For many Americans, the glorious annual kick off of summer — Memorial Day weekend — means jumping in a car.
For a small handful of folks in Hood River, Oregon, it means jumping in a car and jumping back in time 100 years.
Welcome to the Model T driving school.
It might be the only driving school of its kind, hosted by a museum that may be one of Oregon’s least-known treasures.
The Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum sits on the plateau above the town of Hood River at the small municipal airport, just off a twisting two-lane road. I drove by it for years without taking notice of the large, plain, industrial-style building clad in white metal with big block letters that read simply: WAAAM MUSEUM.
Then, on one of those drives, I noticed the slip-in letters of the roadside marquee read: “LEARN TO DRIVE A MODEL T.”
Some, like me, would read that and shout, “Heck yes! Sign me up!”
Others, I’m sure, would say, “What is a Model T?”
If you don’t know a Model T by name, you’d certainly recognize it by sight. It’s that small old-timey automobile with four big, skinny wheels. It bounces down a road and looks like a horse-drawn carriage minus the horses. It putters, lurches through its gears and leans wildly around curves.
It was the masterpiece of Henry Ford, launching both the Ford Motor Company and the concept of the assembly line. From 1908 until 1927, the Ford factories rolled out some 15 million Model Ts. The design was deliberately simple, keeping the Model T’s price within the reach of America’s growing middle class. It was the car, folks said, that “taught America how to drive.”
Each summer Hood River's antique car and plane museum puts on its Model T driving school. It’s a one-day experience, offered a half-dozen times from late spring to early fall. They open only 10 spots per session that often fill quickly with antique car aficionados from across the country (and in this case, one reporter who never grew out of a boyhood love of vintage cars and planes).
But the Model T driving school is just one program of a much larger museum of cars and planes, gathering together a community that is devoted to making history "hands on."
‘We’re Not Small’
When you first walk into the museum, you find a gift shop, not unlike other small museums. In the mornings, a handful of regular volunteers sip coffee, munch on doughnuts, and swap stories of their favorite topic: old planes and old cars. The scene hardly prepares a visitor for what they are about to experience as they push through the double doors into the exhibition area.
“WAAAM is the acronym of our name,” explained Stephanie Hatch, the museum's assistant director, “but it's also kind of the experience you get when you walk in the door — it's just like, wham!”
Stepping through the doors, you are suddenly inside a massive airplane hangar. It feels large enough to house a modern commercial jet. If it were empty, you could easily play indoor soccer. But it’s far from empty. Inside are rows upon rows of antique planes.
They are parked wingtip to wingtip and between them are dozens of antique cars, bumper to bumper.
Hatch led me down the first row. “There are at least a hundred planes in here,” she said with a causal flip of her wrist.
Then we stepped into an adjoining hangar, just as large and just as jammed full of antique cars and airplanes.
And then another.
Most commercial real estate is measured in square feet; WAAAM's indoor exhibition area is measured in acres — 3.55 acres to be exact.
Or for a more urban comparison, if the museum was in downtown Portland, it would cover nearly four city blocks.
WAAAM's collection of antique airplanes on display surpasses the number showcased by the world-famous Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, the small museum in Hood River,’" said Jay Matson Bell, the museum’s head of airplane restoration. “It's like, no, we're not small!”
A ‘Living’ Museum
The Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum is more than just a display of old cars and planes. You can tell it's different by its smell. It smells like a mechanic shop, with pungent whiffs of motor oil, gaskets and gasoline.
“Folks that have old cars of their own or have restored cars, it takes them right back to grandpa's garage and to that yesteryear time, because it smells right,” Hatch said.
“We call this a living museum, because everything is alive here,” said museum founder Terry Brandt. “All of our automobiles are running, all of our airplanes flying, our motorcycles run. Even the unrestored stuff pretty much has to fire up and run in order to be in here.”
Brandt’s passion for planes and cars started when he was just a boy.
As he grew up, Brandt began meeting farmers who had treasures stashed away in their barns.
“And you know what a farmer does when they get around to buying the next automobile?” Brandt said. “They put the old one in the barn.”
For decades, Brandt hauled home old cars and boxes full of airplane parts. He called these "barn finds."
Eventually, Brandt ran out of space. In 2007, he started WAAAM with 42 airplanes that could fly and another 32 planes still in pieces. He invited others to add their vintage planes, cars and motorcycles. The collection quickly took off.
Today, the there’s an entire hangar jammed with parts he collected over the years. It’s a warehouse of tall shelves, with boxes of gears and shafts, wooden propellers and fuselage frames, just waiting for willing hands to bring them back to life.
‘Back To Original’
One of WAAAM’s few full-time employees, Matson Bell, works in the restoration shop. When he was 5, he built his first model plane from toilet paper tubes and empty vitamin bottles. “It kinda looked like an airplane,” Matson Bell said with a chuckle. When he was 8, he saw a video about the Smithsonian airplane restoration program. “That’s what I want to do,” he decided. He’s now the head of the restoration shop and oversees a team of regular volunteers.
