2022 MCCTA

Official Montana 500 Website

2003 Montana 500

by Mike Cuffe

Montana 500 in Bozeman, 2003 I led the fleet of Model T Fords running the Montana 500 at least for a little while. What a kick!!!
This 500 mile endurance run was headquartered at Bozeman Ford in 2003. Next year I hope to bring it home to Eureka in Montana's northwest corner.
Old guys, young guys and a couple of ladies tune and tinker the vintage vehicles for peak performance and endurance. The event is timed with entrants starting a minute apart. A weak coil or a faulty timer or wear on the transmission belts will cost enough power to drop a car back in the pack.

Stripping the car of extra weight provides better power and speed. You won't see a spare tire fastened to the rear of these vintage rigs, and removing the generator will give you a little more horsepower, commented one driver. I even heard of some guys draining oil to gamble on gaining a little advantage. Yes, some of these guys take it seriously. There is great pride and honor among Model T enthusiasts to have their name engraved on the two foot traveling trophy.

Although running in the laid-back touring group, my weakness was the ingenuity of a Canadian farmer. My 1927 Model T coupe came from a farm auction in Saskatchewan. As many T's do when working hard it would tend to blow steam and occasionally overheat. After installing a rebuilt radiator, I accepted the problem as an inherent feature, I thought I could baby my buggy along with frequent breaks. But at a cooling off and water stop in Livingston, I discovered water running out the side of the engine block. Looking closer, I found where the ingenious prairie farmer had driven a wooden peg into the side of the block to replace the frost plug. Cool and filled with water it was extremely effective. As the engine works, water boils out, the wooden peg shrinks, water leaks out, and soon water gushes out. I sidelined the T to wait for proper parts. Other drivers wanted me back on the road, and they offered to drive a nickel into the frost-plug hole. One other T coupe was plugged with nickels. I'm thinking that may be the origin of "worthless as a plugged nickel" phrase.

Competing drivers would cluster around another vehicle with trouble at a rest stop, but if you were stopped along the road you were on your own until the Montana 500 trouble truck came along.
First in, and first out. Not only did I now hold the honor of being the first and only car in the race for one minute, I now hold the dubious distinction of being the first rig sidelined. Five hundred miles later several others were sidelined, and two more threw rods on the leisurely tour of Yellowstone National Park on Thursday.
Nostalgia is a state of mind, and nothing triggers that state of mind like an old car, unless it is 35 Model T Fords rolling down the highway on a cruise. We're talking about a 500 mile cruise through a dozen small Montana communities. It seems that everybody knows somebody who had a Model T, or something that sure looked like a Model T.

They are just a great conversation piece. Sometimes you learn more than you want. A guy driving by the motel stops in the parking lot to tell about his father's vintage rig, and yes it sure enough was aT. People at Denny's Diner want to reminisce about the old fellow down the street who owned one when they were growing up. People in the bookstore, antique shop, gas station, driving along the road. Even in The Ale House you hear from the guy who was smoking pot in his neighbor's barn and burned it down with the neighbor's Model T inside! How did he live to tell the story?

Now that is cruising down Memory Lane. What fun this is. Thanks to no particular skill of my own, I drew #22 out of the hat at the pre-race meeting. This made me the first of the touring class entries to be flagged down the starting ramp off 19th Avenue onto Interstate 90. Since the slower touring class starts before those competing for the trophy, I was the only car on the road for one minute. Then the second car was released, but I was well down 1-90 by then and my coupe was running like a finely tuned Swiss watch. Or sort of. Describing my feelings is difficult. What a strange mix of emotions. I was surprised to be driving the Montana 500. It was a dream come true. My car had never been run any real distance in the year since I bought it at a farm auction in Saskatchewan.

I felt a little lonely and strange and out of place when lining up on the ramp with so many experienced drivers. My coupe had started heating up and blowing steam while idling at the start, and I thought some of the Montana 500 veterans must by laughing and taking bets on whether! could make it down the ramp.

