Part IV: Setting out for our search for adventure, and salt.


I walked into the shop as the two-speed rear was sliding out from under the “Becker Special”, Chris Becker’s 1917 speedster that was destined to accompany Clayton and myself on our trip to Bonneville.

The look on Chris’ face clearly showed there was a reason for pulling the rear and equally good reason for concern. The benefit of having the two-speed Rocky Mountain rear in his car was that it would not only provide for better fuel economy, but also would allow for higher speeds on our trip from Portland, Oregon, to the Bonneville Salt Flats for Speed Week. Problem was, the shifting mechanism inside the differential wasn’t moving sufficiently to provide high gear as intended. They were going to have to go inside to see what wasn’t happening, and that meant pulling the rear.

The beauty of the Model T’s design is its simplicity, and in no time, hands were inside the housing. Sadly, there was not a fix to be found between the cast housing and our looming deadline, so, another rear was sourced and treated to a complete bearing greasing and going-through. There were other items on the to-do list and focusing on the rear for the rest of the available time wouldn’t get us any closer to going. Click HERE for a quick vid of Clayton speed-building the rear of the T.

Clayton was likewise preparing his 1926 Model T for the long haul. In the final throes of a complete rebuild, Clayton’s T was still showing signs of needy details in his search for dependability. Nagging water leaks and tuning issues were coupled with the final decisions of pedal placement and comfort accouterments. The well-equipped Becker shop was more than capable of handling any issues that might arise, the main issue being that both cars were destined to be driving the 700-mile trek to the salt flats in Utah in a few days.

The last work weekend available to the team of T-sters started out bright and early, focusing on the larger items at hand. The rear, freshly greased and repaired, was ready to go under the Special while Clayton turned the toolbox on his T, checklist in hand. The weekend wound down and the harder Clayton and Chris looked, the more items were added to the to-do list. The result was a departure that was one day later than we had hoped for, but the plan was to make up for lost time by spreading out our stopping points during the trip.

The Trip Begins

We started out bright and early on the 9th, planning to sleep in Ontario, Oregon, by nightfall, easily within the grasp of our two Ts if everything went as planned. Therein lay the problem. We weaved our way through the heart of Portland amid traffic, stares, waves and cell-phone photos. City limits behind us, we stretched out the Ts to a whopping 55 mph on our trip through the Columbia River Gorge. The highway and accompanying scenery were very good to us travelers and we were content to stare at the landscape in the cool mountain morning air, right up until Chris pulled the Special off to the side of the road. Unsure of what happened, he explained that the engine “just stopped!”

Whenever trying to re-start the car, there was a severe grinding noise, accompanied by a lack of the front pulley of the engine spinning. Being a 1917 engine, the presence of an early-style, weaker, crankshaft was a definite possibility. Half-inch wrench in hand, Clayton and Chris slid under the car to confirm what was on everyone’s mind. As the bottom plate of the pan slid out of the way and the oil flow subsided, it became obvious what had occurred. Staring nose-to-nose with Clayton and Chris was a newly born two-piece crankshaft. While not enough to put the Special out to pasture permanently, it was surely enough to halt its eastwardly trek to the salt flats this year. While the Columbia River Gorge is full of amazing views and an ever-changing landscape, it’s not known for having Model T crankshafts behind every tree.

As the rollback slid the Special up in preparation for the humbling ride home, Chris entrusted Clayton and I with driving orders to continue eastbound and he would catch up with us that night. As the rollback made its U-turn to take Chris and his T back home, Clayton and I continued east, hoping to find adventure and Ontario, Oregon, by nightfall.

Trouble With The Law

Building a period-correct car with dated, used and rebuilt parts not only provides occasion for engineering and design flaws to appear, but also the worn parts are already, well, worn. Oddly enough, that’s not where the next snafu would show its presence. As we were rising a hill just west of Arlington, Oregon, the Model T’s engine purring away through the open exhaust in a torque-y howl, we were passed by a local Arlington County Sherriff. He pulled out ahead of us, only to slow down and flag us to the side of the road with a point-over on his SUV. As the officer slowed his vehicle on the berm, Clayton, certain that he hadn’t done anything wrong and the officer MUST have intended for someone else in traffic, simply rolled on by.

