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Vintage Four-Wheeling

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Jim Allen | Writer
Posted October 1, 2005

Livin' Good: Trail testing a 1921 Livingood Model-T conversion.

When the opportunity comes to 'wheel or observe a new or unusual 4x4, most of us at Four Wheeler can't resist the temptation. So it was when Frank Piskur offered this writer a chance to play with his recently acquired 1921 Model-T Depot Hack with a Livingood four-wheel-drive conversion.

You may have read the Livingood story in the May 2002 Four Wheeler, but we'll recap a fraction of the story here. Jesse F. Livingood began marketing a four-wheel-drive conversion for Ford Model-Ts in 1914 and continued through 1928, with a few built later. Livingood's son, Jesse Livingood II, began recreating the kits in the 1980s using his dad's blueprints and tooling. Later, he started selling a few kits per year to Model-T owners looking for something different.

The 177ci Model-T engine was a marvel when it appeared in 1908. It was one of the first mass-produced engines to have a one-piece block with a top-mounted cylinder head. This became the pattern that has lasted to today. Many old engines have cylinders bolted to the crankcase and heads integral with the cylinders, and sometimes they even had crankcases built of multiple parts. Depending on year, the Model-T Ford made 20 to 22 hp. The intake and exhaust valve were 1.47 inches in diameter and mounted in the block. Cam lift was about 0.250 inch of lift (intake and exhaust) and they had 218/217-degree durations. Most had zero overlap or some actual separation (measured in minus numbers). The carb was fully adjustable, from idle to main jet. If you thought multicoil ignition setups were something new, look again right here.

Piskur thought his rig might be an original period conversion. It turned out to be the younger Livingood's work, faithfully reproduced in the mid-1990s. A retired police officer, Piskur's tastes run to Ford antique exotica. In addition to the recently acquired Livingood T, he has a 1919 Model T roadster pickup with a snowmobile conversion kit. He has a similar conversion of a 1930 Model A Ford pickup, but done by the Snowbird Company. He also has a 1930 Model A Ford police car, still in its original Chicago P.D. livery.

Piskur has a few acres of ground behind his northeast Ohio home, and in the February mud and melting snow, we gave the old Ford a little preseason mud bath. Driving a Model-T Ford requires a major change of focus for the driver of today. Only a few of the controls are where the modern driver expects them to be, so novice T-drivers get to relive the fumbling, clueless days of first learning to drive. Fortunately, Piskur's T had electric start, or this novice T-driver would have learned the fine art of hand cranking ... or maybe ended up with a broken arm having to type this story one-handed.

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The little four started at the first push of the starter button and idles with a cute "pucka-pucka-pucka-pucka" at an astonishingly low rpm. Ignition timing is controlled by a lever, so you adjust it for the smoothest idle. Pure, raw, Grade-A Choice hydrocarbons roil up from under the car. Like any good modern driver, your eye looks for gauges to scan, but there's only one--the aftermarket volt meter. In typical antique fashion, your eyes, ears, and nose must provide all the monitoring you need. You can often smell an engine that's beginning to overheat, and when the radiator starts boiling over in your face, you're forced to take the hint. When it needs oil, it will tell you by knocking or seizing up. There are no subtleties with a Model-T.Four-wheel drive is engaged with a stubby little lever that's almost out of reach, and given the soft ground, we decide to kick it in. This Livingood has a two-speed Muncie rangebox and the lever goes forward into low because the engine is so tiny and the mud is so deep. That's the only part that feels "normal" to a modern driver. Next, release the clutch lever, pushing it all the way forward, while holding the left pedal in the middle (neutral) position. Then, slowly push and hold the left pedal down for low gear. The T lurches forward, and immediately the engine lugs down hard as it churns forward in the 4-inch-deep mud. The 3-inch-wide tires on the Model-T sink deeper into the gooey mud and snow mix, making the 84-year-old fella grunt like only really old men can grunt. It's partly a grunt of joy at being useful again, and partly a grunt of pain from putting that aged body to work.

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