The Ford Model T has always held a certain fascination for Bob Bruso. Even before he retired from being the county clerk in Oneida County three years ago, he was talking about restoring his 1927 Fordor version. “It has always been my dream to restore a Model T,” he said. “I think they are great cars and they bring back a lot of memories for me.”
Those memories started when Bob was just a youngster growing up in Rhinelander. His dad, Bill, bought a Model T speedster as a young man and drove it for a long time. After many years it ended up in Grandpa’s barn gathering dust. That is until Bob and his brother Joe, pulled it out and began restoring the vehicle when they were teenagers. “Joe still has it and it runs like a top,” said Bob. “After restoring that car I’ve always wanted one.”
Then a few years back Bob bought a rough looking Fordor Model T. Its windshield was cracked and the body needed considerable repair. He stripped the entire car of its parts and today it is still a work in progress.
But last year Bob got a special gift in the form of a 1917 touring Model T. He was getting ready to attend the big car show in Iola, and casually mentioned to his wife Sarah, that there was an auction in Three Lakes that featured a couple of Model Ts. “I told her she should go to that auction and bid on a Model T,” laughed Bob. “I never thought she would actually do it.”
But Sarah and the couple’s daughter did attend the auction, and Sarah bought Bob his touring model. “We were coming home from Iola and my daughter called and told me to go get my trailer because Mom bought a car,” he said. “I was shocked but I thought it was just great.”
While Bob spends many hours in his garage working on his Fordor, his new Model T actually runs and this has opened the door for lots of adventures on the road. Bob is a member of the Dairyland Tin Lizzies Club which has about 50 members. It is centered in southeastern Wisconsin and members often go on day tours, driving the back roads through some of Wisconsin’s most beautiful scenery.
Before Sarah bought Bob’s touring Model T the pair would often hitch a ride with other enthusiasts including their sons Kevin and Dan, who have acquired the Model T bug from their Dad, and also own several different models. But with Bob’s new acquisition, he can now participate as a full- fledged driver and that has inspired him to coordinate a Tin Lizzie tour of northern Wisconsin, the first ever of its kind.
The Model T Ford was the invention of Henry Ford and this machine alone sparked the beginning of a completely new infrastructure for the United States. Ford’s goal was to manufacture an automobile that the average Joe could afford and it had to be tough and reliable as paved roads were non-existent. He also realized he had to build a machine that would change the minds of Americas who were used to horses and buggies as a way of transportation. He even made the width between the tires 50 inches, the exact measurement between the runners on sleighs. “That way cars could travel down the ruts which stayed in the roads even when the weather dried out,” explained Bob.
While Ford created many different types of Model Ts, including a one ton truck, his goal was to keep the vehicles utilitarian and affordable. This was made possible by his innovation of the assembly line, which upped production considerably. By 1918, half of the cars in the U.S. were Model Ts.
Despite the fact that many Tin Lizzies are closing in on their 100th birthday, they are not a rarity. While their under carriages are made of steel, the bodies are wood frames covered with tin, making them comparatively light. This construction also deterred their demise during the world wars from being melted down for scrap metal to make bombs. There are still plenty of these cars around, many still collecting dust in barns and sheds across America.
But Bob’s touring Model T car is as shiny and pristine as the day it came off the production line. Riding down the back roads of northern Wisconsin is quite a thrill in this car. While this vehicle was a big leap as far as transportation goes in the early 1900s, it is simply made with hardly any of the frills vehicles sport today.
For instance, it doesn’t have a driver’s door, turn signals, a gas gauge or a speedometer. The front seat has to be pulled up to access the gas tank and the tube tires look like they could have come off a bicycle. “They are legal on the road because that’s the original way these cars were made,” said Bob.
Starting it is also an adventure. While it has a rudimentary key, the car’s ignition is Bob, who has to crank a handle to get the four cylinder engine humming. The top speed of this vehicle is about 30 miles per hour and it gets about 20 miles to the gallon.
And that’s just perfect for Bob who can be frequently seen driving his car to do errands around Rhinelander. But what he is really looking forward to is The Hodag “T” Tour which will take place Aug. 30 through Sept. 2. There are already 11 cars signed up and the group will headquarter at the Claridge Days Inn in downtown Rhinelander. They will take off early Saturday morning on one leg of their tour.
The itinerary includes driving through Lake Tomahawk; visiting the snowmobile museum in St. Germain; lunch at the Sayner Pub; a stop in Eagle River at the Ford dealership for photos; a visit to the Petroleum Museum in Clearwater; visiting the winery in Three Lakes and then on to Cross Country in Sugar Camp for supper. “I’m hoping we can get all this in before dark,” said Bob. “The lights on these cars are sort of primitive. The early models have kerosene lamps so they don’t give off much of a shine.”
The next day these enthusiasts will be seen heading toward Starks where they will visit Kovac’s Planetarium; lunch in Crandon and then a visit to the Mecikalski Stovewood House in Jennings. Right now Bob and Sarah are busy planning the route and documenting every turn and mileage stretch along the way. “These cars are pretty reliable but sometimes we have a break down and then everyone stops and helps,” he said. “We all stick together on these tours.”
It’s evident that Bob is truly enjoying his well deserved retirement with both his Model Ts, but it’s also true that these vehicles are connecting him to like minded enthusiasts and family members, and paving the way for plenty of adventures ahead. “There’s just nothing like riding in one of these cars,” he said. “It’s a hobby I really, really enjoy.”