Lightly Driven

Antique Cars' Owners Take To The Back Roads For Safety

July 13, 2009|By Don Markus | Don Markus,

Clayton Miller has 13 antique cars in the garage on his Woodbine property, a testimony to a lifelong passion that began when he purchased a Model T Ford from his uncle for $25. But when Miller goes to an antique car show later this month in Johnson City, Tenn., he'll tow one of his two remaining Model T's in a trailer attached to his RV.

"Unless it's a dire emergency, I won't get on the interstate," Miller, 74, said.

The safety of antique cars in Maryland came tragically into the forefront recently when a 62-year-old Laurel man and a 73-year-old Gambrills man were killed in separate accidents involving their antique Fords less than a week apart.

Richard Dashiell died July 1, along with his 10-year-old daughter, when they were ejected from his 1929 Model A Ford, which overturned after getting rear-ended on Interstate 70 near Lisbon in western Howard County. A few days earlier, Howard Wright's 1936 Ford was hit head-on on Defense Highway in Crofton, about two miles from his home, killing him and seriously injuring the driver of the other car.

While fatalities for those driving antique cars are rare, accidents are not.

Two Michigan women heading to Seattle in a Model T last week to help commemorate the 90th anniversary of the famous cross-country race that helped increase the popularity of Henry Ford's invention were hit by a truck on a highway in Wyoming. They escaped with minor injuries, but the car they were riding in was totaled. The Model T was going 35 miles an hour, according to police.

A Michigan couple was injured last month near their home when the steering wheel of their Model T failed, turning the car on its side and ejecting them. Four people in a Model T outside Portland, Ore., were injured last month, two seriously, when they were hit head-on after the driver of the other car swerved out of the way of a stalled vehicle.

Though the Maryland State Highway Administration and similar agencies around the country don't keep records on the types of vehicles involved in traffic accidents, the Maryland fatal crashes involving antique cars are the first in recent memory, according to MSHA spokesman David Buck.

"When I heard about the accident [on Interstate 70], I couldn't think of another one," said Buck, who has been with the agency for 19 years.

According to the state Motor Vehicle Administration, 99,570 cars are registered as historic, meaning they are at least 20 years old, have not been substantially altered from their original condition and are no longer in production.

Of those registered as historic, more than 4,800 were built between 1931 and 1941, and nearly 1,700 between 1921 and 1931. One car dates to 1897.

Cars deemed historic can be used only to drive to shows, tours, club activities and parades, and can't be used to regularly transport people or products on highways. Historic cars are not subject to regular inspection, and it is largely up to the owner whether to install modern safety devices. It is legal to drive an antique car without seat beats.

Miller said all Model T owners are required to replace the old plate-glass windshields before they tour and carry fire extinguishers when the cars are being shown in competition. He said he added turn signals. Owners often "street rod" their cars to make them a little more road-worthy for modern travel with bigger engines, better brakes and brighter head and tail lights.

"There are kits available so that when people put a more powerful engine in, they can put in disc brakes," Miller said. "In general, the older cars that are kept in good condition have adequate brakes."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration does not have an official policy regarding antique cars, but NHTSA spokeswoman Karen Aldana said, "We don't see any reason why antique cars can't share the road with other vehicles."

Les Andrews, president of the Model A Ford Club of America, said he has driven thousands of miles from his home in Southern California, going as far as Seattle without getting in so much as a fender bender. Admittedly, most of his travels have been on secondary roads.

"I think the insurance companies are a testament to how safe these cars are," said Andrews, a retired publisher who bought his first Model A in 1964. "I own three of them and I pay a little over $100 each" to insure them.

Andrews said there are about 150,000 Model A Fords registered in the United States, and another 50,000 that are just for show. Four years ago, Model A Club members from around the country drove to Boston for the organization's annual show. Last year, they converged on Dallas.

"Most of the driving is done on back roads, but sometimes you have to get on the highway," said Andrews, whose group has 15,000 members.

The Model A, made between 1928 and 1931, is better equipped for the highway than the Model T, manufactured between 1908 and 1927. A Model A Ford can go up to 50 miles an hour, the speed that witnesses told Maryland State Police Dashiell was driving when he was hit on Interstate 70.

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