(first posted 9/27/2016) When the Ford flathead V8 began production in 1932, the expression “game-changer” was yet to be coined – though that’s exactly what it was. Ford’s V8 changed motoring in the USA, eventually forcing all its competitors to also switch to V8s by the mid ‘50s. But one version of this engine, known in the US as the V8-60, lived longer and further than the others ever would.
I should note at this point that I will be focusing on the V8-60’s use in passenger cars made in Britain, France, the US and Germany. Before the Second World War, Fords were assembled in Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Hungary, India, Ireland, Japan, Latvia, Mexico, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the Philippines, Romania, Spain and Turkey. Ford had also helped build the giant Gorki works in the Soviet Union, which produced trucks and Model As. It is possible that V8-60s powered cars assembled in one or more of these assembly plants, but precise info is hard to come by (or decipher).
Start your engines
When Henry Ford and his engineers started work on the new V8 in the late ‘20s, many (if not most) of the popular cars being made in Europe and the US had four cylinders – including Fords. But when Chevrolet came out with the Stovebolt six in 1929, it outclassed the similarly-priced Ford Model A and undercut other competitors (the next “lowest-priced six”, the ’29 Essex, was twice as expensive as the Chevy).
While others were playing catch-up to GM, Henry Ford was hurriedly preparing what he hoped would be a decisive advantage: a low-priced flathead V8 displacing 3.6 litres (221 ci), to be rolled out in the spring of 1932. The story of this venerable engine was told by others with far more depth and competence than I could ever dream of doing (I particularly recommend this article).
However, the new flathead had a little twin brother. It was virtually identical in its virtues and vices, but it was quite a bit smaller at 2227cc (136 ci) or 2.6 x 3.2 in. (66 x 81 mm) in bore and stroke. Ford was thinking of his expanding empire overseas, especially in Europe, where smaller engines were preferred. The engine’s gross output, 60 hp, was in the ball-park of European mid-size cars at the time. One of the main differences with the 3.6 was the small V8’s alloy pistons and heads (though still flat).
Great Britain’s Small V8
Ford Motor Company Ltd. (Ford UK) had been assembling cars and trucks in Manchester for 20 years when the most massive car factory in Europe was opened in Dagenham, Essex, in 1931. The Model A was impossible to sell in Britain, though. The Model Y, designed in Dearborn specifically for the European market, began its life in Dagenham in 1932, and with it was born a long lineage of small blue oval cars mostly unknown in North America.
The news of the Ford V8 did make it to Britain in due course. Percival Perry, longtime Henry Ford acolyte, director of Ford UK and in charge of all of Ford’s overseas operations, was also informed of the existence of a smaller V8, tailor-made for a new line of mid-size cars and trucks to be built in Dagenham.
It was essential to first iron out the flathead’s many flaws, which took considerable time and effort. The 2.2 litre engine was not in production yet, allowing Ford to focus on the big V8’s issues throughout 1932 and 1933. Ford V8s sold in Europe at the time were made in Dearborn, or Canada for the British market.
Dagenham introduced the small V8 in a new car for 1935, which shared the larger V8 Ford’s body. The Ford-UK lineup would now consist of three cars: the 8 HP (Model Y, or Ford Popular), the 22 HP (Model 60) and the 30 HP (same as the American Fords).
These initial versions of the small V8 were imported from Michigan. Among other oddities, they had two exhaust ports running through each block, leading most blocks to crack. This was changed to the more usual three ports in 1936; virtually all the early production 22 HP Model 60s were eventually retrofitted with the improved V8s.
The 1936 22 HP car also transitioned to a completely new and smaller body more in tune with its capacities and was renamed Model 62. This new body came from the Chausson factory in Paris. The 22 HP Model 62 remained unchanged, with its 1936 grille and separate headlights, until production stopped in 1939.
A few woodies were made by independent coachbuilders, but otherwise (and unlike the 30 HP) all 22 HPs were standard saloons. It is unclear how many of these were made, but they do not seem to have had a very strong following.
Matford: arranged marriage or shotgun wedding?