The ensuing blue and reds in Clayton’s rear-view mirror confirmed what we hadn’t even considered, we were indeed in his crosshairs, only it wasn’t on his radar gun. The officer had a bit of an issue with the way that Clayton registered his T. Clayton built his early Ford to drive and enjoy. That’s why he didn’t take advantage of Oregon’s Special Interest registration system. He wanted to drive the car more than simply to and from shows and events, so he registered the vehicle as a passenger car. This meant he was able to drive and enjoy his T whenever and however many miles he liked, just like any other car on the road. He asked the DMV if that would be an issue and they stated that they didn’t think so. But they’ve never met Officer Mitchell.

After a lengthy stroll through the Oregon statutes bible and a lengthy discussion about turn signals and taillights with Officer Mitchell, and the resultant “receipt” for our use of a vehicle not adequately equipped, we were advised that the “ideal thing to do, would be to go to the next town and get a trailer to haul the car.” He reminded us that the car was “unsafe” without the additional bright-working lights and went on his way. It was clear that Officer Mitchell wasn’t convinced that a Model T should be considered for daily use and it was obvious that we weren’t going to change his mind.

Undeterred, we quickly went the other way toward The Dalles in search of the local DMV office so that Clayton could exchange his common passenger car registration for special-interest auto paperwork. Somehow, this made Clayton’s car safer in the eyes of Mr. Mitchell or at least, nullified his citation book’s bite on the rest of our trip. We would backtrack approximately 100 miles, but if it allowed us to continue on without further incident and expense, it was time well spent. The courteous folks at the DMV station helped Clayton with our dilemma and actually worked beyond the call of duty, helping Clayton to re-register his T as an antique automobile, allowing it to traverse the highways and byways within the long arm of the law. Lacking any external plates and a new, temporary registration residing in the windshield, we cruised our way through Mr. Mitchell’s jurisdiction without further incident.

Due to the unscheduled stop at the DMV, our plans of reaching the Idaho border before sunset was fading as fast as daylight itself. With careful recalibration, we settled into a hotel in Pendleton, Oregon, with plans to bonsai-run into Wendover on Friday to attend some of the nightlife scheduled for the beginning of the weekend.

Bonneville or Bust

We awoke on Friday, settled to the fact that we were early enough to ride in the cool air, up over the mountains just east of Pendleton. As Clayton began to ready the car for its first fire that day, the lights flickered and went cold. The battery was charged but the juice just wasn’t making it out of that black box under the seat. Many an electrical system has cut a road trip short. Clayton didn’t take chances and had upgraded his T’s wiring to a 12-volt system. He had installed fuses for safety and included a safety kill switch that wasn’t thought of when Ts were rolling off the assembly line in 1926. That new-fangled kill switch is where the problem started that morning. Somehow, over the night, some gremlins snuck under the seat of Clayton’s T and carboned-up the contacts. Now, in the early light of Pendleton, we were bypassing the switch so we could keep going. Safety becomes secondary when you absolutely, positively, need to get there by the next night. With a constant flow of ions, we were back on the road and heading up over the mountain range and into the high desert of eastern Oregon and Idaho.

A few hours later, one of our routine fuel stops turned into anything but, when we noticed the wide, original fan belt was finding a new position on the pulleys. Without any means for adjustment or positioning, it was obvious that something else had changed. That was due to a disintegrating fan pulley bushing. We tried to baby the bushing by injecting it with grease during our fuel stops. Even though Clayton’s T was sipping fuel at a rate around 26 to 28 mpg, the 10-gallon tank in the trunk kept us from really being more than a couple hundred miles from fuel. We also carried a few gas cans to make sure fuel was always handy, even if pumps weren’t. In spite of a frequent flow of lubricant, the bushing eventually gave up and Clayton unceremoniously cut the belt to stop the fan from spinning and potentially damaging the radiator or something else. The Model T’s cooling system doesn’t use a pump; instead, coolant is circulated by the hotter water rising to the top, pulling the cooler water in from underneath. Even though the water was still circulating as intended, when we came upon a construction zone and traffic came to a standstill, Clayton, in a move to protect his engine from the heat, veered off onto an exit ramp to keep air moving over the radiator. To protect ourselves, and Clayton’s engine, we rested in the shade of a tree to decide our next move.

Amid the heat of the midday sun and with dinnertime fast approaching, we knew that sitting and watching the traffic jam wasn’t in our best interest. The unpopular decision was made to locate a means to transport the car. Officer Mitchell was surely having a better day today, even if he didn’t clearly understand why. At this point, the car wound up on a trailer and by early the next morning, in the parking lot of the hotel in Wendover; so much for a ticker-tape parade as we entered town. Even so, it was late and we were happy to have a place to sleep, even if it was for only a few hours.

