Ford Model T: what was its fuel economy, really?


Frame from Sierra Club video, 'Tell Ford to Put Clean Cars in the Fast Lane,' Jan 2018

Frame from Sierra Club video, 'Tell Ford to Put Clean Cars in the Fast Lane,' Jan 2018

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In a recent video posted to YouTube, environmental advocacy group The Sierra Club dialed up production values to call out Ford's lobbying efforts to roll back fuel-economy standards.

The video showed a man getting into a modern-day Ford, starting the engine, then noting the shift lever had an array of reverse gears but no forward drive.

When the man moved the lever down to where "Drive" should have been, his car was thrown backward and transformed into a Ford Model T.

DON'T MISS: Ford CAFE rollback efforts, countering sustainability claims, slammed in Sierra Club video

The on-screen text underscores the Sierra Club's message: "Ford is trying to roll back these standards ... so they can make cars with worse gas mileage than the Model T."

It's a clever rhetorical device that underscores the regressive nature of Ford's efforts to turn back the clock on fuel economy standards—but does it have any basis in fact?

Specifically, what is the real-world fuel economy of a century-old Ford Model T?

1914 Ford Model T

1914 Ford Model T

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1927 Ford Model T Tudor

1927 Ford Model T Tudor

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1915 Ford Model T from the Rogers' Classic Car Museum collection

1915 Ford Model T from the Rogers' Classic Car Museum collection

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Jay Leno samples a hot-rodded 1927 Ford Model T

Jay Leno samples a hot-rodded 1927 Ford Model T

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Before answering that question, it's worth noting that fuel economy in the United States has been effectively flat for the last couple of years as Americans have flocked away from passenger sedans and hatchbacks to pickup trucks, SUVs, and crossovers.

Sales-weighted new-car fuel economy landed at 25.2 mpg for 2017, an improvement of just 0.1 mpg over the previous year—and little higher than it was a century ago, though obviously the vehicles are far better and more capable.

That data comes from the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI), which has tracked sales-weighted fuel economy since 2007.

READ MORE: Sales-weighted new-car fuel economy stuck at 25 mpg, for fourth year in a row

In a previous attack on Ford by the Sierra Club back in 2003, the environmental organization had stated the Model T achieved 25 mpg, as enthusiast site Ford Authority pointed out in its coverage of the video.

But Ford itself claimed the Model T achieved from 13 to 21 mpg, according to Motor Trend.

The last time UMTRI recorded sales-weighted new-car fuel economy under 21 mpg was in 2008, after which it shot up at a rapid pace for a number of years thanks to the combination of high fuel prices and fuel-economy rules that began to rise in 2012.

1909 Ford Model T Touring

1909 Ford Model T Touring

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It's clear that Ford, and every other automaker that's a member of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers lobbying group, would like to delay, modify, freeze, or even roll back the fuel-economy targets in place for 2022 through 2025.

Proposals to modify those rules are expected from the NHTSA by the end of March, and proposals to boost allowable exhaust emissions of carbon dioxide, a climate-change gas, are also expected this spring from the EPA.

But it may be a far stretch for the Sierra Club to claim Ford is targeting an average fuel-economy decrease of 4 to 12 miles per gallon.

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