U.S. The 1932 Ford V-8, Henry Ford's final triumph
By BILL McGUIRE
(Photos © 2003 Alvin Haas)
In the age of mass production, a man could change the world with a single idea. Henry Ford had several. With the Model T, Ford was not the first to conceive of a car for the masses, but was the first to accomplish it. Other ideas that made the Model T possible, including the moving assembly line and the five-dollar day, weren’t originally his ideas either. But Ford made them his own by being the first to make them work. He was often credited for inventions not entirely his own, much like Ford’s hero Thomas Edison. To hear his critics tell it, Edison never had an original idea either. In the incandescent lamp, Edison “stole” an invention—an unworkable, discarded one—and made it work when no one else could, or cared. As everyone knows, Edison claimed “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” If the inspiration belonged to someone else, so be it.
On the factory floor Ford found his own corollary to Edison’s credo. “At some point it becomes necessary to dispense with the services of experts,” he said. When Ford decided to execute his final great idea, a V8 engine, he assembled a small group of engineers, not in the elaborate Ford engineering laboratories in Dearborn, but just down the street at Greenfield Village, his historical theme park.
There, in Edison’s cramped old workshop, under Ford’s direct supervision and at a safe distance from the experts who knew it couldn’t be done, they developed the first Ford V8 in 1932. It wasn’t the first production V8—Cadillac for one had built them since 1915. It wasn’t the first “monoblock” V8 either, as is still often claimed, or even the first low-priced V8. Oakland and Viking came first. But when Ford’s V8 was introduced, it was the first cheap V8 that was any good. In comparison the Oakland and Viking were monstrosities, and deserve to be forgotten.
Why eight cylinders, rather than four or six? The Model T (1909-27) used a four-cylinder engine, as did its successor, the Model A (1928-31). They were good enough until 1929, when Chevrolet trumped the Model A’s four with a new six. Ford never cared for sixes; he would answer Chevrolet’s six with eight. A brilliant practical engineer, Ford despised complication, but he intuitively sensed the advantage of multiple cylinders. More cylinders for a given displacement means a shorter stroke for each cylinder, decreasing piston speed and allowing higher crankshaft speeds. More cylinders also provide more valve area per unit of displacement, for more effective breathing. Eight cylinders are far smoother than four as well. A four-stroke, four-cylinder engine offers up only two power impulses for each crankshaft revolution, while an eight yields four.
The venerable four used in the Model A displaced 200.5 cubic inches and developed 40 hp at 2200 rpm. The new 1932 V8 displaced 221 cubic inches and was initially rated at a conservative 65 hp at 3400 rpm. By 1934 it made 85 hp at 3800 rpm, with only minor development. So using the same basic cast-iron technology as the four, the V8 made more than double the horsepower. Also, at that time, most eight-cylinder engines were massive straight eights, which required a long, heavy chassis. The compact V8 package fit in the same underhood space as the old inline four. (The V8 fell nicely into a Model A chassis, as hot rodders later discovered.)
There were problems to overcome with the V8 configuration: casting the complex L-head cylinder block in one unit to trim costs and engineering a practical dual-plane crankshaft. Initially, the scrap rates ran more than 50 percent. Also, there was an inherent drawback in Ford’s design: The center two exhaust ports were siamesed and routed through the water jackets between the center cylinders on each bank, so the engine ran perpetually hot. (And there are only three exhaust pipes per side, which may confuse modern eyes expecting to see four.) But once the problems were under control, Ford had a smooth and powerful engine in a light, low-priced car. With the Model T, Ford had put Everyman on wheels, and changed our world. With the Ford V8, now he gave Everyman some real horsepower, and changed our world again.