I felt warm friendship over the encouragement I was given to get started. "It will cool down as soon as you get rolling," they told me. And a cheer went up as I got the "go" flag and pulled onto 1-90 with the throttle pulled wide open and the spark lever adjusted.
I felt worry and concern over whether I was doing the right thing for my car. But it was a short distance to the off ramp where my truck and trailer were parked at the Continental Motor Inn. I felt elation. I felt almost giddy. Passing vehicles on the freeway honked and smiled and waved and took pictures and gave me a thumbs up sign. Saying my grin was ear to ear would be an understatement. I may have resembled a 56-year-old fool.
I did feel somewhat foolish as I passed the off ramp by the motel. I was really into it, now, but my coupe was purring along. I was a little disappointed a few miles later when I saw a Model T in my rear view mirror.
Mike Robison from Spokane rolled past like a Freightliner running behind schedule for the East Coast. He was driving an open topped roadster, 1914 model, I think, and he also had a big grin on his face.
We were pulling grade by then, and my car was working hard. I pulled over to let it cool, add water, and shoot photos of others coming by. Then I drove down to Trout Creek to refill my water jugs.

Cool and refreshed, my Coupe was straining to get back on the road. She hated to watch the others going by. So I wheeled back onto 1-90 eastbound, upwards to Bozeman Pass. At the top I stopped again to cool and take on water and to shoot pictures to prove we made it that far. After the struggle up the pass, part way in low gear, it was refreshing to roll down the east side of the mountain. We ran strong until just before Livingston, when we started heating up again, so I hit the off ramp. Here I initially felt foolish, thinking I might have pushed the old girl too hard too far, even though she told me she wanted to go for it. I killed the engine just under the overpass, and couldn't get it to fire up again, although it would turn over. A young man walked over to help. Turns out his wife was a childhood friend of my son, and I knew her parents and grandparents well. Gunnar and Tondi Peterson pulled the Coupe into their yard and drove me the 30 miles back to the Continental Motor Inn. Meanwhile, Steve Coniff, driving the Montana 500 trouble truck and trailer came by, but I told him I was in good hands.

Then came understanding of the real problem and admiration for the ingenuity of that old farmer on the Saskatchewan prairie. I already admired his handiwork from the hand carved wooden plug he used for a gas cap. While adding water to the radiator in Livingston, I found it running out the side of the engine block. Reaching under the manifold to locate the problem, I discovered a wooden peg. The old farmer had pushed out the frost plug during a cold snap and replaced it with what he could find. Cool and wet, the wooden plug made a tight fit. With the engine working hard, the plug dried out, shrunk and allowed coolant to leak out.

Worried over possible damage to my T's engine, I was leaning under the hood when Livingston's veteran Model T enthusiast Jim Hunt happened by.
"Don't worry," he comforted me. "You didn't get her hot enough to hurt this car. Model T's are tough. Set your spark and throttle and let's start her up." So I did, and drove it up on my trailer with power to spare. By now the engine was cool, the frost-plug tight, and she sounded smooth and strong again. So I was waiting at Bozeman Ford to greet the rest of the group when they began to roll in some 11 hours after I had started the run at 8:15 that morning.

Model T's--fine-tuned, cleaned, painted, no junkers or clunkers, safety inspected, well regulated.
The second day I rode in the navigator's seat with Rob Flesner of Chewelah, Washington, piloting a 1927 Roadster. Painted a robin egg blue, he had spent a few thousand dollars and many, many hours preparing his craft for the Montana 500.

We ran strong up 1-90 to Three Forks, despite wet, cold, miserable weather. Some were prepared for the weather. I borrowed garbage sacks at Bozeman Ford to pull over our heads, and the dealership owner loaned us a red insulated jump suit.

