The Great Model-T Race

The Great Model-T Race

For those who follow and are interested in the National Parks, you might notice a lot more focus has been put on Glacier National Park in Montana of late. Not that it hasn’t always been a desirable and popular park to visit, it’s that all of a sudden, or so it seems, the park has received a lot of attention.

I worked for Glacier National Park in the summer of 1970. I worked as a maid cleaning rooms at the Many Glacier Hotel, one of the prettiest spots in the park. I have noticed a lot more focus on the park in the last few years. What we might not realize is the versatility that all parks offer, and this past summer, GNP was the site of the world’s longest Model-T Ford race.

Ed Towe, the creator and impresario of the Great Model-T Race led the group at its 50th anniversary celebration of the opening of Going-to-the-Sun Road on July 15, 1983 in the rain and snow! At the time, Ed owned about 300 cars, mostly Fords. The model he drove for the celebration was a 1933 Ford Phaeton that he purchased in Buenos Aires, Argentina and drove it home!!The car had been driven 10,500 miles in 1979: Buenos Aires to Deer Lodge, Montana.

As told in the recent edition of The Inside Trail, a quarterly magazine published by the Glacier Park Foundation, a past employee, John Dobberrtain published his remembrance of the Model-T Ford Race held in the Park in 1962. As John tells it, the Model-T’s raced over the sate of Montana in 1962, clocking speeds of 55-60 mph. In a land of towns that are few and far between, residents thought they were dreaming when they watched the parade of cars cross Montana’s roadways.

The event in 1962 was the second annual Cross-State Model-T Race, a 600 mile endurance test for Henry’s Ford’s Tin Lizzies. The only other known race was the New York-to-Seattle race in 1909, which was a race that included all different makes of Model-Ts.

There were 17 cars in the race that began at East Glacier Park Montana in late August. A dreary day, the snow had fallen on the mountains that night, as car number one pulled up to the start line at 9:00 a.m. One can imagine that in ‘the day’ there was bound to be car trouble. Not designed to run over mountain terrane, the V-8’s puttered along with one or two stuck by the side of the road.  Between Browning and Choteau, Montana, four of the T’s dropped out of the race with broken rods. It was a grueling 75 miles so far.

The chairman of the race himself, Ed Towe, dropped out in Choteau with a burned out bearing. After the first four breakdowns, the race became a duel between the Hi-Line Antique Auto Club of Rudyard, Montana and LeRoy Schelly of Great Falls, Montana. Schelly and five members of the Hi-Line Crew pushed their cars to the limit. The Hi-Line crew pulled into Helena, Montana with a time for the 225 miles of four hours, 16 minutes and 42 seconds.

While attempting to navigate the yet-unfinished Fletcher Pass and the 6,000-plus-foot pass paved with gravel, the skies opened up and soaked car and driver! Wet and cold, 13 drivers showed up in Helena for a parade through the city, stopping at the State Capitol building. The second day of the race included a run from Helena to Roundup, through wet, cold weather and rough roads. In the first stretch of the second day run, some of the slowest drivers moved up in position, some before suffering another burned-out rod.

Driving in rain most of the day, the remaining 12 cars struggled through the mountain roads, spending the night in Roundup. A local Ford agency allowed the drivers to store their cars overnight.

The Hi-Lind Club took first place in the two-day drive, with a time of eight hours, 22 minutes and 52 seconds. Schelly finished with a time of eight hours, 24 minutes and five seconds. The next closest, Bill Walters of Bozeman finished in eight hours, 50 minutes, 13 seconds.

Despite ignition wire trouble, Schelly finished the third day in, coming across the line in Circle, Montana one minute and 46 seconds ahead of the Hi-Line crew. Schelly’s total driving time in the three-day endurance was 12 hours, one minute and 57 seconds, at an average speed of 50.7 miles per hour.

What a race!

(Thanks to John Dobbertin, Jr. for his remembrance of the story in the The Inside Trail, Fall 2021. John worked at Glacier during this memorable event).

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