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Ford Fiesta, Model T

bob english The Globe and Mail

Last week I had the unique experience of driving one Ford automobile that defined the brand's distant past and another that will help decide its future.

The first, a 1911 Model T, is an early example of the car that was already well on its way to irrevocably changing the world.

The second was a 2009 European-spec Ford Fiesta, a North Americanized version of which will go on sale here next year as a 2011 model, and which Ford is hoping (along with its new 2010 Focus) will help change its small-car fortunes in today's world.

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The subcompact Fiesta was sold in Canada briefly in the 1970s and will be reintroduced here in hatchback and sedan versions - and that's about all Ford will say officially right now.

The just-launched, sixth-generation Fiesta is built on Ford's global B-platform (shared with the Mazda2) and while styling should remain essentially the same, it has been reported the interior is being redone, and possibly not in a good way. A Ford source has been quoted as saying the car will be built down to a "price point" for North America, while Euro editions get things such as multi-function displays, tilt/telescope steering wheels, Ford's cap-less fuel filler and keyless entry with push-button start.

The car I drove was the very neat-looking little four-door hatchback painted in a youthful bright limey green. Its snug, but not cramped, interior is very zoomy-looking too, yet functional and there's good cargo room under the hatch.

It's 1.6-litre engine and five-speed gearbox gave it a zippy feel, with handling and braking to match. It should do well here if they don't dumb it down too much.

The bright red and gleaming polished brass 1911 Open Runabout I drove - yes, early ones did come in colours other than black - is owned by Brad Glover of Scarborough, who was fated to be a Ford fan. His father Deane was a Ford dealer in Mount Brydges, Ont., near London and is a long-time old car enthusiast.

Glover recalls, apparently fondly, a two-month, cross-Canada trip in the 1960s during which he and his brother shared a Model A Coupe's rumble seat. There were no DVD screens and computer games, just plenty of countryside to view but at least dad had provided a tent-like "Tux-a-way" top.

Glover became interested in Model Ts after finding Model As (the car that succeeded them in 1927) too modern. "It's like driving a new car by comparison," he says. The technology in the Model A - transmission, clutch, brakes, electric starter, electric lights, wipers etc. - is all basically as easy to operate as that found in the Fiesta. The Model T is considerably more challenging.

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The engine in Glover's very sporty-looking, two-seater "T" is a 20-hp, cast-iron, 2.9-litre L-Head (side-valve) that's started with a hand crank.

The only electrical components are a battery, coils, a magneto, the spark plugs and the wires that connect them. The transmission is a two-speed planetary type operated by foot pedals.

There are tiny drum brakes on the rear axle, but the main source of stopping power is a foot pedal-tightened band in the transmission. Headlights were carbide gas-fuelled while the running lights burned oil. And if you wanted to wipe the windshield, you did so with a damp rag.

Getting it running is much more complicated than pressing the Fiesta's start button.

First you retard the ignition timing and adjust the throttle via brass lever and quadrant controls on the steering column, then switch on the ignition, which causes the four, wooden-boxed trembler coils mounted on the dashboard (a wooden board, incidentally) to begin an anticipatory buzzing.

Sometimes at this point you get what "T" types call a "free" start. If a cylinder has stopped on compression, and if there's enough residual fuel/air vapour in there, and if the timing happens to have aligned itself just right, the cylinder will sometimes fire and the motor start (Mazda is currently updating this process as part of an experimental fuel-saving stop/start system), Usually, though, you have to walk around to the brass radiator, pull out the choke wire and cup the crank handle, with your thumb alongside your index finger knuckle. If you don't take this precaution, a not-uncommon backfire could make hitting the space bar on your computer keyboard a painful problem.

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Engage the crank and give a hefty tug - it took me two - and a nicely setup motor like Glover's lights right up.

Now, you can clamber up onto the tiny bench seat - from the passenger side as there are things in the way on the other side - reset the throttle and timing (something akin to enabling the launch control system of today's supercars) and get ready to pedal it.

There are actually three small, tightly clustered pedals - marked handily C, R and B, for clutch, reverse and brake - and a long brake/neutral lever on the left.

Step one is releasing the brake lever, step two (literally) is pushing the C pedal to the floor, which tightens a band (originally cloth-covered, now Kevlar) that gets the gears whirling and the whole contraption into juddering motion. Releasing the pedal gives you top gear.

It sounds simple, but is actually quite counterintuitive, and there are other things going on, such as steering, which is so ultra-quick that if you turn it even a little too abruptly, the whole thing feels like it's going to turn head over heels.

Braking involves depressing the C pedal and finding the neutral position between the gears and then applying the B pedal. The pressure required increases dramatically as the distance between you and what you want to avoid decreases, while a sort of slow-motion panic sets in. Kind of like finding your ride-on lawnmower is heading towards the azaleas.

All this caused the gearing in my brain to rotate in a planetary fashion initially, but once you're rolling, with the breeze in your face thanks to the folding windscreen, you get a taste of just what a thrill driving a Model T for the first time must have been like a century ago.

For the thrill of finding out what a Fiesta is like, you'll have to wait until next year.

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