A Classic Ford Model T versus a Modern Electric Ford Model T

Oct 21, 2018

How swapping the engine and drive train of a classic Ford Model T could create a much better driving experience, save energy, and reduced emissions. This blog revisits Henry Ford's and Thomas Edison's idea of producing a electric Model T for the masses using modern technology and examines the benefits a modern electric drive train would bring to this classic car.

A Classic Ford Model T versus an Electric Ford Model T

By John A Gilkison and Phillip R Knox

From 1912 to 1916 Henry Ford and Thomas Edison collaborated to build an Electric Model T for the masses. Their aspirational goal was a battery pack that was capable of 55 pounds of battery per horsepower hour. The work ended in 1916 when the Edison battery plant mysteriously burned down in New Jersey. This story of the Ford/Edison attempt to produce a Ford Model E (E for electric) is my inspiration for this expose. With current battery technology of less than 14 pounds per horsepower hour there is no technical reason this project couldn’t be realized.

I sent this data to Phillip R Knox, my co-conspirator on matters aerodynamic and he worked up a graph of the HP versus MPH data for both the Model T and the Model E for me which I worked into a video for You Tube the link for which I am posting here. The only difference between the curves is that the Model E has a closed off radiator which reduces the Cd from 1.0 to 0.88. This one improvement yields a top speed of 61 mph v 58 mph with the available HP of the electric motor.

On Saturday September 29th, 2018 I got to go for rides in two separate 1927 Ford Model T’s. The Tin Lizzies of Albuquerque, NM were in Las Cruces on a tour and I met up with the group at the Hilton. I joined the club even though I don’t own a Model T. It was a wonderful experience; the club members were very hospitable, and generous with their time with me.

I became interested in Model T’s because of my knowledge of the Ford/Edison Model E project. I had been watching You Tube videos on the Model T’s for some weeks leading up to my calling the club. I was surprised to find out they were visiting Las Cruces the following week. So, I arranged to meet with them at the Hilton in Las Cruces, NM which I did on the 29th.

The Classic Ford Model T

Ford Model T’s were made for 19 years from 1908 until 1927 (15 million vehicles) when the Model T was phased out for the Model A. By 1927 the car was getting a bit long in the tooth, although it was inexpensive, it didn’t offer much in the way of consumer choice, and it was lacking amenities.

Once you look at the car very closely it is startling in its simplicity if you have any familiarity with modern cars. There is no real distributor as we think of them, no fuel pump (as the carburetor was gravity fed), no starter until 1919, no clutch as we understand them, no water pump, and the throttle is in the steering wheel column (opposite the spark advance) instead of the floor.

There are no brakes but rather the car is stopped through a braking system built into rear axle. There is a single brake light but no turn signals. Most of the things we now take for granted were either aftermarket add on or didn’t exist. The top speed at 1,500 rpm was 37 mph on level ground on a paved road. You could probably reach 42 mph on a slight decline.

The reason for the poor performance by modern standards was the lack of horsepower and poor aerodynamics. The four cylinder engine made 20 HP at the crank (Brake HP) but only 12 HP at the rear wheels (Traction HP). With a Cd of 1.0 and 28 square feet of frontal area the car require 11.4 HP to do the 37 mph. A torque curve I found online for the engine indicated a maximum torque of 83 pound/feet.

A Hypothetical Ford Model E (for Electric)

All of these statistics set me to thinking since I drive a 2015 Ford C-Max Energi with a 47 HP electric motor (which makes 111 pounds feet of torque) that has plenty of power to drive a 3,857 pound C-Max Energi up to 80 mph. Since the Ford Model T only weighed around 1,500 pounds with a cloth top and two passengers. How would the electric motor in my C Max Energi perform if it were to be transplanted into a Model T which we will call a Model E from now on?

The 30 kWh battery pack for power from a Nissan Leaf would weigh 480 lbs. Let’s assign a total weight of 700 pounds for battery, gear reduction drive unit, motor, inverter, and electronic controls. Allowing for a 450 pound weight reduction for the removal of the gas powered drive train of the Model T we are estimating a total weight of 1,800 pounds for our modified Model E including passengers.