Hot tea, coffee and sandwiches at Wheat in Three Forks kept our spirits up, and most cars took on fuel. Word came in that Brian Cress from Bismarck, Illinois, was loading his newly overhauled roadster on the trouble trailer with a broken crankshaft. Mike Robison, Spokane, had suffered the same fate yesterday on the high climb to the Canyon Highway going back to Bozeman. Their disappointment was understandable, and condolences from other drivers were sincere. Both young men were potential top finishers, and nobody likes to win by default.
Everybody wants the best time, but nobody trouble for anyone else. They won't stop to help along the road, but as soon as a driver lifts a hood at the rest stop, a cluster of knowledgeable mechanics are on hand to offer advice, assistance or spare parts.

Rain poured again during the run to Ennis and Virginia City, before the weather cleared. With the sun breaking out, some cars hit 69 mph on the long hill before Ennis. That was welcome after the grueling climb up the north side.

Rob got into a real dogfight with BJ Miller and young Coniff for several miles before they pulled away, and we hit 69 miles per hour tailing Nan Robison down the big hill before Ennis. With safety always of top concern, timers flagged cars off the road at Ennis to avoid the challenging hill that races down into the village center of Virginia City, the original territorial capital of Montana.

After a pleasant lunch and visit around the old gold mining town, we flagged out again from Nevada City. About halfway to Twin Bridges, our frustrations began in earnest. At higher speeds Rob's engine began missing on one cylinder. Then came the agonizing decision: Do we stop for a quick adjustment, or do we nurse it along. If we stop for three or four minutes, expect at least that many drivers to move ahead. But soon we realize they were going past anyway, so Rob quickly shims the coils in place, as they have jiggled loose. That helps, but doesn't solve the problem, so soon he is putting in another coil, but it turns out to be no good at all so stop to put the original back in. We limp into Twin Bridges or Whitehall on three cylinders. Rob and others are under the hood while another group changes coils in Ted Ballard's car.

Meanwhile, they put a new timer on Rob's roadster. The timer did it. We notice the difference in power as we pull the big hill on 1-90 coming east from Whitehall. You don't realize how big these hills are until you start pulling them under time with a 20 horsepower engine under the hood. It seems like we are crawling along, but we are crawling faster than others because we pass a couple T rigs. Then we catch Mike Wendland from Rudyard, but we can't get away from him. We swap the lead with him at least 12 times before we are flagged back into Bozeman Ford.

It was an exciting 200 miles for Rob and me, but the best finish was a five car connection of Jillian Caples, Tom Carnegie, Tony Cerovski, BJ Miller and Ron Miller. They were snaking up the interstate, and all running tight enough that nobody could break loose. Tom Carnegie called it the Cerovski express, because guess who led it.

The bunch finished Wednesday with a quick 100 mile dash to Three Forks and back on 1-90. I'm not a race driver, or even an avid race fan. I'm not a mechanic of any kind. My car has been tuned up, but not really made race worthy. So what was I doing here? I only bought my Model T coupe because my wife thought it would be great for parades. Then we met folks in the Inland Empire Model T Club, and they start talking about the Montana 500. Of course, I had heard of it. And yes it did sound like fun. I just wanted to be a part of the Montana 500. I was willing to be a gopher, a timer, drive a car hauler, shoot photographs or serve sandwiches.
I took my car along to get some advice on problems and to putt around town. The advice I got was "Hey, that car runs well enough to enter. Fill out a form, get through the safety check and be at the starting ramp before 8 am. "
My wife, JoAn, and I had joined the Inland Empire Model T Club in Spokane earlier this year, and at that time Tom Carnegie began talking up the Montana 500. He even suggested we might host it in Eureka next year. JoAn told me I better get to Bozeman this year to learn what is involved. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I might ever lead this event. The next damned thing I know I am rolling down the freeway ramp at the wheel of the first car flagged out. You bet I was thrilled.

The Montana 500 is Sanctioned by The Montana Cross Country T Association.