(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.
Review: The Man Who Saved The V8
Auto-Biography Part 4: The Facts of Life Explained
1953 Ford CC: You’ll Never Guess What’s Under Its Hood
Nice,in the UK the Ford V8 Pilot flattie was replaced by the Zephyr and Zodiacs with OHV straight 6 engines.The V8 flathead stayed into the early 60s with Simca in France
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…
Uncle Henry’s Barnyard Engineering School – a giant of the industry but he stayed past his “sell by” date as well.
What did Hank the Duce looking like in the early 50s? All the pictures I’ve ever seen of him are in the late 60s, rotund, smoking a cigar and me imagining him and Iaccoca going at each other.
Henry I was often resistant to any perceived orthodoxy other than his own, sometimes for practical reasons (the desire to avoid having to pay royalties on someone else’s patent), sometimes out of the determined belief that his original solution was the better one (which was the case with the planetary gearbox on the Model T, something he surrendered only very reluctantly), and sometimes simply out of ego.
There’s a parallel there with Soichiro Honda, although Soichiro was, overall, a substantially more likable person and not quite as intransigent as Henry Ford. (On a number of occasions, Honda’s younger executives tiptoed around Soichiro about certain major decisions only to find his actual reaction much less negative than they had feared.) Nonetheless, Soichiro’s attachment to ideas like air cooling for cars eventually did the company a lot of financial damage before he was persuaded that it was time for a change.
AUWM, I went back after my comment and re-read your history of the flathead. I think you were correct in your conclusion of having respect for men like Henry Ford I but also feeling that the egos of such “lions” made it easier for the accountants to take over and the passionate car guys to get pushed aside.
After some life experience, I’ve concluded that ability to manage people well in a highly technical or military endeavor is a very rare talent. One of the greatest was [nominally at least] a Communist: Sergei Korolev. Not only was he a gifted rocket scientist, he knew how to lead people. That was why we lost Round 1 of the Space Race, not that something was wrong with our schools or whatever, as politicians of the day had it.
I also suspect that Ed Cole, or whoever managed the SBC project, was one as well.
Walter Chrysler may have been one of the very best in this area. He built a company from nothing to second only behind GM at a time when many considered the industry to be already maturing. After he became incapacitated by a stroke in 1937 or so, nobody has ever been able to lead the company to the same kind of success he built.
No disputing that. It’s a pity, for I have to assume that US car companies have had the “pick of the litter” among engineering graduates, with no less talent & enthusiasm than overseas. It’s management vision & leadership that makes the difference.
I first caught onto this yrs. ago when I read a car magazine quoting an American chassis engineer about his work on one of the Nissan Z models. I was not aware before how internationalized the car business really is.
Right you are. From almost four decades in aerospace have seen precious few competent middle and upper managers. A PhD promoted to division president was the worst of all.
Probably the best exception to that in modern times is Alan Mulally.
I looked up Mulally & and at least from a cursory glance, he does seem to be exceptional.
The flathead lingered through the ’54 model year in Canada before it was replaced by the Y-block for ’55. A young Henry II….
Indeed it did as my parents replaced their 52 Chevy with a 54 Canadian Ford. All Canadian Fords that year had the flathead V8.
As did Kiwi Ford V8s a school friends father drove a 54 Flathead Ford, that he was still driving it in 84 means they cant have been all bad it was just a car that didnt wear out quickly with normal use in town, others that were sold to rural customers locally werent so fortunate the gravel roads pounded them to pieces.
I saw a 1954 Ford in Connecticut may years ago with a flathead V8 in it. It was the only 1954 Ford I had ever seen with a flathead V8 in it. After reading about Canadian Fords using the flathead V8, I imagine the car must have been a Canadian. Ford changed their frame and starting using ball joints in 1954. The cross member under the engine is totally different between 53 and 54 Fords. Did Canadian 1954 Fords have ball joints or king pins? If 1954 Canadian Fords had ball joints then the V8 flathead must have had a special oil pan and oil pick up tube to match the cross member for the ball joint front end. Bruce
Nice. My older brothers first car was a 53 Ford, two door, six cylinder with three speed manual transmission. This was the car I learned to drive manual transmission on.
Rusted and abused that that Ford was, it served my brother well, until a icy intersection caused its demise.
IMHO the sound of a hot rodded flathead is unique and so appealing, never mind the looks of the aftermarket finned heads! Ford styling from ’49 thru ’57 was really top notch as well.
Owned three of these 53 Fords and a 53 Merc in Canada. They had all the shortcomings you say and probably more. None of mine were hardtops and that was not coincidental.
Driving with your arms out the window left patterns on the cars as well as the driver. In the days before common air conditioning there was normally a peculiar paint pattern on the drivers side caused by sweat.
