The Model T with the “Mother-in-Law” Seat

A Ford Model T roadster with a “mother-in-law” seat parked in front of townhouses at 216 and 218 North 19th Street, August 8, 1912.

In the early 1900s, the government was not in the business of regulating car design and safety.  The only real government requirements when it came to owning one were license plates and registration.  Luxury cars of that era, especially European imports such as Mercedes and Napier, were so complicated to drive and service that most owners had live-in chauffeurs who doubled as mechanics.

In 1908, the Ford Motor Company rolled out its $850 Model T.  Powered by a twenty-horsepower in-line four cylinder engine, the car had a top speed of about 43 miles per hour.  It was also mechanically simple, had interchangeable parts, and was easy for self-trained owners to fix. Thanks to Henry Ford’s pioneering use of the assembly line, Model T’s dropped steeply in price over the next decade, to a low of $250 by the early 1920s.  When the Highland Park plant outside of Detroit was operating at top speed, a Model T Ford could be assembled in only 93 minutes, from start to finish.  Yet the Tin Lizzie’s reign over the American auto market could not last forever. By the early 1920s, General Motors’ Chevrolet marque was beating Ford on price, style, and amenities, especially color choices. Due to dropping sales and its outdated technology, the Model T was phased out in 1927 and replaced by the more modern and stylish Model A.  Over the course of its 19-year production run, Ford had built a staggering 10 million Model Ts.

After-market “isenglass” side curtains on a Ford Model T touring car, in a c.1915 advertisement.  The song “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top” from the musical Oklahoma! references the use of isenglass in bad weather. Source: The Old Motor.

The most popular and practical body style for the Model T was the four door “touring car.”  The roof was a collapsible leather top. In very bad weather, the owner could roll down transparent “isenglass” (made from fish air bladders) side curtains to keep the rain and wind out.   Few Ford Model T’s were enclosed — a closed body added significant weight and reduced the top speed to around 35 miles per hour.  A closed body also raised price beyond the reach of the typical Ford customer.  Enclosed sedan and limousine bodies needed much more powerful engines, and as a result were the domain of much more prestigious automakers such as Packard and Pierce-Arrow.

Driving a Model T is very different from today’s modern cars. See how to drive one here. 

For Ford Model T customers who preferred something sportier, Ford also offered the two-seat “roadster” body style.  It was a great car for young couples. However, what if the proverbial “third wheel” wanted to come along for the ride?  Ford solved this problem by adding a single spare seat between the rear fenders.  Given its isolation from the passenger and driver, as well as being entirely exposed to the elements, this seat became the butt of jokes.  Wags would call it the “mother-in-law” seat.  It also made the already frumpy looking roadster look even more awkward.

Often situated atop the gas tank, the mother-in-law seat was also the most dangerous in the car!

Ford and other automakers got the message. By the 1920s, this extra rear seat would be merged into the body of the car and get a more charming name: the rumble seat.

Sources:

“Turn Your Tin Lizzie Into a Limousine,” The Old Motor, December 14, 2014, http://theoldmotor.com/?p=134906, accessed November 21, 2019.

“Celebrating the Model T: Only 100 Years Young,” Auto Atlantic,  http://www.autoatlantic.com/Sept08/Sept08_Ford-Model-T-is-100.html, accessed November 21, 2019.

“Model T Club of America,” https://www.mtfca.com/, accessed November 21, 2019.

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