Ford’s Model A: the car that kept on driving | Peter Richardson

Before cars had ABS brakes or higher-power induction systems, an AC-DC drive delivered the same powerful experience while conserving fuel – and often coming on at surprisingly high revs.

I used to motor around London, riding shotgun in the Ford Model A above everything else. Whenever my neighbour stopped for dinner in Swanley – about five miles west of me – I’d invariably start the engine and flip up the fender to the ground. The sort of “new stuff” passenger car was the pride of the Ford family from 1927, and I adored it. No one spoke to me, though.

A Hot Rod Before Its Time (If I Forget Your Name, God Bless You, at Watermill Arts Centre) is staged in a performance space in Bishops Waltham, Somerset, a black box theatre hall partly concealing a Ford Transit van on the roof. A biography of the Model A, complete with photos and a few 140-year-old spreadsheets, is plonked on the side, which is kept clear of the audience.

Sound engineer Dan Darby, who is working with a live band on an iPad I had to unlock to plug in, sets up the 80 year-old van (from which the Ford is projected) to project the silhouette of a Model A from 35mm film.

This is billed as a show you can learn something about your car. It certainly helps to be familiar with Ford motors (they made three-speed straight-six-cylinder engines, and Model A’s were the first with carburetors and an oil cooler). The other steering wheel holds rows of sheets on which delegates can research Ford’s history and the transport of the proletariat.

The whole thing is organised into guided tours of the van. “Have you ever driven an obsolete car?” I asked a man in his fifties who was talking to us about his rusting Ford Type 33 he had bought new in 1985.

“No,” he said. “I used to have a car, but I gave it up because I wanted the ability to jump in and out of the van whenever I needed to.”

Wearing an air freshener around his neck, I felt odd sitting with him, but then people have been treating the Ford model for more than a century, and neither Ford nor the Model A is quite obsolete.

The exhibit starts quietly, with the sounds of an assembly line. It builds up and rather than having a huge scrim behind the guests, there is just a big sheet of film projecting it on to the van’s bonnet. The shape of the van, with the space between, is fascinating to see as you look at what the car has changed over the years.

Ford’s Model A. Photograph: Alamy

A two-minute documentary, narrated by Stephen Fry, brings the timeline up to the present and highlights the Camaro and the new Ford Focus. Ford’s advertising slogans are also on display in the gallery. On the roll-down screen are messages explaining the difference between Ford and GM, plus an essay on “Engine-Powering Life”.

One would like to know what audiences think of the setting and some of the moments of the Ford Motor Company and, in particular, to discover whether those who come will learn anything new about their own car.

I left the installation without anything to impart. But I did find myself moving forward in time, rather like Mary Tyler Moore.

• Ford’s Model A at Watermill Arts Centre, Bishops Waltham, Somerset, until 31 January. Details: 020-8637 4545

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