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Here's a history question

…working on a book, know very little about automotive history. I’m wondering if odometers were very commonly installed in cars from the early 1920s, say from 1920 - 1922. If so, can anyone throw out a few models for me. Extra points if you can throw out the aproximate milage of the car… haw far it might travel on a tank of gas. Unfortunately, if you get extra points, they can’t be cashed in for anything, other then the knowlege of a job well done. I doubt the story will ever get published, but you never know. It might be the Next Big Thing. Thanks!

I can’t speak for every make and model, but from what I have seen in museums and antique car shows they had odometers and speedometers back in 1905. I remember reading that the Ford Model T got about 10 MPG – low compression engine and wick carburetors did not give great efficiencies. Check Hemming’s Motor News for more detailed info.


What part of the country do yo live in? For that era, I think you should take a trip to Fort Myers, Florida and tour the Ford and Edison estates. There are some Model T and Model A fords from that era that they keep running for parade duty.

Edison was a big fan of the Model T Ford, so the curators at the Ford and Edison estates should be able to answer your questions if you visit or send them a letter.

My suggestion will be somewhat like Whitey’s - if you truly want credibility in terms of your writing it would be best for you to check things out yourself. Find car museums, car shows, etc. and spend some time hands on.

Yes, odometers date back at least to the 1920s. Like many other features that we take for granted nowadays, devices like this were likely introduced first on more expensive models, and adopted later on the more basic models. So, if you want your fictional car to have an odometer, making it a luxury car will help to assure that it had an odometer.

Ford Motor Company claimed fuel economy of 13-21 mpg on the T.
Of course, those figures could be wildly optimistic since there was no such thing as EPA certification of fuel economy in those days.

A heavier, more luxurious car of the '20s, with a larger engine than the T’s little 4-cylinder, likely got a lot fewer mpg. And, of course, the size of the fuel tank would greatly affect the driving range of a car. I think that you should try to first decide what the make and model year of your fictional car might be, and then research things like fuel tank capacity, engine size, instrumentation, etc.

Go to and search for 1921 or 1920 or whenever cars. You’ll get several makes, model names, pictures, and descriptions. Or go by a bookstore, find some books on antique cars. I think there are some that catalog all makes and models by year.

An anecdotal number for you: Model T Fords used gasoline at the approximate rate of one gallon per hour.

Bros. and I shared a 29 Nash fro a time. It was surprisingly efficient. But the odometer was better for expected break downs than gas mileage.

Yes, they had odometers…Most had a 150-200 mile range on a tank of gas. They also had wooden frames…Check out The Franklin Car Company. Made in up-state N.Y., air-cooled, aluminum block. When you wanted (and could afford) a little more than a Model T Ford…

Great stuff guys! Thanks, I’ll do a little digging. I might even be able to get away with not having to mention the make or model of car (detective looks at old hire-car invoice, sees odometer at start and finish of a trip. Determines the driver gassed up and maybe finds the station he stopped at. But that sounds like an awful lot of range, even at a gallon an hour). This would be San Francisco, and rural areas outside of the city, back in the days when you could still stop at a general store and buy gas by the bucket. I came across the 1920 chalmers 35-c, which had an odometer and looks big enough (at least, not a flivver), so while I may not refer to it by name, it may be the general model I write around. There were a few others, I just need to determine what might have been most common at the time. Thanks everyone!

Actually, Franklin was a true anomaly.
Even though it carried a luxury car price tag and even though it had advanced technology for its time (aluminum body panels, aluminum engine block, air cooling) it was alone in its use of a wooden frame by the 1920s.

While it was standard practice by the '20s to use a steel frame (Franklin being essentially the only exception), Ford was unique in its price-class for its use of Vanadium Steel for the frame. The story (possibly apocryphal) is that Henry salvaged a piece of steel from a wrecked French race car because he was impressed by the condition of the frame after the crash. Analysis showed that it was a Vanadium alloy, and he decided to use this superior material in the T’s frame.

Some additional trivia:
Franklin went on to make air-cooled horizontally-opposed engines for US military helicopters during WW II. This engine was later apapted to water cooling for the Tucker “Torpedo” automobile. In order to assure a steady supply of the engines, Mr. Tucker purchased the Franklin company. When Tucker went out of business, that took down whatever was left of the old Franklin company as well.