(first posted 7/19/2014) The Ford flathead V8 is one of the icons of the American automotive era. And it bridged two others: the Ford Model T and the Chevrolet small-block V8, in a way that created some continuity. Henry put America on wheels with his T, and then gave those wheels some serious scoot with his V8. Fords then became king of the go-fast scene for decades, whether it was the drags, Bonneville, hot rods, and even in some sports cars. But the brilliant ’55 Chevy V8 snatched the crown away, due to Ford’s inability to build a proper successor until the mid-sixties. Ford rested on its flathead laurels for too long, and this 1953 Victoria was more show than actual go.
The Ford V8 had a turbulent birthing process thanks to the rather bizarre way that Henry Ford worked, trusting his gut much more than objective reason, or his engineers. ateupwithmotor.com has a good article on that here. He had several teams work around the clock in secrecy from each other, and demanded they build engines without oil pumps, or water pumps, or… It was a painful process, as Henry changed his mind constantly and refused feedback.
Let’s just say that although Ford did build the first mass-produced mono-block V8, and at a very affordable price (only $50 more than the four cylinder Model B), it arrived with numerous flaws. Some of those were improved with time, especially after a major re-design in 1937.
But Henry’s insistence of routing the siamesed exhaust ports of the middle cylinders between them intrinsically made the engine prone to overheating, which required very large radiators to keep it cool as best as possible. The flathead developed a rep for being easy to overheat. And the early versions had numerous other shortcomings; this was not Ford at its usual best.
But the performance of Ford V8s made that palatable. It wasn’t so much that the V8 was actually much more powerful than the Chevy OHV six or the Plymouth flathead six, but the combination of an 5 or 10hp advantage along with Fords weighing significantly less made them decidedly sprightlier.The ’32 Ford could hit an honest 80 mph, which made them popular with outlaws and police alike.
And of course, the hot-rod community quickly embraced it as the second coming, after the very durable Ford fours that had been the basis of their attentions for some time. Ever-increasing levels of power were coaxed out of the Ford V8, and it became legendary. That’s not to say that it was truly top dog; engines like the big GMC OHV six were able to generate more power with less effort, but the millions of Ford V8 engines available for a song made them infinitely accessible and affordable.
This is how father-son projects looked like in the 40s or 50s. The Ford tradition was deeply engrained, and had been since guys started messing with the Model T within years of its arrival. The Ford V8 may have had its flaws, but it was a very well known commodity, and Ford frames and running gear were both light and strong.
According to the book I recently reviewed here, The Man Who Saved The V8, this car wasn’t going to even have a V8 under its hood, as the Ford execs had decided to axe it in favor of an all-new OHV six, for 1952. Chase Morsey, who had been driving Ford V8s since high school, was only twenty-six when he found himself in Ford’s Board room trying to convince Henry Ford II and Ernie Breech that dropping the V8 would be a serious mistake.
He had the market research to back his passion, and the flathead V8 was given a a two-year reprieve, until the new Y-Block V8 was ready for 1954. The flathead had been revised extensively for 1949, and in its final outing had 239 cubic inches (3.9 L) and was rated at 110 hp @3800 rpm. Considering that Chevrolet’s 235 six was rated at 108 and 115 hp (with Powerglide), it’s pretty clear that the flathead had no real performance advantage. And more than likely, Ford’s own very modern 215 CID six actually made as much or more hp than the V8, and with a more satisfactory torque curve for typical driving along with better efficiency.
But that V8 emblem on the front fenders was magic, and still meant a lot to Ford buyers. Undoubtedly Ford was wise to change their mind at the last minute, and not ditch it, even if it didn’t exactly make these cars any faster. Since 1949, Fords were also as heavy as the competition, having ditched their delicate frames and transverse leaf-spring rigid axles front and back.
Ford was also behind Chevrolet in terms of the hot new hardtop body style. The Bel Air coupe came out in 1950; style-conscious Ford buyers would have to wait until 1952 until the top-line Victoria coupe became a hardtop.
The Victoria sported a nice place to rest one’s elbows when cruising with the windows down, although it might leave an interesting pattern on ones arm after a while.
Ford’s top model had a nicely trimmed interior. But those fuzzy dice have to go; if I see another set of those, I might have a sudden digestive disorder. It’s so absurdly cliched.
I have vivid memories of riding in the back seat of a ’53 Ford, but not nearly as nice as this one. It was a ratty business coupe, and belonged to the boys across the street in Iowa City, who were were novice hot-rodders. I hung around them for summer days on end, watching them mess with their flatheads and learning colorful new swear words. They were always working on a really rough ’37 coupe and this ’53 coupe, and on a few occasions that they got the ’53 running, I got to hop in the back and ride along. I could tell it wasn’t really fast, despite the lack of meaningful mufflers on the exhaust. But it sure sounded impressive, as we farted our way down Park Avenue…until it started overheating or something. At least it wasn’t a long walk home.
Of course, our own ’54 Ford sedan, with the new Y-Block V8, was pretty much the same inside and outside, so these cars feel pretty familiar. But the Victoria was a rare sight back then.
This one has the three-speed manual with overdrive, which also came with a slightly lower (higher numerical) axle, so that it had both better acceleration as well as more relaxed cruising.
The owners of the Victoria we were obviously eating in the same seafood restaurant out at the coast as we were, and just as we walked out, they were pulling away from the curb with that distinctive flathead V8 burble from its twin pipes. Curbside Classical music.
I’m a bit concerned about the one missing front wheel cover, though. Radial tires are harder on old wheels that weren’t designed for them, causing them to flex more which can lead to a flying wheel cover in a turn. Finding a replacement might be a bit of a chore.
A bit later, we found ourselves just behind the Victoria in traffic, on a four lane boulevard; this Ford rides high and proud. It’s almost right up there with the CUVs and such that dominate the road these days.
I’m trying to imagine if this Ford would have inspired such love and devotion from its owner if it had only been available as a six. Probably not. The flathead may have been well past its sell-by date in 1953, but for true Blue Oval lovers, it was the very last vestige of Henry Ford one could still buy in a new car.