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Eighty Years In The Driving Seat

A look back at the restoration of the first ever Garda Model T Car in 2002.

In 2000, Pat O’Connor, a former Garda mechanic, embarked on a labour of love, the mammoth restoration task of one of only two original Ford Model T Garda cars. Up until then nothing from Irish police motoring history had existed. The car first came to his attention in 1993 when an outside contractor had some of the car in pieces in boxes in his home and he asked Pat O’Connor if he could find out any information on it. But most of the information in relation to the period of the car’s existence had either been mislaid or destroyed when Pat went about investigating its whereabouts and found very little testimony of its use. 

Then the contractor decided to move house and, prior to the move, Pat inspected what remained of the car. He bought the remains of the historic Garda car in 1998 and started putting it together to see what was missing. He had a contact in England, Neil Tuckett, who sourced parts for Model Ts, regularly travelling to the US with a list of parts from European enthusiasts to buy them at auction or in scrapyards. With his help Pat managed to locate almost the entire original missing pieces. What makes the car even more unique is that it was blue which confounds Henry Ford’s memorable utterance ‘you can have any colour you want as long as it’s black.’ 

A collector of old memorabilia gave Pat O’Connor a book belonging to the DMP to work from in which there were two photos of the Model Ts-YI 4016 and YI 4017 which is the model Pat lovingly restored. Unfortunately there is no record of what happened to other Model T. 

“I had to go to England and get some of the parts for it but most of the parts came from the States,” recalls Pat two years on. “The roof took me over a year to source. I had to cut it to fit around the edges because it was all seamed. It took me about three months and with something like this you don’t have much information on it, so you only cut it once and that’s it. You could cut it more than that if you had the money to buy another roof!”

It’s cost him approximately €13,000 but it was worth every penny as far as this Ballinteer man is concerned. “The way I feel about it is that it’s a bit of Irish history,” he points out. “It was DMP, late 1923. The Irish state was only founded at that stage as were the Gardaí. I’m not parting with it unless I need money in a hurry. I intend to drive it and keep it on display.”

The first registration of the car on record is in the 1930s but it has no record of any previous owner. “It was sold to a person by the name of Donovan in Blackhall Street,” says Pat, “which is demolished now and is just across from the Law Library where they’ve built a new block of flats. I’ve tried tracing it a few times. The council told me there was a surgeon resident in Blackhall Street in the 1920’s so it could be him as he would have had the money to own it. The Garda records have thrown up nothing on it so far but the good people at the Garda museum and archives are keeping an eye out for me in case anything comes up in the course of their research.”

Driving a machine from a bygone period takes a bit of getting used to. Unleaded petrol, air conditioning and multi-rack CD interchangers and 16 valve fuel injection systems were, we can safely assume, far from making their debut in the 1920’s. But if you ever do get a chance to drive a Model T and it happens to be raining then Pat has some advice that he didn’t find in a manual-bring a few spuds with you on the trip!

“It’s a dry weather car,” explains Pat. “You have no wipers , so you have to use the old techniques. If you want to drive in the bad weather, you split a potato and rub it downwards on the windscreen and then the rain just runs off. My mother told me that trick years ago. It’ll even work on modern cars if your wipers break down.”

Vintage insurance for YI 4017 works out at about e360 a year, fully comprehensive. It runs on a lead replacement which you add to the unleaded petrol in the tank but it can also run on a full tank of petrol and a pint of diesel, says the Garda mechanic who had over twenty years service at the time of the restoration.

“All you have to ensure is that you lubricate the valves. The thing about running a leaded engine on unleaded petrol is the head gets destroyed. The valves have no lubrication and just get burnt out.” The biggest drawback, admits Pat O’Connor, is that it only does 35mph and only 12 miles to the gallon with a massive 2.5 gallon engine. 

“You have to change your oil in it fairly often because there’s no oil filter oil pump. There was a Superintendent Joe O’Driscoll here and he told me once that they used to take the engines out of the Model T’s and out them into boats. The Model T’s have a slow revving engine and the gear setup was ideal for a boat. You only have low gear and high gear and a reverse. You have no brakes on it. There is a kind of a brake but it just locks up the drive shaft so you have to give yourself plenty of time to stop. There’s no gear lever so you drive on the pedals only. You press your clutch pedal fully down for low gear and leave it fully up for top gear. Pressing it halfway down puts it in neutral.”

There are brake bands in the gearbox which can lock up and need replacing every so often. “It’s like an automatic gearbox,” he explains, “but instead of working on fluid pressure it operates by your footwork. There are bands that are made out of webbing and that wears out so you have to replace them.”  Pat has worked on every make and model of modern car and was originally qualified as a Mercedes mechanic before joining the Gardai in 1981. 

“I would have come across the Model T but I never had worked on them. So I had to go and read and read and read. When you’re putting together something like this it’s a stage by stage process. If you miss out on something, you have to strip the whole thing down and start all over again. I was lucky enough in that I got a workshop manual from an Inspector here in HQ. As you can imagine there aren’t many of them around so he loaned it to me for three days to photocopy. Most of the information on the internet is American and it’s all from people like me who wouldn’t know the full story. They’d be able to help you so far but the rest of the way is unknown. Ford’s own records for nstance have none showing a complete car coming into their factories; it would always be in parts. You might have a chassis and an engine coming in and the body would be built in whatever country it would go to.”

Then  somebody told Pat the car was originally built in Cork. “He could tell from the front axle. There was one factory in Lancashire, I think, and the axles twisted a different way to most Model Ts and these were the axles that were used in the Cork factory. I don’t know how true it is or not. The thing I found is you get an awful lot of people who are professors on these things.”

Most men are intrigued if not in awe of collectable and vintage cars; a kind of hark back to the days of youth messing around in the sandpit with miniature Corgi models playing cops and robbers, as we would presume all budding policemen did at some stage. However some people’s enthusiasm can get them into a spot of bother as Pat recounts the story of one motoring mad colleague who he allowed drive the precious relic. 

“There was one member who lives beside me,” he says “ and he wanted to have a go at driving it. Now he’s a big man and while driving along he realised he couldn’t stop so he went to pull the handbrake but pulled it out of the floor! I was laughing at him as he was saying he’ll never drive that thing again!”

“The same man has driven everything and anything and he though this would be easy but he found out it’s not. I didn’t mind the damage, I just rewelded it.”

Driving a Model T is not for the penalty point conscious either. “You literally have to learn to drive all over again,” says Pat. “If you put your foot down where your brake pedal is usually, you’d wreck the gearbox because you’re putting it into reverse and the car is going forward and won’t stop.”


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