Classic makes A-list

By Philip Morgan, Times Correspondent

Published Wednesday, April 15, 2009

TAMPA — The phone book is full of modern car repair garages. Ray Anderson's, however, is stuck in the early 1930s. • The South Tampa resident is a mechanic of the past. • He specializes in Model A Fords, which came off the assembly line by the millions from late 1927 through 1931. Though his card reads, "Ray Anderson, Model A Repairs,'' he's not really open for business.

He's the treasurer and go-to guy for the New Florida Region Model A Restorers Club, with about 130 members from across the Tampa Bay area. They go on tours, host get-togethers and auto shows. Some of their cars were showcased during the Historic Hyde Park Home Tour this year.

Anderson usually has two or three of the classic beauties in his Oakellar Avenue driveway. The blue 1930 coupe with the rumble seat is his; the others await his attention.

A modern mechanic would diagnose a problem by hooking a car up to a computer.

"On these cars, you hook it up to your ear,'' says Anderson, 78. "And if it's just not running right, it doesn't sound right, you've got to do something.''

A New Jersey native and former service station owner, Anderson bought his first used Model A in 1948 for $48. He has lost track of the number he collected and sold over the years, but figures it's around 50.

"The car's 70 years old and still going,'' he says, explaining his fascination. "You've got to like it.''

On a recent morning in Anderson's driveway, fellow Model A club member Mike Rabaut fixed brakes on a club member's car as Anderson sat in a nearby chair. Complications during knee replacement surgery mean he can no longer crawl under cars, so, as Rabaut says, "I'm the horizontal guy and he's the vertical guy.''

Rabaut, who teaches computer programming at Hillsborough Community College, owns two Model As. He admires the simple design and solid construction.

"I think if GM started building cars like Henry Ford did, GM wouldn't be in trouble right now,'' he says.

As the pair worked on a 1931 sedan, Anderson leaned over the fender's elegant curve and folded back the hood.

"Everything's very simple,'' he says, pointing out each part of the four-cylinder engine — the spark plugs, distributor, water pump, carburetor, oil filter, gas filter, exhaust manifold. "It's all right there in front of you.''

The engine of Anderson's coupe is a duplicate, with one special addition — a horn-shaped device that hooks up to the intake manifold and works by vacuum. Pull a wire inside the car and it sounds a wolf whistle, the shrill flirt fresh guys employed when they saw a pretty flapper walking down the street. It was a common accessory when the cars were new. "You could buy it at Western Auto,'' Anderson says, referring the now-defunct popular auto parts business.

The instrument panel is uncluttered, displaying just the speedometer, amp meter, gas gauge and ignition. Anderson has modified his by adding oil pressure and water temperature gauges below.

The stick shift — three forward gears and reverse — is on the floor, next to the emergency brake. Right next to the small round accelerator is a foot rest. It keeps the driver's shoe on the gas when the car hits a bump. One of the few flaws of the Model A was its terrible shock absorbers, Anderson says.

One lever on the column adjusts the spark timing. Another is the hand throttle, in effect an early form of cruise control. It keeps the gas pedal depressed when the driver has to go outside and crank the engine by hand. That usually wasn't necessary, since electric starters were standard in Fords when the Model A came out.

The gas tank is located behind the dashboard, which seems a bit dangerous.

"Only in an accident,'' Rabaut says dryly.

When the Ford Model A came off the line, it sold for under $500. At peak production in the middle of 1930, Anderson says, Henry Ford's plants around the world were turning out 20,000 of them a day. Now, the average Model A in good condition will cost the collector from $15,000 to $18,000. The Model A Ford Phaeton, a luxury convertible sedan, could run $28,000 to $30,000.

Rabaut loves the classy lines of the Model A. The old Ford catches the eye, he says. "They say when you drive a Model A, you're always on parade.''

Starting Anderson's coupe is a bit more complicated than turning a key.

Anderson flips a switch that turns on the gas, pushes the left column lever up to retard the spark, turns on the key, pulls out the choke, then depresses the starter. When the engine comes to life, he pushes the choke in and advances the spark so that it's in perfect timing with the pistons. In moments, he hears the engine's familiar idle — "pucketa-pucketa-pucketa-pucketa…''

"No other car in the world makes that noise,'' he says.

A spin around the neighborhood causes passing motorists to rubberneck. Pretty soon, the Ford is cruising along at 35 mph. Top safe speed is about 45 mph — safe for the Model A, that is.

"It could do probably 75 miles an hour for maybe a mile,'' Anderson says. "Then you'd have to put another engine in the car.

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