Alarms began ringing early in the hotel room the next morning, and everyone clamored for cell phones to somehow resume the silence that had recently been pierced by various buzzers, ringtones and rave-style midi files. As the sun rose over the horizon, we decided to head out for a reconnaissance run and to get the lay of the land. Clayton’s T was still fan-less so we loaded up in the truck for the run to the salt.

Driving on the Bonneville Salt Flats for the first time can be a religious experience. The history and sportsmanship that oozes from the wet, white surface can only be fully experienced first-hand. Having poured over vintage photos and read volumes on the cars and people that made history here only helped me find reference amid the reality of the experience. The vastness of the area cannot be conveyed in photos or words and hearing the sound of a high-winding engine from a distant black dot just over the horizon only drives home the size and scope of the entire course. A walk along the entire three miles of the pits centered along the long course also solidifies the size of the event, let alone the nine miles from the starting line to the final shut-down area.

On the Salt

We spent the first day looking at cars and meeting up with friends who knew of Clayton’s T and wondered where it was. Truth is, it was still residing in the hotel parking lot, awaiting the electric fan that Clayton picked up the day before. As the sun set behind the distant mountains, we headed back to the hotel to focus on getting the T running for tomorrow’s trip to the salt. An impromptu switch and wiring to the electric fan would help the T keep its cool and Clayton was soon tearing up the night, giving rides and sharing his car with fellow enthusiasts.

Our second day on the salt began, again with bells ringing and bodies flailing to silence the ringtones and cell phones. Once we gained our composure, we were headed for the hot, flat surface known as Bonneville. We rolled Clayton’s T out to the edge of the groomed surface to get a few pictures. That’s when it hit us. We began to understand why people make the trek to this venue every year. Seeing Clayton’s T there, a nice glaze of salt covering the tires, it was like all of the area’s history had somehow closed in all around us. We became aware of the importance of the T being here. The image of the T with the mountains in the background was only sweetened by the sound of the screaming cars heading down the salt in search of a possible new record. If a picture is worth a thousand words, living the experience can speak volumes.

It took less than a minute with the mountains in the background before throngs of enthusiasts appeared, wanting to take a better look at the T. Some had travelled as far away as Sweden and they were even aware of Clayton’s T from reading about it on the H.A.M.B., an online forum, filled with like-minded, traditional hot rod enthusiasts.

With the photos complete, we focused on the action unfolding in front of us. One of the great things about Bonneville is that there are relatively few “fences” between participants and spectators. Access is permitted where safely possible, with space being the major form of safety between the competing cars and spectators. There was never much space between spectators and Clayton’s T due to the ensuing crowd that gathered whenever he parked, and the even bigger crowd that appeared when he hand-started his T. That followed suit all the way to the impromptu car show where more crowds gathered around Clatyon’s T, right up until he headed down the road, leaving a crowd still conversing about him and his car.

The days began to flow together much like the salt begins to remove any reference of distance. Everything is coated with this white layer and before long, everything starts to flow together and all details are eliminated until your eyes focus on the mountains jutting out from the landscape miles away. We had another day on the salt before heading back home and we spent a larger portion of that day walking through the pits, speaking with both competitors and spectators and down at the starting line, where they push off the cars that eventually disappear between the mile markers, leaving only a rooster tail of salt and exhaust tunes.

This isn’t a sport that you buy into quickly. You can’t purchase years of experience, although some have tried, and the safest way to winning, or setting a record at incredibly high speeds, is to start slow. The vast and varied means by which teams try to go faster is amazing. There are teams utilizing the latest in aeronautical technologies to get the sharpest edge possible while others determine to use tried and true combinations to break records. We spoke with Joel Young, who is still using a Model T block in their streamliner to set a new V4F/BFS world record at 214.50 mph! The number of belly-tank speedsters was amazing and you can still see various roadsters tearing down the track in a blaze of salt spray and sound. Even in the midday heat, we were content to participate in the event, soaking in all of the sights and sounds as history rolled out before us until eventually, it was time to head back to the hotel for some food and well-deserved showers and sleep.

