(first posted 10/1/2016) When Henry Ford II replaced his grandfather as president of the Ford Motor Company in 1945, he immediately saw that Ford was becoming a zombie corporation. But at least, the company was well in the black. Not just in the US, either: Dagenham (UK), Cologne (Germany) and Poissy (France), Ford’s three biggest manufacturing centres in Europe, had seen considerable profits from war production.
Ford’s European factories had been bombed, but not completely destroyed or looted. Indeed, they had all grown in size over the course of the conflict. Poissy, in particular, which had just opened in 1940, was now a sprawling site and was about to open its own foundry. A new team was being set up in Dearborn around Henry Ford II, but most of the European executives remained unchanged. It was time to start making cars again for a hungry consumer. And one little engine was eager to get back to work for civilians: the 2.2 (136 cu. in.) Ford flathead V8.
The New 2.5 That Never Was
Ford UK prioritized its pre-war small 4-cyl. offerings over anything else – going back to volume production was the chief concern. But the range still needed a large car with a V8. Dagenham’s stylists therefore restyled the pre-war 22 HP Model 62, especially its front end, and launched the Ford V8 Pilot. The Pilot had hydraulic front brakes but retained rod-operated ones in the rear, a practice found in several British cars at the time (Austin, Daimler, Riley, etc.)
But which engine would be used to power the Pilot? Ford-UK wanted to introduce a more potent small V8, increased to 2.5 litres. But it never left Dagenham’s engineering department, though the intent to introduce this new motor in the Pilot was made public at the car’s launch in late 1947.
Another widely-spread canard, possibly related to the phantom 2.5 litre V8, is that early Ford Pilots were fitted with V8-60s, allegedly “Canadian war surplus” engines from Ford Universal Carriers. This “fact” is reported in several websites and books, despite the evidence that Canadian-made Universal Carriers used the larger Mercury 3.9 litre (239 cu. in.) V8s. The Pilot may have used surplus V8s, but those were of the 3.6 litre (221 cu. in.) variety, which was produced in ample numbers at Dagenham throughout the war, including for the British Army’s version of the Universal Carrier.
Britain had abandoned the small V8 for good. Salvation came from the company formerly known as Matford, Ford SAF (Société Anonyme Française).
Poissy’s “Petit V8”
The Poissy factory was one of the most modern in 1946 France and, for the first time, it was going to make Ford-branded cars. Ford SAF director Maurice Dollfus was keen to get a brand new model out soonest, but for the time being, the pre-war Matford would have to do.
The 1939 car was re-badged and lightly touched-up, given hydraulic brakes (on all wheels), a slightly revised suspension and, a few months into production, a fashionable column-mounted gear change. The Ford V8 F 472 A used the 2225cc V8, as per its Matford 13 CV ancestor; a Cotal electromagnetic gearbox could now be specified. The 3.9 litre flathead (22 CV) could also be ordered, which made the car a Ford V8 F 998 A (only about 100 were made; most of these engines were used for Ford trucks).
The two-door convertibles were no longer in the lineup, but the commercial chassis was, including a pick-up, a van and a handsome woody called break de chasse (shooting brake). The F 472 C used the same V8 and ameliorations as the F 472 A but kept the pre-war grille. The F 472 range was produced in over 7000 units over two years (1946-1948), a respectable number for a model whose tooling had been amortized many times over already.
The Incredible Shrinking V8
Ford (US) product planners envisaged a “light car” for the immediate post-war years, and work started in earnest in the summer of 1944. A year later, after being investigated (and briefly jailed) for having collaborated with the Nazis, Maurice Dollfus went to Dearborn to discuss the future of Ford SAF and meet the new executives. Alas, the top brass at Ford were more focused on trying to keep Ford’s domestic operations afloat. Dollfus went back to France without much, but he had seen the “light car,” the existence of which had been leaked to the press already.
The “light car” project was very advanced when, in 1946, Henry Ford II decided to go with a new normal-sized Ford instead. Dollfus lobbied for the “light car” to be produced in Poissy, as it seemed tailor-made for a small V8 and European tastes in terms of size. The Ford Vedette (internally known as the F 492 E) was about to be born.