The Model T had a 10 gallon gas tank and was capable of from 13 mpg to 15 mpg. That would give it about a 150 mile range at best on modern gasoline with an energy content of 1.11836 MBTU.

Our 30 kWh battery pack would have an energy content of 30 kWh or 0.010239 MBTU or 9.15% of the energy of the gasoline on board a Model T. The Model T 20 HP engine used less than 20% of this energy bringing it in at 0.223672 MBTU meaning the Model E would have 41.2% of the effective end use energy on board.

The estimate for the range figure for our Model E is 70 miles to 90 miles. There is simply no way to know for sure without actually building one. I think it would be a much as 90 miles of range given the slower operating speeds, built in start stop, and regen braking.

It is estimated a Model T would need a 29 HP engine to do 50 mph because of the high drag body form. Our 47 HP electric motor would be capable of driving the car at speeds up to 61 mph but then it too would run out of reserve power at that point. In any case limiting the speed to 45 mph would probably help keep battery capacity from declining at too rapid of a rate. The open cab would begin to be too turbulent for passengers much above 45 mph anyway.

Our switch to electric drive technology in this exercise has increased our top speed performance and reduced our input energy consumption per mile by a factor of three to four because of the inherent efficiency of the electric drive when compared to the internal combustion engine. We calculate an MPG-e improvement for our Ford Model E up to 76 mpg-e up from the 15 mpg for the IC version.

Some Ford Model E Project Parameters

The cost to buy a decent shape none runner Model T we project to be around $5,000. The 30 kWh Nissan Leaf battery pack is $8,500 new. Getting a battery pack out of salvage Nissan Leaf might be possible and would save money.

The cost for a C-Max Energi 47 HP electric motor and the associated electronic gear is unknown to me but I suspect the best route to go is finding a salvage unit also. I will place this ballpark cost at $3,000 for starters. Total parts cost including the Model T itself comes in at $16,500. A gross estimate $30,000 to hire a California West Coast shop to complete the build.

I would add the following improvements to make the car easier and safer to drive. A safety glass windscreen, a dash readout instrumentation package to control and monitor the performance, as well as real rear wheel brakes. Turn signals, LED headlights, brake lights (plural), as well as running lights, cabin lights etc. Seat belts, child seat latch hooks, door locks.

Add bumpers, close in the front radiator (reducing aerodynamic drag to 0.88), and add a modern sound system, plus navigation. A stereo system could even reproduce the engine sounds of a Model T for pedestrian safety, for the entertainment of the bystanders, and enhancing the driving experience.

Final issues, add at least one electric wiper and possibly even a washer system for the windshield on the driver’s side. Mirrors were even optional back in the day so at least one rear view side mirror for the driver’s side would be a good idea.

Some Final Thoughts

You would have a Model E that looked like a Ford Model T from 100 feet away but upon closer inspection you would know it was modified. It would be far more reliable and energy efficient. It would be safer to drive and faster with a cruising speed of at least 45 mph versus 37 mph for a gas driven Ford Model T.

The car would not emit any air pollution or CO2 greenhouse warming gas from the tailpipe because there would be no tailpipe. If charged with solar or wind power it would not emit any carbon at all. While it wouldn’t reproduce the experience of an original gas powered T it would be a great didactic for teaching comparative drive technologies.

We think this modern adaptation of the Ford/Edison electric Model T project would be very interesting and informative for the public. We love the quaintness of the original Ford Model T and are very glad that there are so many dedicated enthusiasts across the country maintaining and still driving Model T’s in all their various body forms and model years.

We are not recommending this electrification as a substitute for maintaining and driving original Model T’s, but rather as a respectful homage to Henry Ford’s original dream in the 1912/16 period when both Ford and Edison were working on the electric Model T project. Such a project car would go a long way to the realization of their collective dream and do it a great honor by showcasing a modern actualization of this prematurely abandoned electric car project.

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