Mikko Hirvonen likes Fords. And not just because he's paid to. Last year's World Rally Championship runner-up is a real Fordy, through and through. So, it came as no surprise that the Finn jumped at the chance to drive the Blue Oval's oldest of the old: the Model T.
Given that Hirvonen will be stepping aboard the Fiesta Super 2000, complete with some of Ford's latest technology, on this week's Monte Carlo Rally, I thought this a fitting time to remember a ride with him in the motor at the other end of Ford's chronological scale.
Mikko Hirvonen at the Heritage Workshop
Like I said, Mikko's Ford mad, so it was no surprise when I arrived at the Heritage Workshop in Dagenham that I couldn't find him. He, and team principal Malcolm Wilson, were both lying underneath cars gazing at the underside of a Ford Zephyr or something similar. They couldn't get enough of the place, but it was the Model T which had really caught their imagination.
Hirvonen was being taught the basics of driving the thing. He stepped aboard with a bewildered look on his face. Starting it wasn't his job, it was hand-cranked for him. When it fired up it sounded surprisingly gutsy for something built more than 100 years ago.
Sitting behind the big wooden wheel, Hirvonen was confronted by some degree of familiarity: paddles. Or the Edwardian take on paddles. What he actually had was a stick on either side of the wheel. On the left was a stick to retard the spark when the engine was turned over, to avoid it kicking back. On the right was the fever stick (no, not the handbrake), this one controlled the throttle. Mikko was, by this stage transfixed, and gagging to get going.
With the wheel done, it was down to the pedals - all three of them. But if the throttle was on the steering column, what was the right pedal for? It was the brake pedal. Excellent, for somebody whose left foot was made for braking, swapping back to the right in order to control a near priceless example of the first ever mass-produced motor car should be no problem at all.
For the first time, a moment of doubt appeared to cross Hirvonen's face. In an instant it was gone, he still needed to know about the other pedals: the middle one was a reversing pedal (obviously), while the one on the left was to engage the first forward gear.
He stepped on it. Gently. The car lurched forward and, with a bit more gas from the right hand, it eased past walking speed and into a jog. Out onto the perimeter road of Ford's Dagenham plant and Hirvonen, under instruction, grasped a lever by his left leg and pulled it back. He then took his left foot off the pedal and that was it, we'd gone from bottom gear to top gear in one motion. The earlier Model Ts only had two gears.
But by now, we had the wind in our hair and we were cruising along. And there, on the horizon, was a mountain to climb. It might have looked like a speed bump, but from the 100-year-old seat I was sitting in and the 55psi-pumped tyres we were all resting on, this looked like it could be mighty painful.
Hirvonen's right foot went into action as he slowed the car and then came the left foot as he knocked her down the only cog in the gearbox and bump, bump. We barely felt a thing. Back up the box, we were away again.
Mikko Hirvonen samples a Ford Model T
Returning to the workshop, Mikko was all smiles.
"It wasn't that difficult to drive, you just had to think about stopping," he said. "Stopping was probably the most difficult part, because it was quite unnatural to be using the right pedal for the brake. Getting going was no problem and the way she rode the bumps was amazing! I really wouldn't mind doing a journey in one of them, as long as it was in a warm place - but I wouldn't like to drive a rally in one of them."
With lunchtime approaching, we made a quick decision to bin the on-site mobile greasy spoon in favour of a much healthier option: Dagenham's golden arches. And, as we were going American for lunch, why not take one of America's oldest exports through the drive-thru. So we did.
We probably made history that day, for the first time ever, a Model T went to McDonalds and collected a Big Mac, milkshakes, fries, the works. On a car park more used to Cherry-Bombed Saxos and monster-alloyed 106s, there was a grudging respect for the T. Although I suspect some of the more automotively challenged members of the Daggers massive thought it was some sort of kit car.
Burgers on board, we made our way out of the car park and into the only moment of the day. In fairness, it wasn't really a moment for a man who has balanced his Focus on the edge of oblivion in Ouninpohja and levelled trees at 100mph in Japan. But going the wrong way down the one-way system in the middle of Dagenham was still to be avoided.
Luckily, Mikko realised the error of our way at the last moment and swung the motor around in a kind of early 20th century donut; I'm sure I detected more than a touch of understeer from the hideously thin covers we were running.
With lunch done, it was time to get more motoring done. Faced with the choice of a Lotus Cortina and a mental incarnation that mated a Formula 1 engine with a Transit Van, it's no wonder Mikko was in a rush to get through his Big Mac.
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