Curbside Classic: 1932 Ford V8 – America’s V8 Love Affair Starts Here

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(first posted 2/19/2015)    Henry Ford’s greatest accomplishments boil down to two. He created the Model T along with mass production, thus putting America on wheels. And when that wasn’t good enough anymore, he produced the first affordable V8 engine, starting a love affair that Americans have had with that magical alpha-numeric engine configuration, one that hasn’t shown signs of ending any time soon. Which is the greater one? A tough call. The more unlikely one? That’s easier: the V8.

ford T model-t-assembly-line

The mass-production automobile assembly line was inevitable, as it was utterly logical. And Ford hardly invented it; the Venetians were building one new galley ship per day 600 years ago, using a canal to float the hull past work stations. And Chicago’s meat packing assembly lines were the direct inspiration to Ford’s Model T lines.

Ford X-8 engine


For that matter, the Model A was really a fallback, designed and built out of necessity when the T’s sales finally collapsed. Even though Henry claimed the T never needed to be replaced, and resisted until it was almost too late, he had been working for almost a decade on a Model T replacement, with an X-8 engine. Essentially two banks of a four-cylinder radial engine, numerous versions were built and tested for years, in both air-cooled and water-cooled forms.

Ford X-8 Flathead2-600x320


This shows a cross section of one of the water-cooled versions. We’re not going to go in-depth on the X-8, except to say that it was classic Henry Ford all the way: Instead of using rationality or the scientific method, he just went with gut instinct. Did the X-8 appear in a dream? What possible advantages did it have, given its inherent complexity, other than a compact packaging? And Henry intended it to be backed by a three-speed planetary transmission.

Ford 1928 Model A 1928 henry and edsel

After way too many years and variations, Henry finally gave up on it, since the problem of plug fouling in the lower cylinders from oil could never be overcome. That explains why he finally relented on designing the new A along rather conservative lines: tried and true flathead four, and a sliding-gear three-speed transmission like the rest of the world was using. And wisely, he let Edsel take care of the styling.

Chevrolet 1929 Chevrolet_2000

Only one year later, GM dropped a bombshell: a six cylinder engine in the 1929 Chevrolet: “A Six for the price of a Four”. And one with overhead valves, at that, as all Chevys had from day one. No such thing as a Chevy flathead, ever.

Well, Henry wasn’t going to match the Chevy, as he was born with a deep and abiding hatred for the inline six-cylinder engine. Despite its inherent balance, which made it the most common engine in the US for many decades, Henry saw it as the anti-engine, whose sign was 666.

No, Henry was going to notch it up, and in his usual style, sequestered several engineering groups to design the world’s first monobloc V8. These groups of engineers would have no contact with the others, and Henry would come to them with ideas and directives. Like: “no water pump”, or “no oil pump” or “use a 60 degree bank”, or “use a single-plane intake manifold”, or…

Ford 1932 V8 02-900x712

It took some doing, but Henry eventually got a running engine. But it was born with a number of compromises, the biggest one being that Henry had the exhaust ports snake back through the block to exit on the low side, which meant that the hot exhaust would run right through the block next to the cooling passages, which made the V8 intrinsically thermally challenged. The early arrangement of the twin high-mounted water pumps pulling the hot water out the top didn’t seem to help any either.

The biggest production challenge was in casting the monobloc engine block. Up to this time, almost all V8 engines were cast in three primary units: the crankcase, and two cylinder blocks attached to it. This was how Cadillac did it until 1936, and Cadillac was by far the biggest proponent of V8 engines in the US. Cadillac also had the exhaust ports emerge at their natural outlet, in the vee, along with the intake, which made plumbing a bit more complicated, but avoided the thermal issues.

Ford 1932

Ford had great difficulty in mastering the casting process, with a huge percentage of early blocks having to be rejected. And those blocks that were usable resulted in engines that had a host of teething issues: blocks cracking later in use, oil consumption, piston failures, vapor lock, and a few others for good measure. Ford did not have a proper test program, the result being that 1932 V8 buyers were the beta testers. It took some scrambling to correct the worst of the issues, but it wasn’t until a major re-do of the V8 in 1938 that some of the problems were truly fixed. And even then, the flathead always liked a big radiator full of water in front of it.

The V8 had 221 (3.6 L), and was rated at 65 hp, which was the same as the Plymouth PB’s flathead four and only five more than the Chevy “Stovebolt Six”. But the Ford weighed some 200 lbs less than a comparable Chevy or Plymouth, and therein lay the Ford’s lively accelerations, which soon endeared it to many.

