ST. PETERSBURG — Scott Conger's cars are as much about social networking and history as transportation. The St. Petersburg resident is president of the Suncoast Model T Club and owns three of the classics.
"Meeting people on the road is one of the biggest joys of driving a Model T," Conger said. "Older folks will flag you down and tell you how their father or grandfather had a Model T."
About 250,000 of the 15 million Model T automobiles that would eventually come off Henry Ford's assembly line starting in 1914 on are on the road, driven by aficionados worldwide. Some 45,000 of those drivers are members of either the Model T Club of America or the Model T Club International. These drivers tour the country in their antique vehicles, waving to well-wishers as they chug along country roads at a max of 35 mph.
Driving a Model T feels like pumping an old organ, said Conger, 55, a St. Petersburg systems engineer for Honeywell.
"Your feet are constantly doing something until you get up to speed," Conger said. "Then you just sit back and enjoy the ride."
He bought his first Model T six years ago — a touring car, an open car that seats four or five people. He now owns that one and two traditional roadsters. The roadster, also an open car, has a small trunk, fold-down top and a single seat that can hold two passengers.
Conger keeps one car in a storage facility, one in a friend's garage, and one in his own garage, where he is currently doing a bit of restoration.
"Scott does everything himself," said his wife, Althea, who said she relishes taking trips in the Model T with her husband. "He restores, fixes and maintains every part of the cars."
Conger enjoys that work so much, she said, that he runs a side business of restoring others' Model T cars.
The couple typically takes their car out each summer. They've been through the Black Hills in South Dakota, the byways of Minnesota, and hope in the months ahead to tour Vermont.
While most trips have gone smoothly, Conger has had a few mishaps. Finding a helping hand, though, is not hard. Conger said he looks up the closest club member in a given state and usually gets help fast.
"No automobile collectible society in the world has this level of camaraderie," he said. "When you are in trouble another club member will knock himself out to help you."
His wife also has joined the ranks of Model T enthusiasts.
"It's such a different pace from your normal life," she said of their trips. "You go slow on back roads and watch life go by."
The Model T has some distinguishing features that long ago succumbed to more efficient, streamlined designs. Typically made of sheet metal nailed to a wooden structure, the T takes practice to drive. Three pedals on the floor allow the driver to go forward, backward, or stop. On the steering column is a lever to accelerate. In addition to the roadster and the larger touring car, a third Model T, the sedan, has an enclosed body, solid top and either two or four doors.
One of the few updates Conger has given his cars involved changing the original plate glass on windshields to safety glass. Other than that, he said he isn't keen on changing anything.
"Mechanically my original car is ready to drive across the country," he said. "It won't win any awards on appearance but we aren't worried about the paint finish."
Those interested in buying a Model T will probably pay between $8,000 and $30,000, depending on the model and the rarity of the car.
The original cars, those made between 1908 and 1913, were handmade one at a time with a low level of production. These have particular value. At the start of World War I, Henry Ford began mass production of the Model T and millions of cars hit the roads.
"Henry Ford put the world on wheels," said Conger, echoing a popular phrase of years gone by.
For those not interested in buying a car there is still room for enjoying the ride.
"For $35 a year you can join either the Model T Club of America or the Model T Club International," Conger said, noting that the Suncoast chapter is a member of both. The Suncoast chapter has about 35 members, including residents from Pasco, Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, as well as a few members from out of state. Fees for this local branch are $10 a couple per year.
For Althea Conger the motor trips in the Model T conjure images of time long gone.
"You can sit back and imagine what life was like for your grandparents or great-grandparents," she said.