WWI Model T Ambulance

Restoration or Re-creation?
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by David Williams

 During the Great War, thousand of Ford Model Ts served as ambulances for the American Expeditionary Forces and their allies in Europe and North Russia. Sadly, very few survived. Remarkably, a talented crew using computers, original photos, and drawings are able to recreate these gallant war horses. John Adams-Graf collection

During the Great War, thousand of Ford Model Ts served as ambulances for the American Expeditionary Forces and their allies in Europe and North Russia. Sadly, very few survived. Remarkably, a talented crew using computers, original photos, and drawings are able to recreate these gallant war horses. John Adams-Graf collection

It seems that when Dick Mastin sees an unloved, unfinished, military vehicle, he just can’t resist the challenge. This time, the challenge came in the form of a derelict Model T chassis such as the type used for thousands of ambulance during WWI. And, in this case, I use the term “derelict” generously.

When it arrived on the trailer, it was supposed to be a “rolling chassis.” And while it did roll off the trailer, that was only because the keyways between the axle and the wooden spoke wheels had no keys in them! In reality, the drive train — including the engine — was completely frozen from rust and grime.

 All model T ambulances were built on a standard automotive chassis — not a truck. This was done to simplify the supply chain of parts to the troops serving overseas.

All model T ambulances were built on a standard automotive chassis — not a truck. This was done to simplify the supply chain of parts to the troops serving overseas.

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This story will start from the ground and work its way up — just the way Dick and his crew tackled the project.

The wheels, while they looked somewhat passable, had to have the old rubber tires cut off the rims. The rubber had grown to the metal outer ring! Once the rubber had been removed, it was obvious that the wheels would be only good as a pattern for making new ones. Fortunately, we are in an area where there are many Amish buggy makers. They did an excellent job of copying the originals.

 The remnants of the original wheels were used for patterns to make reproductions. Skilled buggy makers in an Amish community produced these beauties.

The remnants of the original wheels were used for patterns to make reproductions. Skilled buggy makers in an Amish community produced these beauties.

 Teamwork was required to remove the one hundred year-old tires from the rims. Don Schaffer (left) and Bruce Blankenship (right) demonstrate that this is far from a “pit stop tire change!”

Teamwork was required to remove the one hundred year-old tires from the rims. Don Schaffer (left) and Bruce Blankenship (right) demonstrate that this is far from a “pit stop tire change!”

The engine was frozen and turned out to be unusable. We had to find a replacement. Because it would not be an original, we took the opportunity to make several minor changes, such as an electric starter. Dick just didn’t feel that a broken wrist from a hand crank kicking back would add to the vehicles’ originality. For appearances sake, a crank starter handle was installed, however.

 When we discovered that the engine had bent valves, stuck pistons, and broken parts, it was decided it would be easier to replace it than fix it.

When we discovered that the engine had bent valves, stuck pistons, and broken parts, it was decided it would be easier to replace it than fix it.

Next, the drive train and chassis had to be completely disassemble, cleaned, and repaired where necessary.

So much for the easy stuff. Now, we asked ourselves, “Where do we get a body for a 1916 vintage ambulance?” The answer became obvious: “You make it yourself.” More accurately, you find someone with the computer savvy to scale up drawings or photographs for every single board in the wooden body.

Ted Mathias provided the necessary computer savvy to accomplish this, using a three-dimensional cad design computer program. This was an incredibly painstaking task over many hours to “break” the body down into its individual boards

 After Amish artisans cut all the boards, we had to assemble the hundreds of pieces into a recreated ambulance body. Here, Larry Baswell (second from left), Don Schaffer (center), and Ted Mathias (right) are seen here assembling the body parts.

After Amish artisans cut all the boards, we had to assemble the hundreds of pieces into a recreated ambulance body. Here, Larry Baswell (second from left), Don Schaffer (center), and Ted Mathias (right) are seen here assembling the body parts.

With the plans for the body completed, we had to find someone to cut the hundreds of boards to proper shapes and sizes. Once again, the Amish woodworkers provided the necessary skills.

Of course, having the wood cut into the many pieces was only one skirmish in the grand battle. It was time to put away the automotive tools and take out the wood working tools. Larry Baswell, a retired maintenance worker and accomplished woodworker, was available to help on this part of the project.

 Dick Mastin makes adjustments to the new engine with much of the body already in place.

Dick Mastin makes adjustments to the new engine with much of the body already in place.

If all this sounds time consuming, be assured, it is. But, once the last board was in place, it was off to the paint shop. The trick was finding a shop that knows how to work with both automotive metal and wood painting.

In the course of restoration of the Model T ambulance, other vehicles came into the next bay in the shop for work, from time to time. Seeing these newer (WWII to Vietnam) era vehicles next to the “T” impressed me with just how fragile and lightly constructed these early WWI vehicles really were. For example, just the injector pump for a 5-ton tractor is nearly the size of the Model T’s engine.

 After many, many hours, the drive train started to look much better.

After many, many hours, the drive train started to look much better.

 With the chassis taking shape, it was time to start thinking about the body. We would have to put away our automotive tools and take out the woodworking ones!

With the chassis taking shape, it was time to start thinking about the body. We would have to put away our automotive tools and take out the woodworking ones!

It must have been a real leap of faith to trust your life to these early vehicles as they jostled and bounced their way down the almost nonexistent road ways of the time.

At the time of this writing, the last details, such as storage boxes and seats are being added to this rare vehicle. It will be a real treat to see this historic vehicle running after more than a century since its type first served as the lifeline for so many doughboys on the fields of France during the Great War.

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 Back from the paint shop, the Model T looks like one of the thousands that were shipped to the allies in France during the First World War.

Back from the paint shop, the Model T looks like one of the thousands that were shipped to the allies in France during the First World War.