And what, exactly, does a Ford Fiesta have to do with a car that’s been out of production for more than 80 years? Well, when the first Fiesta came to the U.S. in 1977, we perceived it as a modern sequel to the Ford Model T—simple, inexpensive basic transportation, with a fun-to-drive bonus. And now we’re about to welcome a new Fiesta, renewing Ford’s century-old commitment to the T’s fundamental mission: unlimited personal mobility for Everyman.
But let’s start with the back story.
Coast to Coast
On June 1, 1909, Mayor George B. McClellan stood outside New York City Hall brandishing a gold-plated pistol as he surveyed a crowd of some 20,000 spectators, most of whom were craning their necks for a look at the quintet of automobiles lined up, with their intrepid crews, at the foot of the building’s steps.
McClellan, son of Civil War general George McClellan, wasn’t armed to keep the crowd at bay. New York was a friendlier place in those days. His Honor was awaiting a signal from Pres. William Howard Taft, who sat in the White House, one chubby finger poised over a gilded telegraph key. A single stroke of the key would simultaneously tell officials in Seattle to open the gates of the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition—essentially a world’s fair—and Mayor McClellan to start America’s first coast-to-coast automobile race by squeezing off a round from his pistol.
At 3 p.m. Manhattan time, Taft tapped his key, the receiver in New York City Hall clicked, McClellan fired the shot heard round the courtyard, and the five automobiles—an Acme, an Itala, a Shawmut, and a pair of Model T Fords—clattered off in a cloud of dust.
The Long Road to Seattle
The destination of the race was Seattle, a trek of more than 4000 miles. By the time McClellan squeezed the trigger, however, they were no longer calling it a race. Conceived by the Seattle exposition’s organizers and sponsored by 24-year-old playboy Robert Guggenheim—heir to the Guggenheim family fortune, automobile enthusiast, and supporter of establishing a respectable highway infrastructure in the U.S.—the event drew intense flak from the Safety Nazis of the day, who were primarily opposed to the notion of racing on public roads, predicting mayhem and worse.
There was some justification for this. Although automobiles were still scarce, U.S. road accidents had produced 324 fatalities and 1244 injuries in 1907, and there were still grisly memories of the 1903 Paris-to-Madrid race that claimed at least seven lives before the French government called a halt at Bordeaux, marking the end of competition on public roads in Europe.
With a $2000 prize for first place in the 1909 contest, plus an elaborate $2000 trophy, Guggenheim initially expected as many as 35 entries—not unreasonable, since, at the time, there were some 250 carmakers in the U.S. alone. But the crescendo of anti-racing uproar discouraged some potential entrants, and when the Manufacturers’ Contest Association, an early industry watchdog group, vehemently opposed anything labeled as a race, the entry list shrank further.
It’s Not a Race (Wink-Wink)
The organizers tap-danced frantically, saying it was not really a race, just an endurance contest, which was certainly no exaggeration. Further, the event rules were extremely stringent about speed, particularly in the first half of the contest, which included six checkpoints and was run like a time-speed-distance rally. From New York City to Poughkeepsie, the speed limit was 14 mph. It soared to a heady 15 mph between Syracuse and Buffalo and to almost 19 mph from Chicago to St. Louis.
But from St. Louis to Seattle it was wide-effing-open, stand-on-the-gas, no-one-remembers-who-finished-second. In other words, it really was a race (although in this case, there was reason to remember who finished second, at least for a while).
Bad Roads and No Roads
The roads east of the Mississippi were bad, made more so by unusually wet weather that June. West of the Mississippi, the roads were worse than bad, usually mere parallel ruts, varying between axle-deep dust and axle-deep mud, with occasional river fords and patches of quicksand for variety.
On June 22, Bert Scott and C.J. Smith—both Ford employees—were first across the Seattle finish line in one Model T, trailed 17 hours later by the Shawmut. The second Model T, the only other finisher, showed up the next day. After 4106 miles of bounding through dirt, mire, and slime, Scott and Smith looked—and smelled—like zombies. But to Henry Ford, who was on hand for the occasion with his son, Edsel, in tow, they looked like 24-karat gold-plated heroes. Finishing first in a monumental enduro was a great image builder for the still-new Model T, and Ford’s propaganda department exploited it to the max. Sales soared.