The Dearborn design rode on a 106 inch wheelbase. It was styled by Eugene T. “Bob” Gregorie, hence the family resemblance between the new French Ford and the 1949 Mercury.
The Vedette also traded the outdated solid front axle of the previous generation for an independent set-up with McPherson struts – a world premiere! The gearbox did not change (three on the tree, no synchro on 1st) and the four-speed Cotal transmission was still available at extra cost. When it was launched at the Paris Motor Show in October 1948, the Ford Vedette was a sensation: it looked very modern, very American, it had a V8 and a plush interior.
Ford SAF did recognize that the small V8 was, given the times, still a bit big for most people. If volume production were to be reached, the V8 had better come down a notch. The stroke was reduced by 25 mm, resulting in a 2158cc (131.5 cu. in.) V8 generating 60 hp and a lower 12 CV tax band.
The Ford was the first new French car in its class, competing with the Citroën 15-Six and others for a place in the garages of the upper middle-class. At FF 620,000 in 1948, the Vedette was still more expensive than the 2.9 litre 6-cyl. Citroën (FF 555,000), but about 20% cheaper than the Hotchkiss and Salmson 4-cyl. (13 CV) models. From 1951, the Vedette would also have a serious new competitor in the 2-litre Renault Frégate.
Production had been rushed and the 1949 cars experienced a lot of quality control issues (some of which were attributable to Chausson) and structural rigidity problems that led Ford SAF to add an X-frame to the chassis after 1950. The small V8 was criticized for its relatively big appetite, chronic overheating and sluggish performance. At least Ford SAF could improve on the latter by increasing the compression ratio, eking out an extra 6hp for 1951.
V8 Cars & Treacherous Times
Maurice Dollfus, who had been at the helm of Ford SAF since 1930, was replaced in 1950 by François Lehideux, a former minister in the Vichy government and married to Louis Renault’s niece. It would have been hard for Dearborn to make a more politically tone-deaf decision than appointing Lehideux, but he was seen as an effective administrator and recommended as such by Dollfus.
However, Lehideux was also quite a headstrong character, who did not take kindly to Dearborn’s meddling in what he regarded as his remit. His confrontational style also led to a marked increase in strikes at Poissy, including a bitter month-long standoff that was only resolved by the intervention of the riot police.
A full range was soon developed for the Vedette, including a factory-made découvrable (a saloon with a full-length soft-top), a two-door coupé and a convertible. Outside coachbuilders also proposed variants of the Vedette, such as convertibles, station wagons and panel vans.
As with the pre-war Matfords, all saloon bodies were made and painted by Chausson; the low production two-door Vedettes were subcontracted to Rosengart.
The new Ford was seen by the public as a thoroughly modern and attractive car, especially when compared to its domestic rivals. But the Vedette was not selling very well. The car’s image had been damaged by its early production woes. Lehideux decided to commission a halo car with a more European look.
The new car would be a coupé, designed by Farina and built by Facel: the Comète. It was launched in the summer of 1951 with the Vedette’s wheezy V8 – though it was 200kg heavier than the saloon. The V8 was soon tweaked to 68 hp, and then up to 74 hp at 4500 rpm.
One problem was that Lehideux had never bothered to inform Dearborn about this new model. Henry Ford II hit the roof when he learned that his company’s French subsidiary was launching new cars without his say-so.
From then on, Poissy was in Dearborn’s crosshairs. Henry the Deuce and his Whiz Kids looked at the situation and the numbers: there was one too many Ford subsidiary in Europe. Ford SAF was still not making much money, stuck as it was with a V8 range that was not viable in terms of exports: in these pre-Common Market days, the Vedette was being sold in European markets at prices close to Chevrolets and American-made Fords, whose finish, looks and performance were hard to beat.
The Vedette needed of a shot in the arm – the fastback look was out, the V8 too lame. A quick and cheap three-box facelift were in the works, as well as a competing (but more expensive) Facel design.
The cheaper option won out, and the new-look Vedette was launched for the 1953 model year. The car now had a new roof with a larger backlight, a larger trunk, a new grille and a one-piece windshield.
The V8’s cooling system and pistons were also revised to improve the engine’s reliability: for the first time, a French car would be sold with a one-year / 50,000 km warranty.
The old fastback body would remain in production for a new line of stripper saloons, the Ford Abeille, with a two-piece tailgate, blanked out C-pillars and zero chrome.