One market that Ford had its eye on since the beginning was France. It was, like most car-making countries, a highly protected market. But it was also very fragmented (over 60 different car and truck makers in the early ‘30s, though “Big Three” (Citroën, Peugeot and Renault) held 75% of the car market) and it meant access to new markets in Africa and South-East Asia. Ford SAF (Société Anonyme Française), wholly owned by Dearborn and Ford UK, had been assembling cars and trucks in its Asnières factory since 1926, but needed to expand and include more locally-made components.
The Depression, which began hitting the French economy in earnest by 1932, quickly led to higher import taxes – Ford SAF cars and trucks were assembled from mostly American- and British-made components – and therefore low margins. Ford SAF was losing money; the Model Y (called Ford 6 CV) was not selling well, the big V8s too expensive and exotic. The economic downturn was also precipitating several French concerns toward bankruptcy. Among them was the fourth biggest automaker, Mathis.
Emile Mathis had just invested massively to renovate his Strasbourg factory when the bottom fell out of the market. He had no more credit line to renew his ageing cars and needed to keep his factory running. Ford had determined that, contrary to its standard practice, chauvinistic France would be more amenable to buying Ford V8s under the guise of a more Gallic moniker. Adding Mathis’ extensive dealership network to Ford SAF’s would also be a welcome boost. This was essentially doing what GM had done with the Opel and Vauxhall buy-outs – at least on the surface.
Ford SAF director Maurice Dollfus approached Mathis with a deal: Ford SAF would merge with Mathis, using the Strasbourg plant’s capacity to build Ford engines and chassis; the Mathis range would continue with its smaller 4-cyl. models. Ford SAF would initially own 52% of the merged company and Mathis (and his creditors) would own the rest. The deal was signed in September 1934.
The new entity, Matford, started making its first model, the 3.6 litre Matford V8-66 Alsace, in early 1935. The chassis was very Ford – live axles front and rear, and mechanical brakes; it was rated by the French authorities as a 21 CV (fiscal HP) car. Bodies would be outsourced to Chausson, an industrial coachbuilder who had just acquired a license from Ambi-Budd to manufacture all-steel bodies. Dollfus knew that the 21 CV was far too large to sell in great numbers. But the small V8 was on its way…
Ford SAF gets custody of baby V8
Things unravelled rather quickly between Mathis and Ford. Dollfus viewed the Mathis range as too expensive to be competitive and an unwelcome distraction from building a strong Ford presence in France. The Strasbourg plant stopped producing Mathis cars and switched entirely to making Matfords by late 1935, just as the small V8 car appeared.
The smaller Matford V8-62 Alsace was launched at the 1935 Paris Motor Show and drew a lot of public interest. It had a reduced wheelbase and was subject to a more palatable 13 CV tax. The French and British Ford V8-62 saloons were very similar in 1936 – the main difference being the Matfords’ front suicide doors. The Matfords, however, were treated to integrated headlamps in 1937, aping the Lincoln Zephyr and the new American Ford, and subjected to yearly cosmetic touch-ups and model name changes.
The four cylinder Fords, being assembled CKD cars from Dagenham, were too expensive. Dearborn directed its French branch to stop making the Model Y (6 CV) and Model C (7 CV, a.k.a Ford Eifel) without any plans for a replacement model, much to the despair of both Mathis and Dollfus.
Emile Mathis began legal proceedings, which took several years and resulted in a Pyrrhic victory, for he won ample compensation by 1942, but never managed to resume car production. The eviction of Mathis and the failure of the small Fords left Matford’s car lineup with locally-made small V8s or the imported 3.6 – in four-door saloon or two-door convertible varieties, as well as a woody.
In 1937, Matford built just over 13,800 cars and trucks – a paltry sum compared to the Rouge, of course, but respectable for a young American upstart in Depression-riddled France. However, this was not the volume Dearborn had envisaged, and Matford was keeping afloat more thanks to its trucks than its cars.
Plans were drawn to relocate from Strasbourg to the more convenient Paris suburbs, where the older Ford plant and Chausson both were located. Besides, the lease on the Mathis plant would be up by 1940. Construction of a brand new factory began in Poissy. The small V8 was still up-to-date, though the car’s lack of both independent front suspension and hydraulic brakes was starting to look a bit old-hat by 1939.
Military orders began pouring in, wiping any remaining unsold cars and trucks, even as the Strasbourg plant was hastily evacuated due to its frontline location. The Poissy plant was opened in 1940, six weeks before the German invasion. By this time, the divorce with Mathis was consummated and the company reverted to its original name, Ford SAF, but making cars was no longer on the agenda.
