I saw an old photo of Henry Ford driving a Model T on railroad tracks and I admit, I got a little excited. I know, that’s pretty transportation nerdy but that’s how I roll, pun intended. It wasn’t just the combination of trains and cars that piqued my interest, it was how the Model T rode on rails on what appeared to be its stock wheels, sans tires, with little else in the way of modifications.
Now, old Henry Ford the first was a bit of a tyrant, but history has cemented his reputation as a genius industrialist and persistent business man, perhaps plagued by an excess of hubris but seeing that photo blew my mind. Of course! A Model T riding on train tracks couldn’t have happened by accident. Henry Ford was onto something (no pun intended this time). The standard U.S. railroad track gauge (the distance between the rails) and the similar track width of the Model T surely must have been intentional.
Early in railroading, multiple gauges of track were in use and sometimes differed by country and even region but ultimately the U.S. settled on 4 feet, 8½ inches. That alone seems an odd dimension. Converted to centimeters that equals 143.51 so that can’t be the reason even though it’s the the same gauge that’s also used in Great Britain and Western Europe.
This led me down the Google rabbit hole through a dizzying plethora of sites attempting to explain the odd train track spacing. Most of the evidence points back to prolific railroad designer George Stephenson who was comfortable working with track layout dimensions based on a mine tramway of 4-feet-8. I guess the extra half-inch was thrown in for good measure.
Further digging revealed controversial evidence that archaeological excavations in Pompeii found the track width of Roman chariots was pretty close to the magic standard railroad gauge. Still, other historians dispute the finding for a variety of sundry reasons and conclude that the wagon track widths discovered near the dawn of time being consistent with the gauge of the railroad track running alongside the rec trail are mostly coincidence. Some kind of universal subliminal algorithm based on using similar sizes for similar purposes.
When my search for the origin of the odd railroad gauge proved inconclusive or maybe just too confusing, I turned back to Henry for some solace and to bring order to this transportation entropy. Surely his Model T wheel track width was chosen specifically for the purpose of turning an everyday road car into a railroad speeder when necessary and a brilliant solution to the muddy, rutted roads of the time.
But alas, while the width between the inside edges of the wheels of a Model T is 53½ inches, disappointingly coincidental but dimensionally suitable for the purpose of riding the rails, there are numerous other issues that would have had to have been addressed including but not limited to the fact that Model T wheels would have trouble producing enough friction to propel a lightweight automobile along the steel rails and once rolling, provided the wooden wheels didn’t wear down like a pencil in an angry sharpener, would have at least as much trouble stopping as going. And then there’s that nagging possibility of a train barreling down the same tracks.
It turns out Henry Ford did pay attention to the wheel track of his Model T but for a different reason that had to do with rutted roads. Railroads weren’t the only conveyances that took time to settle on a standard, farmers, too, had wagons of varying wheel track widths. Cotton bales in the south were wider than an average northern wagon would support so more appropriate southern wagons were employed which left correspondingly wider wheel ruts causing the Model T to ride with one wheel in the rut and one wheel on the higher crown of the road resulting in an unusual tilt.
Ford corrected this regional shortcoming in his Tin Lizzie by producing an optional Southern Roads or Wide Track version of the Model T from 1909 to 1917 that had a 4 inches wider wheel track and fenders that mirrored the increased stance.
It wasn’t the obscure automotive trivial answer I was hoping for but it was an interesting journey through the history of trains and automobiles. I still think it would have been cool if the Model T was designed to ride on railroad tracks.
Eric and Michelle Meltzer own and operate Fryeburg Motors, a licensed, full-service automotive sales and service facility at 299 Main St. in Fryeburg, Maine. More than a business, cars are a passion, and they appreciate anything that drives, rides, floats or flies.