Bonnie and Clyde bw

Including outlaws, like John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde. Fords were the way to go…to jail, or worse. But the Ford’s 80 mph top speed likely prolonged the inevitable outcomes for a bit longer.

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Needless to say, the 1932 Ford “Deuce” quickly became an icon. The Ford hot rod scene had been around since the teens, when all sorts of trick parts to make a Model T fly, even at Indianapolis, became readily available. But the V8 was soon in another league altogether, as the classic post-war hot rod scene took off. At that point, finding cheap deuce roadsters or coupes was still easy, despite the fact that there weren’t all that many ’32 V8s built: some 180k (there was also a four cylinder Model B available too). And of those V8s, only some 7,400 were roadsters, although their survival rate was undoubtedly high.

Ford 1932 -Roadster-Moon-discs

This is how they ended up, or in so many variations of the theme.

Ford 1932 highboy

The deuce “highboy” roadster became an icon a long time ago, being the most desirable of the V8s as it was of course the lightest (2217 lbs). The ’33 Ford put on some weight, as would all subsequent model years. Horsepower did go up, to 85 in 1934. But undoubtedly, few of those ’32 hot rods still had their original engines, as later flatheads were easy to come by and much improved.

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When I first saw this red ’32 ahead of me in traffic, I assumed it would be another overly-perfect hot rod deuce, which has lost its appeal to me many decades ago.

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But as I got a bit closer, I could tell that was not the case. Yes, it had been lowered some, but the unusual steel wheels and otherwise stock body intrigued me enough to follow it.

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Its driver/owner Jimmy pulled over, and consented to pictures as well as sharing the interesting history of his recent acquisition. This Tudor sedan spent 45 years stashed away in a barn in Montana, until its hibernation was broken recently. A friend of Jimmy’s bought it and then sold it to him; he just had to have it.

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What appealed to him, as well as me, is that this ’32 is remarkably original, at least in relative terms. It’s not been treated to the open-checkbook approach. The current wheels are just temporary, until some 16″ Ford wheels arrive. The only significant modifications are the dropped front axle and the lowered rear end, accomplished the old-fashioned way by heating the ends of the springs and bending them up.

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Of course, opening the hood was a must. And I was a bit surprised; it’s a bone-stock 1948 engine, but its dual exhausts with minimal muffling makes all the classic Ford flathead V8 music that is utterly unmistakable. The little stock Stromberg 97 sits high, and by this time, an oil filter is also along for the ride. Meanwhile, the distributor on these is in a rather awkward location, down in low in front, driven right off the camshaft.

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Time to take a look around inside. These cars were very cozy compared to modern cars, especially in width.

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One of the other big improvements on the ’32 was syncromesh on second and third gear, which finally made downshifting without double-clutching possible.

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Instrumentation is sparse, but the two vital engine health-related gauges are accounted for.

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The back seat is also pretty narrow, but leg room is good; or would be, except for some parts on the floor.

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That’s a two-carb intake manifold, so that two Stromberg 97s can work in unison. Jimmy says that he’s going to resist doing too much to this car, because he recognizes that there aren’t exactly many ’32s around in this kind of time-capsule condition. He’s going to preserve that as much as possible, and my hat’s off to him for that. But a twin-carb intake is quite fitting to that approach.

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If I ever hoped to find a genuine curbside classic ’32 Ford, this one is about as good as it gets. They’re otherwise perfectly restored, or dipped in chrome.

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The license plate is not original to this car, as it came from Montana. But Oregon allows one to put on period-correct old plates, and this does it. Good thing it’s not from the early months of 1932, as the Model 18 V8 didn’t arrive until April of that year.

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With certain cars, I can’t resist getting a shot which includes my car as a frame of reference. Given the somewhat similar overall dimensions of these two, it was calling out for that. My Xb probably has twice the interior room, but that’s progress, at least of one kind.

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Needless to say, the ’32 Ford V8 ignited a long love affair with the V8 engine. Ford had that market to itself, building the flathead V8 longer than Henry probbaly ever envisioned, through 1953. By that time, it was out of date, and hardly sprightly, in the much heavier cars by then. But for many, the V8 emblem on a Ford was a bit of magic. Ford was alone with a V8 in the low price field, until 1955,when both Chevrolet and Plymouth jumped in with OHV V8s. Needless to say, the ’55 Chevy became the new 1932 Ford.


Related reading:

CC 1929 Ford Model A – The Best Ford Ever

CC 1926 Ford Model T Coupe – T Stands For Tall

CC 1955 Chevrolet – The iCar