Little V8 goes to a big country
Dearborn followed the progress of the small V8 in Britain and France with keen interest. The Europeans seemed to take to the new engine. Perhaps it was time to propose it to Ford’s American clientele, as the lingering Depression seemed to drag the car market further and further down. Thrift was the name of the game, so a smaller V8 might appeal to the car-buying American public of the late ‘30s.
The V8-60 (as it was called in the US, and only in the US) was included in Ford’s 1937 range. It had benefitted from its trial run in Europe and was a competent workhorse – at least compared to the V8s of 1932, though there were a few niggles. The initial V8-60 differed from European production in that its cylinder blocks were welded with alloy water jackets, presumably to improve cooling – a notorious weak point of all Ford flathead V8s. But the “tin side” V8-60 was even worse, as it quickly developed leaks. The design was changed back to the all-iron block by April 1937; soon after, the small V8’s aluminum head was also switched to cast iron. Not a great omen for the V8-60…
In the US and Canada, Ford’s small V8 was not kept in service for very long. After four model years (1937-1940), it was retired in favour of the new straight six that Henry Ford had resisted for so long. How many North American Ford cars got the V8-60? Data are elusive, but the unanimous view seems to be: “not many.” But the little engine was soon the darling of the hot rodders: although a fairly mediocre performer in stock form, the V8-60 was cheap, relatively plentiful and easy to modify.
For a couple of decades after 1937, many V8-60s were yanked out of American Ford cars and trucks, tinkered with, put on small artisanal chassis and given lightweight streamlined bodies. It was the age of the midget racers. It was relatively simple to squeeze 100 hp or more out of a V8-60, so an entire cottage industry developed to cater to this demand. Popular modifications included twin / triple / quad Strombergs, OHV heads, increased bores, special crankshafts, performance pistons, and so on.
The engine’s decent reliability (post 1937) also made it a tempting replacement for more troublesome motors: a number of V8-60s were installed in Crosleys in the ‘50s, as well as some small European cars that lacked affordable spare parts or were considered too underwhelming in stock form.
Kraft durch V8
The history of European Fords is one of complex to-and-froes directed ham-fistedly from Michigan. The German operation is a case in point. Dearborn insisted on foisting a 3.3 litre 4-cyl. Model B, known as the Ford Rheinland, upon the German market when everyone else was getting the new V8s. The Rheinland was a commercial failure, though luckily the small Fords (the Model Y, known as the Ford Köln) sold well enough.
The new factory in Cologne, built in 1929-1931 to counter GM’s purchase of Opel, did assemble CKD American V8 models. But it took a long time for Ford to settle on a modus operandi with the German regime, who mainly wanted Ford trucks for its military.
Not unlike British and French V8s, the Cologne cars were initially available with the larger engine. In 1939, the 2.2 litre V8 was finally made available in the Ford V8 G92A. It shared its handsome but heavy Ambi-Budd body with the Ford Standard 3.6 V8, launched in late 1936.
Production of the V8 G92A sedan, whose body had nothing in common with the other European V8s, was quite limited due to the outbreak of the Second World War. After 1940-41, no V8 Ford cars were made in Germany as all vehicle production shifted to trucks.
Ford-Werke AG, as it became in those days, took control of the French branch, which also began making Ford trucks for the Wehrmacht and expanded the Poissy factory. Ford engines, including the V8-60, powered all the main armies present in the European theater (except the Italian one, as Fiat had managed to keep Ford at bay).
Looking at the Ford’s small V8 with 20/20 hindsight, the project was a semi-success in the US and a semi-failure in Europe. American motorists were enthused by the engine’s gas mileage and, post 1937, its durability, but it was too underpowered for consumers who had gotten used to the torque of the 85hp V8 or the Model A. Europeans marvelled at the fact that they might afford an eight-cylinder car, but in these uncertain economic times, not many ended up buying one.
By the end of 1940, it is safe to say that the small V8 was no longer being used in passenger cars, though a few of the French and German models may have been put together and sold until early 1941. The engine itself remained in production for trucks and a variety of military applications. There it would remain, on either side of the Atlantic, for five long years of conflict. But this was only temporary, as we will see in part two of this article.