot less expensive than the chrome and upholstery on a deluxe vehicle.
7. Decide what year you want. The 1928-29’s look similar. The 1930-31’s look similar. The earlier cars look more “antique” and the later cars have smoother lines. The year you like may also be based on the body style you choose. Go to the MAFCA web site (MAFCA PHOTOS) or the Dallas Model A Ford Club (www.dmafc.com) web site and look at pictures of cars(HOT LINK TO DALLAS PHOTO GALLERY) to help your decision. A modern analogy to this is the small T-Birds. Some people like the early (55-56) ones and some the later (57). I personally like the later one but I know people that feel just as strongly about the early ones. A word of advice, never try to argue this point.
8.Next become familiar with the value of the Model A vehicles. Buy a magazine such as the “Old Cars Price Guide” to get an understanding of how the differences in years, body styles and condition affect prices. I wouldn’t recommend subscribing since the prices don’t change that fast but a single issue would be useful. Most parts dealers will have this magazine. You can check the values of the cars on the Internet at Bob Johnson's "What's it worth page":(HOT LINK TO Bob Johnson's "What's it worth page). These sources should be used as guidance only. You can now fine tune what a specific vehicle is worth by going to the various classified advertisements with a better understanding of what affects the value of a Model A. Remember that even where you are located can have a minor affect on the value.
9. Buy a copy of the judging standards and paint standards published by the national clubs.(HOT LINK TO MY BOOK REFERENCES) These are available from the clubs or from most parts dealers. Read these to understand what you should be looking for on the cars. Remember these are oriented towards show cars but the authenticity of any car will help determine its value. Be sure to have someone who is knowledgeable look at any car before you buy it as it is not possible to absorb everything in the standards and someone who is familiar with the cars will often spot incorrect parts/colors. Once you have purchased a car the judging standards will be a valuable reference. I don’t own nor do I desire to own a high point show car. This book is valuable to a person like myself because it enables me to buy the correct part when presented with a selection of several parts that are functionally interchangeable. A good example is the 6 different throttle control linkages. If you are selecting from a pile of them you might as well get the one that is correct for your car since it will probably be the same price and if you ever sell your car (this I don’t recommend) it will be worth more with the correct parts.
10. Eventually you will want to have a copy of the Model A Ford Mechanics Handbook available from MARC. You should also get a copy of the service bulletins. These are available from most suppliers in a hardback book or a very authentic but more expensive copy from MARC. If you want an excellent history of the Model A get a copy of The Ford Model A As Henry Built It by George De Angelis, Edward P. Francis. When you finally buy your car if it doesn’t come with an owners manual you will want to buy one. Owner’s manuals changed over the years and you will want one to match your car. Not all revisions of the owner’s manual have been reprinted but often the changes were subtle. (HOT LINK TO MAFCA'S OWNER MANUALS PAGE)
11. Obtain several catalogs. Suppliers are listed (without recommendation) on the MAFCA website.(MAFCA has pulled the advertiser listing, and has gone to paid ads. When I find a site listing the suppliers I will change the link. jm 7/21/01) Go to “site index” and then “suppliers of Model A parts”. Be sure to get a catalog from Bratton’s, I have had very good service from them in the past. Also check Hemmings (available from most suppliers) for advertisements. (HOT LINK TO MAFCA'S SUPPLIERS PAGE)
12. Find out where the local swap meets are advertised. Suppliers will often allow clubs to place stacks of their flyers advertising swap meets on their counters. If you live in the southern California area there is a magazine centered on advertising swap meets [Automotive Calendar of Events - (714) 229-9100]. I am sure that similar magazines exist in other parts of the country. Once you start attending swap meets you will find that flyers advertising other swap meets are available at the swap meets.
13. Find out where cars are advertised in your area. The MARC and MAFCA web sites advertise cars but they are national and there is a limit to how far a person can travel. (MAFCA CLASSIFIEDS) (MARC HOME PAGE) Parts suppliers often provide bulletin boards for use of the hobbyists. Major local newspapers advertise and may have web sites for cars. Find out where your newspaper is first dropped off and be there to pick up a copy.
14. Don’t buy a “basket case” and plan to put it together. It is difficult for even an experienced Model A person to evaluate a “basket case” and estimate what it will cost when finished.
15. Don’t get fooled by a nice paint job. A lot of problems can hide under a good coat of paint.
16. After you have decided on a car think about it overnight. It will probably still be there and it’s good to cool off a little.
17. Be sure you have seen the car during the day with enough light to evaluate the bodywork. Stand back and look for ripples in the body panels.
