Imagine heading down to your Ford dealer and picking out a new Fusion or a Taurus model.
On the options sheet, however, you’re able to check a box that will give your grocery-getter a 540-horsepower V-8 straight from the Mustang Shelby GT 500.
Now, imagine paying about the same amount for that car as you would for a run-of-the-mill V-6 version. Sounds crazy, right?
Well, back in the early 1930s, that was the public’s reaction when word leaked out that Henry Ford was planning to introduce a V-8 engine to his line of low-priced cars and trucks.
Up until that time, such an engine was the exclusive domain of the luxury automobile market, including Ford’s Lincoln division. Mass V-8 power to the people simply did not apply to the everyday Ford Model T or Model A owners who could only dream of having that many cylinders at their disposal.
But Henry Ford was determined to make it happen. His motivation was simple: William Durant’s Chevrolet car company had earlier introduced six-cylinder power to its low-priced vehicles. The Chevy “Blue Flame” straight-six was not only a smoother-running powerplant, but delivered a whopping 20 more horsepower than Ford’s comparatively bog-slow 40-horse four-banger. As a result, by the end of the 1931 model year, Chevrolet had dethroned the Model A as the most popular brand on the market.
To fight back, in 1929, amid extremely tight security (even Henry Ford’s son Edsel was initially kept in the dark), a small group of engineers housed in a separate “skunkworks” facility began working on development of a mass-produced V-8 motor.
To keep production costs down, the engine’s block had to be cast in one piece, something that had never been done.
While work on the V-8 carried on in earnest, Ford continued to hedge his bets on four-cylinder power. A separate engineering team worked to improve the existing powerplant, eventually adding 10 more horsepower.
In March, 1932, production finally began on the Model 18, the name given to the first V-8-powered Ford passenger car. Underneath the longer and mildly altered body (designed by a group headed up by Edsel Ford) were several significant improvements compared to the Model A. The new 221-cubic-inch “flathead” V-8 used rubber engine mounts to control vibration and the entire chassis was constructed using a stouter frame. The car’s front-mounted gas tank had also been relocated to the rear for better weight distribution.
Mechanically, the V-8-powered Fords were equipped with larger brakes and the three-speed manual transmission received synchronized second and third gears. Finally, the steering ratio was increased to aid maneuverability.
The launch of the Ford V-8 created an enormous public sensation with millions crowding into dealerships for a look-see. But early on, demand far outstripped supply for a number of reasons. The teething problems created by the rushed introduction of the V-8 resulted in one out of every two of the cast-iron blocks being rejected before making it into the car’s engine bay. And a number that were leaving the factory suffered from a number of maladies, such as overheating, vapor lock problems and extreme oil consumption.
Despite these difficulties, demand for the V-8 model was high, no doubt due to its robust 65-horsepower output and bargain-basement sticker price.
That same year, the newly-revised four-cylinder-equipped Model B Ford was introduced, followed by the Model C in 1933. But these cars were understandably poor sellers, and by 1934, all of Ford’s production was switched to the much more powerful V-8.
The 1934 Fords also featured a more streamlined body highlighted by a distinctive V-shaped grille. Virtually every body style imaginable was available, including coupes, sedans, roadsters, phaetons (four-door convertible style), cabriolets (two-door convertible), station wagons and pickup trucks. The V-8’s durability problems seemed to have been cured by that time (although overheating would remain a constant worry) and horsepower had been increased to 85.
Of all the early V-8 Ford cars produced, the ’34 is prized for its smooth styling. With this model, stylists began moving toward the eventual integration of the hood, headlights and front fenders.
As for the flathead V-8, it would remain as the standard-bearer of the Ford fleet until finally being put out to pasture in 1953. During its years of active service, this motor would not only remain a Ford exclusive, but it would be the engine of choice of hot-rodders everywhere.
Today, Ford’s flathead is one of the best-known and best-loved engines ever produced, and the motor that made performance accessible for mass consumption and enjoyment.
Malcolm Gunn is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. He can be reached on the Web at www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html. Wheelbase Communications supplies automotive news and features to newspapers across North America.