There were fast, powerful cars in 1932—Packards, Cadillacs and so forth—but most people couldn’t afford them. High performance was found in expensive automobiles. Not any more. In ’32, a Ford V8 roadster could be had for $460, only $10 more than the four-cylinder Model B, while a Cadillac V8 sold for six times more. The Ford V8 changed the way the average person related to automobiles. Cars were no longer just transportation, which was magical enough in itself. Now cars could be real objects of desire for everyone. Horsepower had attained democracy. While people had always tinkered with cars, Fords especially, the power of the V8 opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Several new forms of American motorsport were kick-started into life, and hot rodding—sport, hobby, way of life, social movement—was truly born.
Seventy years later, it’s difficult to imagine the impact of the Ford V8 when it hit the streets. The best we could do was to try to duplicate the experience. Ken Campbell of Dearborn, Michigan, owns a nicely restored ’34 Tudor sedan. We took it out for a drive to get a taste of what the revolution was all about. First, a quick run down the block, then oops, straight back to Campbell’s garage—there’s a vibration in the steering. A loose taper joint at the leading end of the drag link is quickly discovered, and with a simple adjustment we’re back on our way. There’s the first beauty of it: Most any problem on a Ford V8, engine or chassis, could be addressed with only a wrench, screwdriver and pliers, and minimal skills. We’ll never know how many budding mechanics and engineers were guided and nurtured over the years by the Ford V8’s simple nature.
Out on the Southfield Freeway the V8 is quickly, and almost effortlessly, up to 70 mph. But let’s be clear. In automotive terms, 1934 was a long time ago. This is in no way a modern car. It has mechanical brakes, vague steering, crude suspension. The synchronizers in the three-speed transmission are now largely hypothetical, so double-clutching is required. But the engine and the power it delivers feel up-to-date in every way: smooth, muscular, gliding. Compared to the rough old four-banger it replaced, the V8 cruised on a cloud. In its day, a good Ford V8 could leave the stoplight smoothly in second, and hit 85 mph in top gear. Meanwhile, a Model A could rattle its way up to maybe 60, in a trailing wind. Campbell has replaced the original 4.11:1 rear end in his Tudor with a 3.54:1 final drive. The higher gear ratio reduces acceleration somewhat, but allows highway driving at contemporary speeds.
Campbell’s ’34 V8 will roll along at 65 mph all day, though given the comically ineffective brakes it isn’t advisable in traffic, he warns.
Racers were quick to recognize the V8’s qualities, and Fords soon ruled the roost.
On Aug. 23, 1933, at Elgin, Illinois, in a 205-mile road race for stock cars of less than 250 cid, Fred Frame in a Ford V8 won, with Fords sweeping the top seven places. His average speed was 80.22 mph on the eight-mile, pavement-and-gravel course, and at one point he was clocked at more than 100 mph past the grandstand. To put that performance into perspective, Frame had qualified at the Indianapolis 500 that year at 117 mph, in a full-blown Miller race car.
Despite its flathead valve configuration and creaky three-main bearing crankshaft, tuners quickly figured out how to squeeze 150 hp and more out of the Ford V8. Terms like boring, stroking, porting and relieving entered the vernacular. A Ford V8 in a shortened stock chassis finished 13th in the 1934 Indy 500. The next year, an ambitious factory-backed Ford team appeared at the Speedway, with a fleet of special front-drive chassis designed by Harry Miller. The effort proved to be a disaster, driving the Ford Motor Co. off the Speedway for almost 30 years. But no fault rested with the engine. Its reputation only grew—to go fast, get a Ford V8.
As a ’34, Campbell’s Ford is equipped with the early 21-stud engine. Engines built in 1939 and later use 24 studs to attach each cylinder head, so are referred to as 24-stud V8s. From 1937 to 1940 there was also a miniature 60-hp, 136-cid version of the V8, the engine of choice in midget racing.
My first car was a 67 Mustang Coupe, 2nd one was a 67 Cougar XR-7, 3rd one was a 66 Mustang Coupe. Why did I get rid of these cars for ? I know why, because I'm stupid, stupid, stupid.
My next Ford.....