As it turned out, though, the race wasn’t over. In fact, it dragged on for another six months.
New York City Hall, where the first U.S. cross-country race started in 1909, and where we began our centennial pursuit. In 1909, the mayor sent the racers on their way with a shot from a gold-plated starter’s pistol.
100 Years Later
More on the epilogue in a minute. First, fast-forward 100 years to June 2009 and the new Ford Fiesta, the contemporary successor to the Model T, and thus the perfect ride for retracing the route of the 1909 contest.
Okay, beyond four cylinders, internal combustion, and four wheels, the parallels between the Model T and Fiesta might be a little hard to see. But look at the bottom line. Both cars are essentially basic-transportation appliances, and both occupy similar positions in their respective economic milieus. In short, they have similar prices.
When the Fiesta arrives here in the spring, the four-door sedan will carry a base price of $13,995, and the five-door hatch will start at $15,795. A car like our well-equipped, Euro-spec test subject will go for about $20,000. Readers steeped in T lore might recall Model T base prices south of $300. But that was toward the end of their production run, when Ford had wrung every possible advantage from the economies of scale that flowed from the introduction of the moving assembly line in the giant Highland Park plant just north of downtown Detroit. However, the moving assembly line didn’t start moving until 1913. In 1909, a Model T touring car cost $850. Based on comparative consumer price indexes, that would work out to nearly $21,000 today. And keep in mind that $850 didn’t include indulgences to weather like a top or side curtains.
Model T Maniacs
As we prepared for the modern-day trek, our mission got an unexpected bonus when we learned that the International Ford Model T Club was also revisiting the historic run, 54 cars strong, with a June 14 launch in Manhattan. Our own voyage began June 23, with a little 600-mile warm-up from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to Little Falls, New Jersey.
The following morning we did the tedious Lincoln Tunnel stop-and-go, then diced with taxis and delivery vans en route to City Hall. Much time passed. When we got to City Hall, Mayor Michael Bloomberg was nowhere to be seen, but we did encounter a pistol-toting NYPD officer who told us, not unkindly, that parking on the sidewalk, even for documentary photos, was not condoned. We asked him to fire a round into the air, to lend authenticity to our official start, but he said others might misunderstand. We moved on.
The Not-So-Direct Route
The 1909 route went north from New York City, through Albany, then west on what is now U.S. 20 to Buffalo, and down around the southern edge of Lakes Ontario, Erie, and Michigan to Chicago. It then wound south to St. Louis, west through Kansas and eastern Colorado, north into Wyoming, west into Utah, then north and west through Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.
After we’d burned through just three or four tanks of fuel—the Fiesta’s 12.0-gallon tank is good for about 300 miles—it became apparent that the Fiesta would be a much better choice for a coast-to-coast ride than we’d anticipated. It was quieter than expected, even cruising easily at 80 to 85 mph. The bucket seats—leather-clad in this car—were comfortable, with a nice range of adjustability. Pedal placement was sports-car correct, and the shift lever for the five-speed manual was close to the reach. Okay, scratch that last part; of course it was close to the reach, nothing in a subcompact car is very far away. Shift quality was precise, save for some resistance going into reverse, so there was little grousing about the gearbox, save for a feeling that a six-speed would take better advantage of the Fiesta’s 118-hp power band.
Zero to 60 in 8.7 Seconds
On the other hand, 8.7 seconds to 60 mph is near the leading edge for cars in this class, and 38 mpg while cruising at 80 or so mph is ditto. For the whole trip—4098 miles in eight days, counting the run from Ann Arbor to Manhattan—we recorded 31 mpg.
We did jot down a few minor quibbles. If the steering column were adjustable for reach, as well as rake, it would be easier to achieve a comfortable driving position. The sloping rear roofline, which is part of the car’s visual charm, limits cargo space, and the rear seats don’t fold completely flat. And speaking of visual charm, the best-looking Fiesta is the three-door version, but that isn’t in the production plan for the plant in Cuautitlán Izcalli, Mexico, where U.S. models will be produced. We’ll get a five-door version, plus a formal coupe and sedan, the latter two forgettable in terms of styling.