Dearborn Pulls The Plug, But The V8 Carries On
Whiz Kids Francis “Jack” Reith and Walter McKee was sent over to France in late 1952 with a clear mission: sell off Ford SAF and get rid of Lehideux. Reith achieved the second task within six months as Lehideux resigned in a huff. Finding a buyer for Poissy was going to take a bit more work, though.
Restoring financial normalcy was the top priority, as highly questionable accounting practices instituted by Lehideux to keep Dearborn off his back hid the fact that Ford SAF was in bad shape. Poissy was selling less than 20,000 cars per year. Costs would need to be cut, and staff laid off, so the balance sheet could look more attractive to a prospective buyer. And the cars would need a revamp to stay in the game. The small V8 stayed the same in the saloon but was reworked for the Comète. A new 13 CV version, now bored and stroked (67.9 x 81.3mm) to 2355cc (143.7 cu. in.) and producing 80hp, became standard for 1953.
Reith opted to reintroduce the large flatheads for ’54, launching the Vendôme luxury saloon and the Monte-Carlo coupé with the 22 CV engine last seen in 1948 (though still used in the truck range). The large V8 was now dubbed the “Mistral” and, through a higher compression ratio, it produced 95 hp in the saloon and 105 hp in the Monte-Carlo.
By 1954, Reith had managed to restructure production and normalize industrial relations well enough that Poissy was back in the black, and genuinely so. It was time to find a buyer for Ford SAF’s assets. Interestingly, as Ford had started out by buying the 4th largest French automaker in 1934, the 4th largest French automaker of 1954, Simca, was now eyeing Poissy.
Simca was somewhat similar to Ford SAF in that it was foreign-owned and supported by a major car company (Fiat). It also started operations in 1934 by purchasing a recently-built factory from an automaker that had gone belly-up (Donnet). Simca’s director, Henri-Theodore Pigozzi, was looking to increase production capacity, as the Aronde’s meteoric success left him unable to meet demand. Ford SAF’s offer seemed to fit the bill; Reith and Pigozzi reached an understanding in July 1954.
New Car, More Power And Different Brand For The Small V8
Ford received 15% of Simca’s stock in exchange for Poissy and Reith was able to sweeten the deal with a brand new car, too. Dearborn had shelled out major development dollars to engineer a completely new body for the Vedette; the small V8 would carry on in the new car.
Poissy’s engineers determined that the new model, which was to be even classier than the old Vedette, might benefit from a revised V8, so the 2.1 litre engine was re-bored and stroked (66.1 x 85.8 mm) to 2351 cc (143.5 cu. in.), producing 80 hp at 4400 rpm and tax-rated at 13 CV. (It should be noted that this engine is not the same as the Comète 2355 cc 13 CV engine of 1953. The reason for the existence of these two nearly identical V8s is unclear.)
The Ford Vedette 55 was now ready for prime-time. It was to be produced and sold as a Ford for a very short time, until the Simca deal became operational in November 1954. (In some European markets, the new car remained a Ford for the whole of 1955, as Simca lacked notoriety outside France). Remaining stocks of the larger V8 cars (Vendôme and Monte-Carlo), as well as the Abeille, were rebadged and sold under the Simca name for the 1955 model year only.
Jack Reith went back to Michigan soon after the “FORD” script was replaced by “SIMCA” on the plant’s facade in December 1954. Upon his return, he was feted as a hero for having gotten rid of the thorn in Dearborn’s side that was Ford SAF. He basked in his glory for a short while until he was fired himself for having sold Ford on two turkeys (the Mercury Turnpike Cruiser and the Edsel). Ford SAF was reincorporated as Ford France and merely sold imported British, German and American Fords (though Ford did keep a small factory in Bordeaux).
The small Ford V8, a.k.a the V8-60 (or, in its new French 2.4 form, the “Aquilon”), made it to its 20th birthday with over 110,000 units made in Poissy since the war. It was now the last flathead V8 still in production, as its larger American cousins had been put to rest by 1953 (in the USA), 1954 (in Canada) and 1955 (in France). Now 80 hp strong and coupled with a spanking new body shell, the small V8 was ready and willing to provide years of service for its new parent company, Simca.