Two Story County men set off on an adventurous road trip June 1, and Friday, June 23, they arrived successfully in Fairbanks, Alaska. But this was not an ordinary journey by car — it was a journey by Model T.
Driving from “Iowa to Alaska in a Model T,” as their Facebook page is titled, has been a long-time dream for Brian McNamara, a pastor from Story City, and Lee Kilmer, a retired ISU professor from Ames.
The two have been friends for about a quarter of a century and have done several national Model T tours together.
“The Preacher” and “The Prof” took off in their individual cars from Gookin Ford in Story City at 8:15 a.m. on June 1. They traveled through Minnesota, North Dakota, Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Colombia and Yukon Territory before crossing the Alaskan border.
On the trip, they saw a variety of wildlife, including deer, black bear, and a grizzly bear cub that ran alongside McNamara’s car for a while.
Along the way they faced some turmoil and obstacles, like a disintegrated muffler and icing on the carburetors. They had to deal with a leaky radiator, rough roads, a front-end shimmy due to loose shackle bolts, and a weak battery.
The night of June 8, they camped in a storm that produced eight inches of rain and hail — “enough to make the ground white! We did find out that the camper is not water-tight,” Kilmer said.
But they also found people eager to assist. When they got to Watson Lake, Yukon, an older gentleman with a “we can figure something out” attitude fashioned a duct to draw some warm air from the exhaust manifold into a problem carburetor.
McNamara and Kilmer met “hundreds of people” along their journey; many of them asked to take photos. People were eager to hear about the men’s trip and their vehicles.
Henry Ford’s Model T, popularly known as the “Tin Lizzy,” was the realization of the automaker’s goal to “democratize the automobile.” Assembly line production allowed Ford to offer the cars at affordable prices — less than $300 in 1925 — and as a result the Model T comprised as much as 40 percent of all cars sold in the United States. From its first car off the line in 1908 until ceasing its production in 1927, 15 million Model Ts were sold, according to Ford.com.
McNamara was the first of the two to become involved with Model Ts, owning several over the years but never more than one at a time. Kilmer has five, four of which are in running condition.
McNamara’s Model T pick-up is a 1926, with an engine that was rebuilt in 2015. Since then he has added a Ruckstell transmission as well as safety hubs and Sure-Stop disc brakes for additional safety. Other than that, his is basically as Henry Ford made it at the factory, he said.
Kilmer’s pick-up was produced during the last week of production of Model T’s (May 1927) and was overhauled prior to making the trip. This included completely rebuilding the engine and drive train, adding safety hubs and Sure-Stop disc brakes, again for increased safety, and adding Ruckstell transmission, mostly for climbing hills and mountains.
Kilmer pulls a camper that is a 1926 Zagelmeyer pop-up, meaning the top lifts up and beds fold out on both sides.
“Basically, it’s a small utility trailer that we haul mattresses and clothing in,” Kilmer said. “I did add turn signals and brake lights to both the trailer and pick-up for increased safety.”
The two got serious about planning the Alaska trip following Kilmer’s retirement from Iowa State University in 2014. McNamara is working half-time at Grace United Methodist in Story City and was granted two months leave for the trip.
McNamara and Kilmer were joined by their wives in Fairbanks on June 25. They are planning several side trips including tours north of the Arctic Circle and through Denali National Park.
With approximately 3,370 miles between Ames and Fairbanks, plus the side trip to Denali, total mileage should be in the 7,000 range for each of the Model Ts.