Minor grumbles and body styles notwithstanding, though, the Fiesta’s biggest appeal (for us, at least) is its readiness to frolic. Our test car’s responses were eager, its steering exceptionally quick (2.6 turns lock-to-lock) and precise, and a set of Euro-spec Michelin Pilot PE2 Exalto tires provided best-in-class grip (0.84 g). Although the Fiestas we’ve seen on U.S. auto-show stands have been wearing all-season Hankook tires, Ford tells us it didn’t change the steering or suspension tuning for U.S. consumption.
New York–to–Seattle Redux
We weren’t too slavish about sticking to the 1909 route, following it as far as Cleveland before heading south and west for St. Louis. Snug and dry—in your faces, Scott and Smith—we slogged through a torrential downpour in Ohio and Indiana and then coolly cruised through 100-degree days in Missouri and Kansas.
From the comfortable perspective of a thoroughly modern car, the voyage of the Model T reenactors, thumping along at about 35 mph, didn’t look like that much fun. Particularly for Milt Roorda, making the run in an exacting replica of the 1909 winner—open car, driving solo. On the other hand, Milt and the rest of the International Model T Clubbers traveled on paved roads, spreading their sentimental journey over 30 days and staying in nice hotels each night, with well-stocked support trucks trailing along to rescue cripples.
Interstate Travel, 1909
The 1909 journey wasn’t quite so luxurious. Although Scott and Smith slept in beds all but one night—the 30-foot range of the T’s acetylene headlights made traveling after dark a little iffy—they were exposed to the elements throughout the race and spent more than a little time man-handling their car out of ditches and mud, as well as performing various repairs.
Although it was innovative at its birth and exceptionally rugged, the T was primordial by the time production ceased, to say nothing of modern automotive standards. Nevertheless, it went on to put automobile ownership within reach of almost anyone, thanks to those steadily diminishing prices. At one point, just after World War I, half the cars on the planet were Model Ts, and the build tally stood at more than 15 million when the assembly line shut down in 1927.
We think it’s safe to say that the Fiesta probably won’t achieve numbers of that magnitude, nor will it change the world. But we think Ford would be happy with best in class. And we think that’s where the Fiesta may very well rank when it reaches the United States.
Now and then, in Goodland, Kansas: Now, Goodland’s main drag is paved with old-timey cobbles. But in 1909 it was paved with mud.
1909: The Rest of the Story
When the second-place team rumbled into Seattle in the Shawmut, euphoria in the Ford camp was immediately chilled with a number of protests, the first being that Scott and Smith had replaced the engine in their car, probably in Idaho. One of Ford’s big advantages in the event was a dealer network that was already extensive in 1909. But replacement of certain major parts—engines and axles, for example—was against the race rules, and those parts were stamped prior to the start. The Shawmut contingent also claimed the first-place car had a substitute front axle and that the Ford team had bribed a ferry operator to delay the Shawmut team at a river crossing.
Few people west of Massachusetts had heard of the Shawmut, with good reason. When the race started, the factory was no longer in production, owing to a fire the previous winter. The company principals hoped that winning the race would provide positive press and attract fresh capital, a very fragile straw, indeed.
Guggenheim, as event sponsor, appointed himself as the chief steward, briefly reviewed the Shawmut allegations, and upheld the Ford victory. But this didn’t settle the protest, as far as the Shawmut team was concerned. They appealed to the Automobile Club of America, which took the matter, as they say, under advisement.
Henry Ford, meanwhile, wasted no time in publicizing the result and amplified it by persuading Scott and Smith to drive their car, now restored to pre-race condition, back to New York City via Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles—an even longer trek.
The appeal ground on for six months, during which Ford sales grew exponentially. Then the association handed down its decision: Ford was disqualified, and Shawmut was declared the winner. But by that time, Shawmut was dead beyond any possible resuscitation.
There was no dismay in Dearborn at the disqualification. The reaction was “So what?” The T went on to become the car that put the world on wheels, and Ford even had the chutzpah to celebrate the coast-to-coast event with a commemorative run in 1959. Which proves that Henry Ford had an early grasp of a hallowed motorsports maxim: There are two kinds of racers—cheaters and losers.