Book Review: “The Man Who Saved The V8”

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Once I got past the hyperbolic title (at the very least, it should be: “The Man Who Saved The Ford V8”; better yet would be “The Man Who Saved The Ford V8, Temporarily”) and the first chapter, in which the author makes the very common Ford V8 of the 30s and 40s seem as if it were the mythical equivalent of the 60s Chrysler hemi engine, the story of Mr. Morsey’s involvement in some very important product decisions at Ford during the period 1949 to 1964 is engaging, and filled in a key historical blank spot for me. It’s quite a story, actually.

Mr. Morsey was hired by Ford in late 1948 by Jack Reith, one of the “Whiz Kids” team that had been hired by Henry Ford II to play a key role in turning Ford around after the war, when it was in very bad shape and running behind Chrysler in the number three spot. Morsey was only 29, and had never worked in the auto industry before, having worked at IBM in what was then “high tech”.

Ford 1952 ad

Shortly before he arrived at Ford, the decision had been made at the highest Executive level to drop the ancient flathead V8 for their all-new 1952 line, for which a new OHV six was designed to be the only powerplant. The goal was to catch Chevrolet, which only had OHV six engines, so the Whiz Kids figured it made sense to imitate the Chevy. The ’52 Ford was being engineered to only accept the new six. I was quite unaware of this, and just assumed that the new ohv V8 that appeared in 1954 was always in the pipeline.

Ford 1936 bus coupe

Mr. Morsey, who had driven a series of Ford V8s since he was given a new coupe for his 16th birthday, and was passionate about Henry’s V8, was shocked to learn of  this. In his mind, the V8 engine was the critical aspect that had allowed Ford to come back and challenge Chevrolet after being beaten in the the sales rankings in 1931 through 1933. Just how much the V8 engine played into Ford’s brief return to the number one spot in 1934- 1937, to then lose it again to Chevrolet is debatable. But no doubt, the V8 gave Ford something distinctive, even if it really wasn’t that much more powerful than the OHV Chevy six. And did become most popular with the early go-fast crowd.

Ford Flathead_Engine_complete1949-53photo

But in the post-war era, the flathead V8 was quickly becoming obsolete. Ford finally broke Henry’s six cylinder taboo in 1941, with a new (but still flathead) six that actually had 5 more hp than the V8. And it’s not really surprising that Ford might consider dropping the V8, as a modern OHV six could easily equal its 100 hp rating at this time.

Back to the key element of the story: Mr. Morsey convinced his boss to get the Executive Comittee (including Ernie Breech and HFII) to reconsider, which alone was a bit shocking. Morsey is given six weeks to prepare a presentation, and in order to do so, he does something that had hardly been done in Detroit: he employed public researchers to get feedback from Ford customers and dealers, which came back with exactly the ammunition that he was hoping for: the V8 was key to their buying decision. Up to this point, Detroit was used to top-down decision making, being sure it knew best what the customer wanted.

Ford Y Block_V8

Morsey’s presentation was successful, and the decision was reversed. The flathead V8 was given a reprieve for two years, and its rating upped to 110 hp. And according to him, this key decision also led to Ford designing the new Y-block V8, which replaced the flathead in 1954, based on research that showed it could be built for only $16 more than the six, and that customers were willing to pay $100 more for it.

Needless to say, Morsey’s success in winning a reprieve for the Ford V8 looked really good by 1953, when it become known that Chevrolet was developing a new ohv V8. One shudders to think how Ford would have fared without one. Of course, they would have had no choice to go the same route, later rather than sooner. Everyone was heading down the V8 road, and one can speculate that Ford might have ended up with a somewhat more modern V8 than the soon-to-be obsolete Y-Block. But a lot of sales might likely have been lost in the intervening years.

Ford Thunderbird 1955 -02-03

So there’s no doubt Mr. Morsey can rightfully claim to be “The Man Who Saved The V8” at Ford, and at least for a couple of years. And his telling of the story is engaging, and gives a lot of insight into the company at the time. Morsey goes on to also claim a major role in the creation of the 1955 Thunderbird, inasmuch as he (rightfully) lobbied strongly that Ford not chase the Corvette with a genuine sports car, but a boulevard cruiser, and created the expression “personal car” to describe it and its intended role.

Mr. Morsey’s relationship with Lee Iaccoca, and his indirect role in supporting the Mustang are also covered, as well as other assignments until he left Ford in 1964. Mr. Morsey presents himself as the first modern automotive product planner, using consumer feedback and pragmatic processes to augment the also-important emotional aspects to change the decision making processes in the automobile business. He deserves it.

Aaron Severson of ateupwithmotor was the principal historical researcher and fact checker of this book

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