It’s the car that put a wrench in many a young enthusiast’s hands
Like a lot of things, auto restoration has antecedents in the pre-World War II era, but is most strongly associated with the postwar period. Brass car enthusiasts were already preserving and fixing those machines by the late ‘30s, but the first thing that most would recognize as the hobby/industry of today really springs out of the post-war DIY movement centered on the 1928-1931 Ford Model A.
Why the Model A? Well, a bunch of reasons…
Background on the A as a new car
Like the early Mustang, the Model A was a sensation when it first came out in late 1927, and Ford was hard pressed to keep up with the demand. From an engineering standpoint, it was strictly evolutionary, not revolutionary: The chassis, based on transverse leaf springs and solid axles front and rear, was very much like that of the 1909-’27 Ford Model T but with the addition of shock absorbers and front brakes.
Stylistically, the new Ford was patterned after the Lincoln Model L, though today both cars are often confused with the Model T because the subtleties of styling evolution in the late-‘20s/early-‘30s have been lost to the non-enthusiast public over the decades. Regardless, what was perceived as a handsome car in 1929 has endured as a period icon to later generations. It’s also more welcoming to most drivers compared with a Model T, both for the improved chassis and the seemingly more familiar three-speed, floor-shift gearbox—virtually the industry standard by then, though Ford had clung to a 1900s-tech two-speed planetary transmission through the end of Model T production.
To rectify the various perceived shortcomings of the Model T, a huge aftermarket industry had grown up around Ford in the 1910s and ‘20s. It turned its attention to the Model A immediately, though those attentions were severely interrupted by the October 1929 stock market crash (right about the time 1930 Fords arrived in the showroom) and the ensuing Great Depression. The resulting products were memorable, as they were intended to improve upon an already excellent, 40 hp car rather than bring a 20 hp 1909 car up to the present standard, and have been intermittently produced up to the present day
Influence of the A as a used car
Basic, stock Fords proved their durability in the Great Depression, and well-used examples are frequently seen in period photographic efforts by the Farm Security Administration, a New Deal Agency that employed many talented photographers to document the plight of rural immigrant families fleeing the Dust Bowl. While the Joad family may have driven a Hudson Super Six in The Grapes of Wrath, far more itinerant working families traveled the U.S.A. in Model A’s held together by optimism and ingenuity.