18. One final item before you complete the purchase of the car is to verify that the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the car matches the VIN number on the paperwork. The original VIN number for Model A was the engine number, which appeared stamped into a boss on the left side of the engine block next to the cylinder head. When the car was manufactured this number was also stamped into the top of the left hand frame rail but after the body was installed it was no longer visible.If the engine was replaced the paperwork should have been changed with the Department of Motor Vehicles but it frequently wasn't. To correct this problem many states attach VIN plates to the vehicles door jam and use this number to register the vehicle. Note that many engines rebuilders restamped engines over the years. They may have restamped the number to match the registration or they may have restamped it with their own number (e.g. the first engine that Joe’s Garage rebuilt may have been stamped JG1). The original serial number should take the form of star, A, the number, and a final star. If the engine for your car was replaced with one that was originally installed in a truck (actually the engine was identical, Ford was trying to track a stronger clutch used in trucks) the “A” would be replaced with “AA”. The number should be between one and slightly less than five million. The MARC/MAFCA judging standards contain a table that shows when the engine was built and allowing 3 months for installation (as recommended by the standards) this would determine when the vehicle was assembled. The serial number information is available on line from the MAFCA web site (www.mafca.com). From the home page of the site go to "Site Index" and then look under "Engine production and serial number table". Remember to allow 3 months for installation. Other numbers you may find stamped on your car include a body number on the floor sill indicating where the body was manufactured and what body it was off of the production line and for the 1928 and 1929 vehicles a date (e.g. 3 15 29) on the engine compartment side of the gas tank.(HOT LINK TO DAVE STURGES ASSEMBLY PLANT AND BODY NUMBER RESEARCH)
Now I will get into the changes that I would make or at least consider making to a Model A assuming that I was starting with one that was original but not a high point show car or such a low mileage original that it wouldn’t be appropriate to change it. These are changes that I would personally make based on how I use my Model A. As I go down the list I am sure the purists will become increasingly angered and probably stop reading.(Yep!!!jm) I include these items such that you may evaluate any changes you may find on cars you are considering. If you remove original parts from the car, save them because someday someone may want to completely restore the car (this extends from bolts with special heads to complete mechanical brake systems). If you add parts, bolt them on using existing holes. The person who wants to completely restore the car in the future may turn out to be you. Remember, as I said before, you can get into a stock Model A and drive it and enjoy it.
1. Put a fuse in the electrical system. Most suppliers sell a small fuse that mounts on the generator. It’s cheap insurance. (check the quality, some fuses have caused problems jm)
2. Get a heat baffle that shields the distributor from the exhaust manifold heat. Be sure to get the stainless steel one, it will look good forever. The heat from the exhaust manifold is hard on the condenser. Even after installing the shield, carry an extra condenser under the seat and buy only the highest quality condenser you can get.
3. Check the water pump, if there is any sign of leakage, replace it with a pack less pump (don’t cut corners here, buy a good one).
5. Check the fan. If it is an original fan check carefully for fatigue cracks. Feel the blade for signs of rust inside between the layers of metal. Consider one of the reproduction aluminum fan blades. Also the 1933-4 fan (4 blades) is a good replacement for the Model A 2 blade but they are also old and subject to fatigue failures. (MY FAN PAGE)
6. Install a right hand taillight. Most cars came with only a left taillight and are therefore legal (in most states) with only one light but they are sure a lot safer with two. The lights are small compared to modern cars so every little bit helps. Excellent reproduction lights and brackets are available for making this change.
The preceding are probably the best bang for your buck changes and this might be a good place to stop making changes. Changes are definitely an example of "more is not better". While a few changes tend to "personalize" the car, too many changes soon destroy the character of the car. Now for a few more changes. Keep in mind that the necessity for these changes is highly dependent on how you use “your” Model A.
7. Turn signals. Kits are available from suppliers. In today’s traffic hand signals are marginal during the day but not worth much at night.
8. Headlights. The original reflectors were silver plated and tended to tarnish. If you try to polish yours remember that silver is soft and requires a very fine polish formulated for use on silver. Plating companies can resilver your original reflectors or some companies like Uvira [(541) 474-5050] replate your reflectors with aluminum and then apply a coat of glass (trust me, this comes out a lot better than it sounds, this technology is used on mirrors to dissipate heat from communications satellites in space). Are they expensive? Yes. Are they cheaper than hitting something in the road at night due to poor headlights? Probably. Avoid the chrome-plated reflectors available from some suppliers, as they do not reflect enough light. Be sure all of your grounds are good. Apply a drop of solder on the wire connectors at the bottom of the steering column if there is still a problem. If you need really good lights consider changing the car to 12 volts and going to halogen bulbs using an adapter or the high intensity 12-volt bulbs that go into the original sockets that are available from the Ron Francis Wire Works [(800) 292-1940]. When making the change to 12 volts it is most common to use the alternators available from many of the suppliers. If and when I convert my Model A to 12 volts I intend to try to use a 1955-64 Ford 12 volt generator. I feel a generator looks more like it belongs on a Model A.
