• An old model car parked outside

      Model A Ford built at Pasadena High (Photo – Dr. Wilbert Smith)

      Model A Ford automobiles are being built by students in the Pasadena Unified School District afternoon Ford Model A Club.

      By Jennifer Hall Lee

      I spoke to Dr. Wilbert Smith, the founder of the Ford Model A Club, at Pasadena High School. He gave me a tour of the Club that, at six years old, is unique in the country. “It’s been an incredible ride,” he said. “The kids are 9th graders to 12th graders. They actually have gone from learning what a screwdriver is” to safely “operating power tools.”

      Model A Fords have been Dr. Smith’s hobby since 1975–he personally owns 6 of them. “The Model A was manufactured in 1928, 29, 30, and 31. That’s the focus of this Club.”

      The Club is extra-curricular.  The benefits for students include understanding how cars were built at the dawn of the American automotive industry and garnering skills in basic mechanical automobile instruction.

      A green car seat

      Interior of Model A (Photo – Dr. Wilbert Smith)

      Early Automobiles

      Henry Ford created the Model A to meet the demands of the driving public who were starting to purchase cars from competitors such as Buick, Chevrolet, and Studebaker. The nation’s roads also were undergoing modernization, and people were becoming automobile savvy. Henry Ford still believed his Model T was the best car for rural people, but business is business and the Model A was born. The Model A sported the oval Ford logo for the first time.

      On the day I visited PHS, Club members had recently finished restoring an olive green Model A Ford that was awaiting its new owner. It was simply beautiful.

      Mr. Todd Dirks is a fine arts teacher at PHS and one of the certificated teachers for the Club. The other certificated teacher is Mr. Neil Esser. Dirks’ classroom is the old automotive shop. “What’s amazing is the business plan that [Smith] started, which is self-sustaining.” Each car is raffled to the public and the proceeds benefit the school.

      Dr. Smith’s interest in teaching about the Model A was evident, “I also realized clearly that we removed “auto mechanics” from the district back in the 1980s so here was an opportunity for kids to look at old cars, learn about old cars, appreciate the hobby of old cars and at the same time learn the history of the old cars.”

      students surrounding a man

      Students who built the Model A and the new owner (Photo – Dr. Wilbert Smith)

      Whatever happened to shop class?

      During the 1980s, public schools across the nation discontinued their classes in the trades.  According to Dr. Terry Leas, former president of Big Bend Community College, “in states where state funding for K-12 declined, many school districts—especially rural districts—could not support the more expensive workforce education programs. In those cases, local community colleges worked with their respective school districts to provide the workforce education programs.” Public schools with more resources “formed partnerships with community colleges and employers to maintain or supplement their programs.”

      Currently the PUSD has robust College and Career Academies which provide specific education and internships with local specialists and organizations. PUSD Chief Academic Officer Dr. Elizabeth Blanco said, “We don’t have an auto mechanics program as part of our career-themed academies, but this Model A effort more than fills the gap. Students who have an interest are able to develop a hobby that could potentially develop into a career.”

      Dr. Leas expounded on PUSD’s Academies, “Your district’s career pathway programs illustrate how the evolution of workforce education programs has progressed. Dual-credit programs have also promoted greater collaboration between school districts and community colleges.” The Model A Ford Club has many corporate partners including Caliber Collision, Fixx Auto Pasadena, Sardo’s Upholstery, Safelite Auto Glass, and Pasadena Community College Auto technology dept.

      Two guys next to a vintage car

      Dr. Smith (right) and the new owner (Photo courtesy of Dr. Smith)

      Mechanical Instruction

      The students are working on “these simple engines.” Smith teaches the students how the gears work and that “when they move in motion and in concert with a drive train it makes wheels turn.” He also teaches them to operate the car.

      The students “will show you how to shift the gears. They’ll show you how to operate the clutch.”

      Colors and fabrics are chosen by the students based on historical information they learned about what was popular when that particular car rolled off the showroom floor.

      The Club acquires cars through donations. The cars arrive in various forms–some are simply a pile of parts.

      Building cars and even repairing your own mechanical appliances is a skill that might seem old-fashioned in a time when many of our daily products are computerized with the inner mechanisms inaccessible to us, but understanding how to fix things yourself with basic tools builds mechanical skills and generates confidence.

      Smith said, “in terms of their self-esteem, these kids love to get their nails dirty with oil. They love to get oil on their clothes.”

      He suggests they wear an apron but, interestingly, the kids like to go home with soiled clothes to show their family members “that they’re doing something rather unique.”

      The Model A Ford Club at Pasadena High School will start on its fourth Model A in the Fall.

      At the end of my tour, the students in Mr. Dirks’ class came out to the parking lot and saw Dr. Smith’s personal vehicle, a blue and orange Rolls Royce Dawn. He let them sit in the front seats and operate the convertible top. One student asked how he came to own it.

      Smith’s answer? Education and hard work. He told them he had “a Ph.D. and two masters degrees.”

      Yes, education is the key.

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      1. Gary Green says:

        When I was a student at PHS in the early 1960’s (Class of 1963) I was in the band, and our band director and teacher drove Model A coupe to school everyday. Unfortunately it had a major engine problem that forced him to use other transport. Too bad this program was not around then. The students in this group might have been able to revive his black two-door.

        It is good to see programs of this type again available to students. Maybe shop classes will once again be offered for credit. They were in my days as a student. In fact a trio of shop classes were required for boys in seventh grade: wood shop, graphic arts including printing, and drafting. Other classes were available to eighth and ninth graders. Offerings continued in high school.

      2. Craig Dayman says:

        What a great story. Dr. Smith is an inspiration and the students are smart to be a part of this opportunity. While funding has fallen short, it’s encouraging to see community businesses support our young people.

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