Headed Home

The day of our departure began with the usual bells and whistles but soon afterward, we were going over the little T, prepping it for its own little return record run. The engine had settled in on the drive down to Bonneville and some minor tweaking was done to tighten up the T’s operation. Clayton started by topping off all the oil levels, both engine/trans and in the Chicago overdrive while others paid attention to each of the all-but seven grease zerks sprinkled throughout the car’s chassis. Soon we were pulling ourselves up over the mountains outside of Wendover on our way back home. Along the way, the T passed the miles by spitting out some of the water and other liquids that it deemed excessive until all fluid levels were happily within operating range and temperature. As the miles rolled on by, the salt that adhered to Clayton’s T diminished until only the most persistent of chunks were still present. The grip it had on our hearts and minds was much stronger than it could ever bear on cold steel and rubber.

The T continued on, pouring used fuel and exhaust up and over every hill and through the sparse, parched stretches of desert in Nevada and Idaho. Even driving over the “improved” highways can be a desolate experience but, somehow, there never seemed to be a lack of admirers of the T. Many clicked off cell phone photos as they drove by or truckers tooted their horns in affirmation of Clayton’s craftsmanship. The work at many a construction site halted as workers gazed admiringly at Clayton’s T as it purred on through. The car simply exudes the coolness of a time gone by and while there are those who can’t understand it, most of the time, even the uninitiated, can grasp the thrill of driving an automobile like Clayton’s T.

Night in Impound

Soon enough, the miles wound down and we found ourselves saying our goodbyes as the team of T-sters would continue on to their nightly stop in Ontario, Oregon, and I would stay at a hotel near the airport in Boise, Idaho, finishing out my trip the next day in a tin sausage headed for home. As I spent an exciting evening clicking through channels on a hotel room TV, Clayton and company found themselves and the T located in the Ontario Police’s impound lot.

As they were pulling into the parking lot of the hotel, they were greeted by a gentleman who began asking if the T were for sale. Clayton declined several offers and the gentleman left, only to return driving a T of his own. The conversation continued and the gentleman pointed out several items on Clayton’s T that he felt was quite valuable, then he left. After evaluating the situation, a quick phone call to the local police department led to the offer of putting the T in the security of the impound lot for the evening. The next day, the team could simply pick it up and be on their way.

As they weaved their way home, someone noticed that one of the headlights was loose. One of the welds was letting go, so both headlights were removed to protect them. As the light began to fade around Multanomah Falls, they were forced to stop and reinstall their one good headlight to provide enough light to continue on the trip.

Through the thrill of layovers and flight-line dead time, Clayton and company would get home driving their Model T approximately five hours before my flight would land me home. Sure, I had further to go, but they were travelling 55, while I would surpass speeds of even the fastest cars found on the salt just days before, albeit at 30,000 feet.

The Next Chapter

I’ve been blessed to travel all over this vastly diverse country, most of it on four wheels. Each time I view the various mountain ranges, or the expansiveness of deserted areas, I can’t help but think back to the early settlers who tamed these areas with only one-horsepower coaches. To them, our Model T might have seemed like space-age technology, even though space was a place man wouldn’t conquer for over a 100 years later. The speed of even a stock T would be leaps and bounds above what they were used to and the mechanization of today’s travel would surely leave them in awe.

Many would grasp for the newer modes of transportation while others would cling to the tried and true forms they’re accustomed to. They might even ask why someone would want to continue using horse-drawn carriages. Progress would surely move on and with the advent of roads and such, cars would eventually dominate as the preferred mode of movement. Horses might eventually be outlawed, relegated to an earlier time and not welcome in the more modern age, maybe even deemed unsafe.

The reason that we still have cowboys and rodeos is because of those committed souls who still value the ways of a time gone by. They hold true to the traditions that formed this great country and they serve as a testament to what was possible if someone was up for the adventure, more than the amenities. Their story is ongoing. Without them, history would only be possible through books and photos of the past.

Clayton’s T writes a similar chapter in history, although a few pages beyond horses and horseless carriages. Just like them, it gives a third dimension to history and makes it real. Putting it in such a setting as Bonneville only serves to peg the cool meter and actually driving the car, even with the issues along the way, proves that modern amenities aren’t really necessary. So long as enthusiasts continue to pull back the sands of time for us to peer into, they prove the adventure isn’t necessarily hidden somewhere in an air-bagged, air-conditioned cabin — it’s out there on the road, and the path you’re on is much more important than the car you’re in.