9. Hydraulic brakes. Never discuss hydraulic brakes with a purist.(!!!jm) Never discuss politics (vote counting), religion or hydraulic brakes in mixed company. My personal opinion is that a good set of 1939-49 hydraulic brakes properly installed is a major safety improvement if you intend to drive the car very much or very fast. After having said all of that, I will admit that when I got my 1931 Roadster Pickup the hydraulic brakes were so poorly installed that I converted back mechanical brakes because they would be safer. If you choose to stay with the mechanical brakes consider putting “bands” on the steel brake drums. These are available as reproductions but may frequently be found on otherwise scrap used drums. Another good choice for the mechanical brake system is to use cast iron brake drums. These came out in late 1931 but originals are so rare that you will probably end up buying reproductions.
10. If you would like a few extra horsepower consider a higher compression head. This could take the form of using a 1932-34 head (with its associated 3 bolt water pump), an original Model A high performance “police” head (with a block B cast into the head), a head from Brumfield, or a high compression head from Snyders. These heads are only slightly above the stock compression ratio and can be bolted onto a stock engine without other modifications. If you increase the compression beyond what you get from these heads be sure you understand what other modifications you should make to the engine. If you want to go beyond this in increasing the horsepower there is a chapter (FAST) of the MARC and MAFCA clubs that is dedicated to speed equipment. Information on speed equipment is also available from the Secrets of Speed Society (SOSS)(firstname.lastname@example.org).
11. If your rear end ratio is 4.11:1 consider going to a 3.54:1 rear end ratio. If you have a good rear end with a 3.78:1 ratio it would probably not be worth changing. If you have to rebuild the rear end for other reasons definitely go to the 3.54:1 ratio when you have it apart. A recent posting pointed out how small the change in RPM is for a given speed between the 3.78:1 and 3.54:1 ratios. I double-checked the math and it was right. All I know is that my Roadster Pick-up with a 3.54:1 ratio sure runs better than my roadster with a 3.78:1 ratio using the same engine in both vehicles.
12. If other family members are going to drive the car a 1932-34 distributor (or an aftermarket) with automatic advance might be a good idea. If you start the car with the spark lever down you risk breaking the Bendix drive on the starter motor.
This is the point at which I would stop making changes based on the way I use a Model A but there a couple of more you might consider if your situation warrants it.
1. If you have a closed car and live in a hot climate you might consider one of the firewall insulator kits sold by most suppliers. They are patterned after the firewall insulators Ford used beginning in 1932. They are not original but look like they belong there to an untrained eye.
2. A nice change if other family members are driving the car would be the later model Borg Warner transmission with full syncros. I am the only one driving my car and I personally think the original transmission is fine but I have driving Model A’s for the last 40 years.
3. A final concession to other family members (or maybe yourself if you have arthritis) would be to replace the original steering with an F1 pickup steering. This change is not visible without lifting the hood and then it is only visible if you know what you are looking for. Note that this is a bolt in type of change that can be reversed if someone desires to restore the car in the future. If I chose to rebuild the original steering because it needed it, I would suggest going to needle bearings on the sector shaft. I can’t prove they work but I have them in my steering and it works well.
Best of luck and welcome to the hobby,
Closing comments by me (Jim Mason)
One of the points that I stress is point 5. Decided early on what you are going to do with the car. If you plan on fine point judging, reproduction parts are out. If you plan on driving your car and never show it...I still wouldn't use any more repop parts than absolutely necessary. Attending swap meets, meeting with people, and the enjoyment of the hunt, is an important and very enjoyable part of the hobby. Many find that when they have 'finished' a car, they no longer have the interest in it that they had, and sell it in order to buy another to work on. One recommendation some people make is to buy one to drive, and one to restore..if time, money and space allows, this may be a good answer.
Being a more of a purist than some, I would not make the same recommendations for modifications, and actually disagree with some of the modifications mentioned. I prefer to drive unmodified cars.
AS SAID IN THE ANSWER ABOVE...POLITICS, RELIGION, AND MODIFICATIONS CAN'T BE SUCCESFULLY ARGUED.
While true that inherent in the design, the Model A engine will have more vibration than a modern engine, the engine should be smooth running. If care is not taken in matching the weights of the power train parts, and in balancing the engine/flywheel and other components undue vibrations can occur. Again, become familiar with a well restored vehicle to be able to judge the quality of any work done on your purchase.
Properly restored, and maintained, mechanical brakes, manual advance distributors, non-synchro transmissions, steering boxes etc. can and have given years of excellent service. The 'trick' is to bring them all back to factory specs and keep them that way (actually RESTORE THE VEHICLE, NOT JUST REPAIR OR MAKE DO OR PERFORM A MESSTORATION .