Most of the volunteers are retirees. Many of them, having spent careers as pilots or airplane mechanics, enjoy putting their former job skills to the challenge of assembling thousands of pieces into airworthy planes.
Sometimes they can work off of a schematic from a tattered service manual. Most times, they have to refer to another similar plane from the same manufacturer and year, or simply guess. And in some cases, they are missing original parts and must machine replica parts from raw metal.
The older gentlemen have a dapper look from the bygone era, hair neatly barbered and smoothed back with pomade. They are like kindly grandfathers and uncles to the younger Matson Bell, teaching him from their lifetime experience. And Matson Bell, trained as an airplane restoration specialist, has plenty to teach them.
“Jay's a great historian, and he's got all of this stuff down,” said Ron Wilkin, a volunteer. “That guy has so much knowledge about antique airplanes, and when they put one together, it's back to original!”
They'd been working on a 1937 plane all afternoon. At last, they rolled it outside to see if the engine would fire up. After a dozen puttering false starts, the engine coughed blue smoke and then roared to life. A once silent mass of metal was now vibrating, straining against the wheel chokes, as if ready to leap into the wide open sky.
Rattling Off Into Space
The museum has about half a dozen Model Ts and Model As from the early days of Ford. That makes an antique-car driving school a perfect fit. It’s one thing to see history on display, arranged neatly behind a row of stanchions; it’s a giddy feeling to unclip the stanchion and roll a display piece right out the museum's door.
Pushing the old car forward, it was no longer simply a visual curiosity; I felt the weight of it. I heard the rubber tires squeak on the polished concrete until they rolled onto grass into the bright summer sunlight.
To get behind the wheel is, literally, to touch history. But first, you have to climb in via the passenger side. There's no door on the driver's side.
To start a Model T, by today's push-button standards, feels complicated. My instructor, Steve Roberts, walked me through it, though the terms seemed so archaic he might as well have been explaining how to program a VCR or call a square dance.
It went something like this: Pull the choke while engaging the crank lever under the radiator, giving it a quarter-turn clockwise to prime the carburetor. Then switch the key to magneto or battery, adjust the timing lever upward to retard the timing, push the throttle lever downward to an idle setting. Then pull back the hand brake to put the transmission in neutral. That was the easy part.
With the key on, the electrical system buzzed — like it was irritated and wanted me to hurry up and get the engine started.
Next, I stood in front of the car and reached down to grasp the infamous hand crank, infamous because if I cranked it and the engine backfired, the recoil could've broken my arm (as several early owners of Model Ts discovered).
Cautiously, I cranked. The engine turned, puttered for a few beats and conks.
To engage the handle, I had to push in as I yanked up. I tried again. The spring of the handle slipped. "Whoops," I laughed, embarrassed.
With another try, the small engine came to life. "Whooo-hoo!" I shouted. A victory.
But then came the hardest challenge yet: learning to drive. I know how to drive a standard stick shift — that was not the issue. A Model T is anything but standard.
When the Ford Model A replaced the Model T in 1927, the driving controls had been standardized to what we know today. If you can drive a stick shift, you can drive a Model A.
The T is its own story.
I pushed the transmission lever forward into low, pressed the left pedal to engage the clutch, while simultaneously pulling down the level by the steering wheel to increase the gas. The car lurched forward and stalled.
I tried again and this time got the coordination of hands, feet, pedals and levers.
The Model T leapt forward.
The original engines were only four small cylinders, pumping out about 20 horsepower — equivalent to today’s riding lawn mowers.
“These old cars, they might not go very fast,” Hatch explained. “You're only going like 10 miles per hour down the road, but you feel like you're rattling off into space!”
Suddenly it seemed like the Model T was racing ahead by its own will, like a horse that's been too long in a stall and just wants to gallop. As the Model T rattled along the grass, it bucked, bouncing me and the instructor on the small leather seat.
To crank the steering wheel was a hand-over-hand effort.
The car leaned wildly as I hooked a turn. The Ford’s axles worked independently, letting it twist and bounce — a deliberate design for the days when most American roads were rutted wagon tracks. It was the original off-road vehicle.
I couldn't help but laugh with glee. Like a kid.
Personal Time Machine
When I was 10, my parents took us to visit the Smithsonian. In the National Air and Space Museum, I saw the famous Spirit of St. Louis, the Bell X-1 rocket-powered aircraft, and the Apollo 11 space capsule. I wanted to climb into the cockpits of each. I felt if I could just reach out and touch them, to sit where Chuck Yeager sat as he first broke the sound barrier, or to touch the yoke that Charles Lindbergh held during his solo flight across the Atlantic, or to strap myself in like Buzz Aldrin when he blasted from Earth toward the moon, that somehow I could feel with just a little more empathy what it might have been like at that moment in history and, in a way, take with me a little bit of that indomitable spirit.
“That's the closest you will be to that point in history,” Hatch said. “To actually be in it, experience it, see it, touch it, smell it. You can get in your own personal time machine and jump back. You can get and access that, still.”