The Model T Had Gas Mileage to Envy The Model T got better gas mileage than today's average car, according to an article this month in the New Yorker. An editor with Popular Mechanics says that's true, but the modern automaker has far more to worry about than Henry Ford ever did.

The Model T Had Gas Mileage to Envy

The Model T Had Gas Mileage to Envy

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The Model T got better gas mileage than today's average car, according to an article this month in the New Yorker. An editor with Popular Mechanics says that's true, but the modern automaker has far more to worry about than Henry Ford ever did.


So I don't know if you read this, but in the November 5th issue of the New Yorker, a writer made a claim that has circulated around the Internet. Here it is, quote, "The average new car sold in the U.S. today gets 20 miles to the gallon, which is enough" - I'm sorry, wait - "which is remarkably enough less than Henry Ford's Model T got when it went on the market 99 years ago last month," end quote.

It wasn't long before car companies' pounced on a comparison. Chrysler VP of communications rebutted the claim online, writing, there's a reason the Model T weighed 1,200 pounds, less than half the weight of most vehicles today. The Model T didn't have safety features like dual airbags, reinforced safety cage, anti-lock breaks and traction control. The Model T didn't have electric windows, interior lights, air conditioning, a radio and CD player. So take that.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Thanks for the clarification…

STEWART: Yeah. Really.

PESCA: The Model T didn't have a CD player.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Just in case you are curious about that. Okay, so we wanted to talk to somebody who has no dog in this fight, about this war of words and comparisons about gas mileage. So we wanted to talk to senior auto editor of Popular Mechanics, Mike Allen.

Hi, Mike.

Mr. MIKE ALLEN (Senior Auto Editor, Popular Mechanics): Good morning.

STEWART: Okay. So, as I said, no real dog in this fight. You're not a reporter trying to make your case. You're not a guy who flacks for a car company. Do car sold now get worse mileage than the Model T?

Mr. ALLEN: You know, without being totally unfair to the guy from the New Yorker, he's talking through his hat.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: That's a very nice way to put it. Why?

Mr. ALLEN: As your other guy pointed out, Model T's weighed twelve hundred pounds, had no emission controls of any sort, had a top speed of 30 miles an hour downhill with a tailwind. And, you know, you can buy a car today in Europe that gets over 80 miles per gallon, just plain old diesel fuel, and it'll go 80 miles an hour. So…

STEWART: But let me seize on something that there - a point that the writer was making, and sort of the car guy made, that the car - that the Model T was lighter, and that fuel economy has to do about efficiency. So isn't there a lesson to be made about making lighter cars?

Mr. ALLEN: Absolutely. Absolutely.

STEWART: So how do we go about making lighter cars?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, we have to train the American public to buy, you know, 2,000-pound or 2,500-pound two-seat cars instead of 6,000-pound, eight-seat SUVs.

STEWART: Well, good luck with that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: But what would these lighter cars be made of? Because we know they are available in Europe.

Mr. ALLEN: There's nothing really trick about making a 2,000-pound car that'll get 75 or 80 miles per gallon. They make the model with aluminum. They make them out of steel. Those are both pretty conventional materials. It's not like they're made out of carbon fiber or an unobtanium.

STEWART: And what about all the bells and whistles?

PESCA: Unobtanium, by the way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: I heard.

PESCA: It's not a real element.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ALLEN: You know, if the car manufacturers were allowed to by the DOT and the EPA, and the car-buying public would be willing to drive a car that only got a 30 mile per hour top speed and didn't have any safety devices and only had breaks on two wheels and didn't even have a windshield, we could probably build a car that got 200 miles per gallon, not 20.

STEWART: But here's the question: What does about - to safety?

Mr. ALLEN: Well, the safety pretty much goes out of the window, doesn't it?

STEWART: And in terms of the way people buy cars these days, I mean, my sister's giving me all kinds of guff about not having side airbags. I can't imagine a car without airbags, without a windshield, would be able to sell at this point.

Mr. ALLEN: Exactly it. You know, they do sell some neighborhood electric vehicles which are not licensed for use on public roads that have a top speed of 25 or 30 miles an hour. And, you know, if you're only driving it down the driveway to the mailbox, that's one thing. But…


Mr. ALLEN: …out on a freeway, that's a different kettle of fish.

STEWART: But I'm also curious about, in terms of viability. So you have a car that's made of carbon fiber aluminum. Maybe it's got lightweight glass or no windshield. It's got skinny tires. It's teardrop shape, so it's air dynamic. What does this thing going to look like?

Mr. ALLEN: It'll probably look a lot like a Honda Insight.

STEWART: A Honda Insight. I'm writing that down. What do you want to ask, Mike?

PESCA: Yeah. The - Mike, I take your point. Fine, the Model T got better mileage than a car. You know what gets a better mileage than a Model T? A horse, walking. I understand that. But isn't there like an arms race issue here? That even if a whole bunch of Americans say let's go lighter, the fact that there are already monstrous SUVs on the road makes people either feel unsafe, or literally beyond safe?

Mr. ALLEN: Yes and no.

PESCA: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ALLEN: If you take, you know, a 2,000-pound car with the same safety systems built into it and crash it into a 6,000-pound SUV, guess who loses?

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. ALLEN: That's…

PESCA: I think it's the little guy. Yeah.

Mr. ALLEN: That's just physics.

PESCA: Yeah.

Mr. ALLEN: On the other hand, if I had to crash into a brick wall or a big tree in a 1956 Cadillac that weighed forty-eight hundred pounds or a brand new Toyota Prius that weighs thirty-two hundred pounds at 60 miles an hour, I'd take the Toyota every time.

STEWART: Mike Allen is a senior auto editor for Popular Mechanics.

Thanks, Mike.

Mr. ALLEN: Mm-hmm.

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