From 1932 to 1954 the fortunes of Ford Motor Company would ride a wild roller coaster of ups and downs. At times sales forged ahead rapidly, and at others the company narrowly avoided going under. Throughout this 22-year period, however, there was one constant, one everlasting icon that Ford fans could count on - the flathead V-8.
When it became abundantly clear even to Henry Ford that his Model T was on its last legs in the marketplace, along about 1927 or so, the old man wanted to build a V-8-powered car to take its place. With the company's future dangling by a thread, though, an interim move created another four cylinder car, the Model A.
Ford never let loose his idea of a V-8, though, and, as the market appeal of the Model A waned considerably in 1931, his engineers embarked on a blitzkrieg campaign to develop a marketable V-8 engine at a Ford price. Of course, in that era only a few very expensive marques offered eight-cylinder engines, and only a handful of them used the "V" configuration. Most were straight-8's, a less sophisticated arrangement, and one that was unsuited to low-priced, short-wheelbase Fords. Henry Ford pointed the way to a V-8, but the Ford engineering staff of Ray Laird, Emil Zoerlein and Carl Schultz took the concept much farther than their boss would have imagined (or authorized, for that matter.) Starting at ground zero they designed a 221 cubic inch powerplant that delivered 65 horsepower at 3400 rpm. Constructed of cast iron with side-operated valves, the Ford V-8 wasn't terribly sophisticated, but that wasn't the point. The point was that the Ford V-8 could be manufactured for a fraction of the cost of a Cadillac or Lincoln V-8 yet still deliver V-8 smoothness and performance.
As drawn up by Zoerlein, Schultz and Laird, the 90-degree block offered a remarkable degree of sophistication yet it could still be cast as a single unit. To ensure this, production genius Charles Sorensen worked hard and long on the manufacturing processes necessary to build the new engine, and for his efforts he was accorded the title "Cast-Iron Charlie."
Wrapped around the new V-8 were several attractive open and closed bodies that were essentially updates of the Model A lineup. (In fact, at the same time Ford announced its new V-8, it also introduced the Model B, a car powered by a revised four cylinder Model A engine that was tweaked to produce 50 horsepower. Four-cylinder Fords would be sold right alongside V-8 versions through 1934.) The key styling change was the use of a grille and fascia forward of the now-hidden radiator core, and the key engineering change was a longer wheelbase. At 106.5 inches, the wheelbase of both V-8 and four-cylinder were three inches longer than that of the Model A. Aside from that, the chassis and running gear, engineered by Emery Nador and Eugene Farkas were essentially clones of the Model A, since Henry Ford was not exactly a driving agent for change.
As with its predecessor, the new V-8-powered Ford car created a sensation in the marketplace when it was unveiled on March 31, 1932 and shown to the general public two days later. Christened the Model 18, a name that even many Ford purists don't recognize, first V-8 car had been built only a few weeks before, and Ford workers had to scramble to get cars into the pipeline.
The public was clamoring for the car based on its combination of good performance and low price. On the strength of its 65-horsepower "cast-iron wonder" the Model 18 had a top speed of 78 miles per hour and significantly better acceleration that the typical car of its era. Even before it appeared in showrooms, Ford had booked 50,000 orders for the V-8, and there is no doubt it was one of the bargains of the decade. A V-8-powered roadster could be had for as little as $410, and a Tudor sedan, the most popular body type, was just $450. The introduction of the Model 18 didn't go without a hitch, however. Because the V-8 had been rushed into production there were some durability problems, particularly with the heads and engine mounts. The engine also got a reputation as an "oil burner."
Faced with some uncharacteristic mechanical problems, production downtime for re-tooling and the appealing 1932 Chevrolet Confederate line, Ford sales were behind Chevy's as the model year closed out. Of course, the worsening Depression didn't help sales either, and Ford Motor Company lost $75 million for the year.
With this loss staring him in the face, Henry Ford, the man who wanted all his cars painted black because black paint dried the fastest, was forced to start playing the game like General Motors. For 1933, Ford entered the world of the annual model change, and its offerings were remarkably different than the attractive lineup that went to market just one year earlier.
A big change was another increase in wheelbase, and this time the jump was almost half a foot to 112 inches. At the same time, the body was re-styled with a definite European influence. The laid-back, shovel-shaped grille, sweeping fenders and rear-hinged "suicide" doors were very reminiscent of the British Ford of the period. Another key improvement came under the hood. The V-8 was significantly revamed, remedying some of its early teething problems and giving it an addition 10 horsepower (to 75.)
V-8 equipped Fords were fast, and that fact was attested to by some unlikely sources. Both Clyde Barrow of Bonnie and Clyde fame and Public Enemy Number 1 John Dillinger wrote Henry Ford laudatory letters about the performance of the Ford V-8. It was actually a case of the quick and the dead, since neither man would survive the decade, no matter how fast his getaway car was. Incremental improvement would continue throughout the Thirties. Horsepower was bumped up again to 85 in 1934. In 1936 Ford cars outsold Chevrolet for the first time in nearly a decade on the strength of some very attractive body styles. The following year a 136 cubic inch, 60-horsepower engine joined the 85-horsepower version in the lineup but it failed to make much impact in the market, although Ford's company "goons" did make some impact on union leaders during a pitched battle that between the two that same year.
Even though Henry Ford finally relented and allowed hydraulic brakes to be installed on his 1939 models, by 1940 Ford was nearly 300,000 sales behind Chevrolet in the yearly race. This came despite the fact that the E.T. "Bob" Gregorie-designed '40 Fords were among the most handsome ever. Ford survived the war by becoming a big part of the military effort, but during the war Edsel Ford died and a rapidly aging Henry Ford did little to prepare the company for peacetime prosperity. By 1948 Chrysler had passed Ford Motor Company to become the number two American automobile manufacturer.
Just as Ford seemed to be fading away, a dramatic restyling of the car line in 1949, accompanied by a thorough revamp of the flathead V-8, saved the company from oblivion. The flathead V-8 would continue to power Ford cars until 1954 when a new overhead valve V-8 replaced it. Nothing, however, could replace in the hearts of Ford fans who ranged from the glorious to the notorious.