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Arts & Life

For these Kansas City Model T lovers, the best smell in the world is '100-year-old grease — hot'

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Julie Denesha
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KCUR
Gary Blakely takes the first spin with Rick Taylor in the running Model TT truck.

Henry Ford’s first Model T rolled off the assembly line in 1908, ushering in the age of the automobile and becoming a symbol of America's modernization. By 1927 he'd built more than 15 million cars and trucks . In Kansas City, the KC Chuggers are dedicated to keeping these old Fords running.

The sun is blazing overhead and a group of men are working beneath the shade of a tree, hunched over the engine of a truck. It’s a 1925 Model TT, to be exact. These guys are members of the KC Chuggers, a Model T club, who have gathered in Bucyrus, Kansas, to get it running again.

Industrialist Henry Ford based the one-ton Model TT on the Model T, but with a longer wheelbase and a heavier frame. Back in 1917, you could buy one for $600, and many were used on farms in the Midwest. This truck spent almost four decades buried in a garage just outside Topeka.

"My buddy was a hoarder and he piled so many boxes around this, it was like in a time capsule,” says owner Rick Taylor.

Taylor spent months cleaning it up. When he couldn’t get it started, he asked the KC Chuggers to step in.

Taylor's truck was used to haul grain on a farm somewhere in Kansas.

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Julie Denesha
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From left: Nikolaus Martin, Rick Taylor and Bob Pressly work on Taylor's 1925 Model TT. Trucks like this one were used on farms in the Midwest. This one's in such good shape that it might never have seen heavy use.  Almost everything about it is original, from the painted pinstripes on the wooden truck bed to the sheet metal cab out front.

"The top speed on this is only 22 miles an hour, but before this truck, you would have had horse-drawn wagons," Taylor says. "Their top speed was two or three, maybe. So this was a vast improvement.”

Trucks like this were run hard, but this one's in such good shape that it might never have seen heavy use. Almost everything about it is original, from the painted pinstripes on the wooden truck bed to the sheet metal cab out front.

Taylor’s come to the right place. Nikolaus Martin’s workshop is stocked with many of the tools mechanics used more than a century ago. Martin says he enjoys the camaraderie on days like this.

“It’s interesting us for us to dig in and work on things that we haven't worked on before,” Martin says. “See how somebody else approaches the same problem that we've come across, talk about what we've done, and really just get together and drink coffee and tinker.”

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Julie Denesha
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Rick Taylor spent months cleaning up his Model TT truck. When he couldn't get it started, he asked the KC Chuggers to help him out.

Martin spends a lot of time in his shop working on his own Model T Runabout. It was restored in 1954 to drive in Topeka's Centennial Parade.

“The Model T was made for really rough roads, if roads at all," Martin says. "So the frame is really flexible. If you drive over a curb all four wheels are on the ground. It's not the springs in the axles flexing. It's the whole frame front to back. It's a mountain goat of a car, really”

When working on a truck like this, Martin says, you take it slow.

“We want to get it started and running and driving, but we also want to do that safely,” he explains. “It's so that we don't harm anything because it's only original once and you'd hate to damage something that's lasted this long.”

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Julie Denesha
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From left: Pressly, Gary Blakely and John Dow hang out in Martin's workshop discussing the challenges of the wooden-spoked tires common to Model Ts.

Up until 1925, customers could only buy a chassis, which was the engine and the hood and the wheels. Then you had to have the beds and the bodies made. Many were built by mill shops. Because Taylor’s truck is so pristine, it still has the builder's plate that identifies the mill. With a little research, Taylor traced it back to a mill in Seneca, Kansas. The company built bodies for fire trucks, express wagons and farm trucks.

Taylor says he plans to take his truck to the Seneca Car Show in July.

After a morning of work, Taylor steps in to try to get the engine going. Like all of the early Model Ts, TTs are started with a hand crank. After so many years spent sitting idle in a garage, and with a cold engine, the crank is tough for Martin to turn.

After a few difficult turns, there’s a sound of mechanical buzzing as if an electrical current is looking for a spark, but no luck.

Bob Pressly stops working on the tire he’s changing to take a look. Pressly says he likes to take things step by step.

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Julie Denesha
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A club member chats with Nikolaus Martin (right) about his 1925 Runabout. Martin says it was restored in the early 1950s to exhibit in the Topeka Centennial Parade.

Club president Frank Kelley says the KC Chuggers is a small group packed with a lot of experience. But some of the original members are getting older.

“You know, we used to have 25, 30 at a meeting prior to COVID, but in addition to the COVID, we've lost a lot to death,” Kelley says. “And our membership is down. But the encouraging thing is we're getting some new, younger people in.”

Kelley likes to drive the cars he restores. He takes them on cross country group tours where they travel back roads and take in the scenery at a slower pace. He says many of the cross country drivers thrive on the challenge on-the-road repairs.

“People carry spare parts and water and they almost hope for somebody to break down so they can stop and fix it," Kelley says. "You've never seen so many butts in the air. People bent over working on them. They're simple enough that you can usually get them going.”

They try cranking Taylor's TT again, and this time the engine kicks in and the guys let out a whoop.

“Best smell in the world: 100-year-old grease — hot," Taylor says. "It runs.”

Frank Kelley says he knew his guys would get the truck running again.

“Look at the grin on that guy,” he says with a laugh. “It is very rewarding to see these old cars come back to life and to be in the shape that one is in — just wonderful.”

The reward is a chance to take it for a spin. Taylor hops in, backs out of the driveway and heads out on the gravel road.

You can meet the KC Chuggers and see Rick Taylor's Model TT truck at the Model T Meet and Greet Saturday, June 18 from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Kansas City Auto Museum, 15095 W 116th St, Olathe, Kansas (in the event of rain, the event may be postponed).

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