Visiting One of South Africa’s Best Model T Collections

In the heart of the Winelands is the farming town of Wellington, nestled against the foot of the Limietberg Mountains. Wellington is famous to the motoring enthusiast for being the gateway to Bain’s Kloof Pass, one of South Africa’s more famous passes.

Wellington, though, has another erstwhile motoring connection, André Wessels, a Ford enthusiast who has been collecting and lovingly restoring Ford’s most prominent car produced between 1908 – 1927, the Model T. What makes the Model T unique is that it’s Ford’s first and universal car that brought affordable mobility to the masses.

André Wessels’ Story

The owner and caretaker of these early Fords explains his motoring journey, and what led him to his passion for early pre-war cars. 

“My very first classic car was a 1936 Ford Deluxe sedan. This was also our wedding car. After that I started collecting other classics, but in the end I sold the rest and only kept the Fords. I then turned my focus to Ford Model As, and soon after switched to Model Ts. I’ve owned a number of interesting cars in the past, but throughout my life I’ve always been a Ford enthusiast,” Wessels says.

What’s striking is the simplicity of design in the early Fords in André’s collection, a reminder of Henry Ford’s vision for the Model T to be affordable, simple to operate, and practical in design. 

André’s path to restoring cars started with his dad, “I remember being in primary school, and, already then, my dad was restoring cars. These were often French and British – he restored a great variety of makes and models. Everything I know today about restoring cars he taught me”.

André’s path of collecting cars has taken him along several avenues during his colourful life, “I farmed for several years and during this time I had a large collection of cars. When we moved to the Cape ten years ago, I sold most of them and only kept two. One of the cars I kept was my 1940 Ford pick-up which is now completely restored from the ground up. It is one hundred percent original and is fitted with a flat-head V8.” 

“Then I started looking for cars again which, at times, can get out of hand! For me it doesn’t make sense to have a wide variety of cars, that is one of the reasons I decided to specialise in Ford Model Ts,” he says. While André is clearly a huge car fanatic, his Ford roots run by far the deepest. 

Each car has a different story and to pick favourites would be impossible for André. One car that stands out in his collection, though, is a 1922 Model T pick-up. 

Yes, Henry Ford did famously say, “Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it’s black,” but that was only from 1914 – 1925. Both before and after this timeframe, Model T Fords came in a wide variety of colours, including blue, red, grey and green. Andre’s Model T pick-up is replete in its iconic blue colour, and was completely rebuilt from the ground up. All the woodwork had to be made from scratch, but the result is a Model T that takes you back to simpler times. “That car was more than just a restoration. The doors and several other parts had to be manufactured from scratch as I basically only had pictures of what the car should look like. It took tons of research, local and global phone calls, and many discussions.”

He prides himself in ensuring that all of his cars are period correct and that everything on a restored model is exactly as it should be. “For example, my 1914 Model T Racer has a 1914 engine fitted, it has the correct differential, the correct cooling and correct steering systems. These things are important to me.”

Wessels is continuing the process of restorations. He recently finished a Model T police car and drove it for the first time only a few weeks ago. As with many of the other cars, the engine had to be rebuilt, which included fitting new pistons. However, that is easier said than done as he explains the new pistons are manufactured from aluminium, and the original pistons were made from cast iron. The result is that the engine’s tolerances need to be reset, thanks to the different material.

“The reason I enjoy and appreciate Model Ts is because the car has such an interesting history. It is a difficult car to work on, but also fun at the same time. Then there is the challenge of driving them, which is very different compared to what we consider to be the norm. The pedal layout, for one, is not what you would be used to, requiring a completely different approach. By the time I owned three Model Ts I still couldn’t drive them!”.

Underneath the engine lid, the simplicity of these early Model Ts is clear. However, for the driver, things are not so easy - with many mechanical adjustments required on the move the cabins resemble a festival of levers. 

“It took me a long time to learn how to drive them and currently I’m busy teaching my wife how to drive a Model T. But that is all part of the journey with these cars.”

A Helping Hand in the Model T Community

Restoring Model Ts is not the work of a moment, Wessels admits that an important factor that makes the collecting of Model Ts easier is that there are a number of companies in the US that stock the parts. Making use of international courier services, he can get these parts delivered to South Africa within a week. “One of the most notable characteristics about restoring a car is that you need to have finesse. I firmly believe that there are only a few people in this country who truly know how to restore a classic car.”

Wessels has a secret weapon of information when it comes to restoration. “If there is one man that knows all there is to know about Model Ts, it is my friend Philip Kuschke in George. He is able to look at a Model T and tell you exactly what is standard-fitment and what is not. He has taught me nearly everything I know about these cars today,” Wessels says. 

“Philip is the current president of SAVVA (South African Veteran & Vintage Association) and has been at the helm of the Model T Ford Club of South Africa for years. It is a family affair as Philip’s father was also heavily involved in Ford Model Ts in South Africa. I think you can blindfold Philip and he will be able to build a Model T for you!”

“The Model T Ford Club of South Africa is a very informative club where people gladly assist one another. I also have many reference books, not to mention that YouTube has been of immense help. You need to be technically minded, though.”

It’s a Model T Way of Life

Wessels is a keen driver and believes these cars are not mere ornaments, but should be used and driven on the road. ”One of the most fun drives is to join fellow Model T owners on a journey from George to Kalk Bay for the Veteran Run. We joined the group in Barrydale for the drive to Calitzdorp, followed by the last stretch to George for a recent motor show. This is not a timed event, and you simply drive for the fun of it.”

At home Wessels is busy restoring and rebuilding a few more of these pre-war classics, he even owns a 1913 Model T that has never been restored, which makes it a most unique specimen. The oldest Ford in his collection is the 1912 Model T, while the newest car in the collection is a single-seat racer from 1926. “I’m also building a genuine Ford Model T racing car. I’ve been planning and researching it for two years, and finally things are starting to come together,” he says.

Fellow enthusiasts will usually inform him if there is a Model T up for sale, or when people are looking for a good home for their car. “I’ve recently acquired a 1912 Model T from a lady whose husband sadly passed away. After concluding the sale, I travelled to fetch the car and brought it to Cape Town. One must be prepared to travel far and wide if you’re into collecting cars like these. The car is in a near-perfect condition. Subsequently, a few weekends ago I did the Kalk Bay Veteran Run in Cape Town with it. Thankfully, it was already fastidiously restored by the previous owner, and I only had to do some minor work on the clutch, cooling system and engine.”

A Model T Collection

Wessel’s collection of Ford Model Ts are on display at The Old Tannery in Wellington. There is also a plan for a small Model T Museum, where artefacts will be put on display by their current custodians. Needless to say, this space and collection will continue to evolve in the coming months and years - and is a must for any Ford enthusiast to visit.