I would hate to go back but doesn’t hurt to remember when one was young and these cars were also.
I’m not really a Ford guy, at least not when it comes to cars, but I have a soft spot for these. When I was a young boy the neighbour lady had a blue one and sometimes she would give my mother and I a ride to wherever it was we needed to go if Dad was at work. I remember being fascinated by the star ornaments in the back seat.
This was in the mid ’60s so it was just an old car in those days, though I imagine the hardtop made it unusual even then. I wouldn’t turn down another ride in one!
TRY and compare this Ford to the same year Chevy.
A Chevy “six-in-a-row-that-don’t-go” and “slip-‘n-slide” PowerGlide was NO match for a Ford V8 and overdrive.
Not sure what Chevy was thinking in not making a 115hp/manual option.
The PowerGlide models needed every bit of the extra horses to keep up with the stick shift models.
Offering the PG higher output engine with the stick shift would have showed what an inefficient dog the PG was.
True, but boy were those ’53-’54 Chevys built nice.
54 Chev was a different breed. The six could outrun the average flathead, at least the ones I knew. That 54 model soldiered on for several years. In 55 it might as well have gone away. The 265 was the dawn of a brave new day.
Never having owned a Ford of this generation, I nevertheless have many memories of them. I learned to drive in ice and snow in a college friend’s 53 Customline 2-door sedan with overdrive, on the way back to college in Des Moines, Iowa, from Christmas vacation in Detroit. A couple of years earlier a neighbor kid had a nearly identical car which he beat to death in just a few short months. When first gear went out he kept driving it, starting in second. A month or so of that, and the clutch started to go away, until it wouldn’t start one day, and there wasn’t enough clutch left to push-start it. Anyone else would have fixed it, but nearly anyone else wouldn’t have been so hard on it in the first place.
Another neighbor kid parted out a 53 convertible, and I was able to save some trim pieces for the minister’s son, who had a beautiful, totally reconditioned convertible. He was amazed at the rust-free condition of the parts, which was my first clue that maybe his ex-Nebraska car wasn’t all that it appeared to be.
Nice to see a car like that being used for road trips. The dash almost reminds me of a Wurlitzer jukebox. I hope the wheelcover isn’t too expensive to replace. The steering column sits very high and at a strange angle. Combined with that huge steering wheel, seems like it would be uncomfortable to drive.
I’ve always liked the looks of the ’52 and ’53 Fords, but I’ll take one with the OHV six. The ’52 Ford was the genesis point for one of my favorite Ford design elements– those round tail lights that gradually grew over the years into giant afterburners, and were such a recognizable trademark.. They just screamed “Ford.” Even as a GM-loyal child, I thought those jet-exhaust tail lamps were cool.
When I see these they remind me of Barney Fife’s first car, the one with the sawdust in the transmission.
I am always amazed at how huge were the steering wheels in those old cars. Must have been like driving a bus.
Very few cars from that era would have had power steering so the big wheel was needed for leverage. That, coupled with the typically slow geared steering ratio, made for some interesting hand over hand action when turning a corner. Many cars retained the big steering wheel until the early sixties; my 1963 Plymouth had the huge wheel despite having the legendary Chrysler “no feel” power steering. I assume that when the take rate for power steering reached some pre-determined point the manufacturers went to the smaller steering wheel.
You may be remembering somewhat incorrectly. Chrysler went to smaller steering wheels in general before the rest. A 1963 Plymouth has a pretty reasonable sized steering wheel, and Fury steering wheel had a thicker rim and was maybe smaller than on the cheaper models. Maybe part of it was that they figured they would mostly have power steering. And the Chrysler power steering by then was 3.5 turns lock to lock. Chevys and Ramblers of that time had bigger wheels closer to the driver and slower steering even if powered. Pontiacs, although also GM, had smaller steering wheels by then.
I of course never measured any of these but am mostly going on my impressions at the time.
I don’t have any pictures of my Plymouth so I’m relying on memories from nearly 50 years ago. As I recall the Plymouth’s wheel was noticeably larger than the one in the Pontiac that was its successor. I have no idea what the take rate for power steering was on 1963 Plymouths but I would speculate that it was fairly low, at least compared to more upscale vehicles. Ironically enough my family owned several other late fifties/early sixties Pontiacs and I remember nothing about their steering wheels despite considerable seat time in a couple of them. I do remember that they all had power steering, even the 1959 Star Chief that my grandmother owned. If only we had digital photo capabilities back then:-)
My father’s 1961 Chevrolet Impala had a much smaller steering wheel than my 1952 Ford and no power steering. The day I went to take my driver’s test to get my driver’s license my father loaned me his 1961 Chevy. The car I took drivers ED in had power steering and my 52 steered fairly easy with its big steering wheel. I got into my father’s 61 Chevy, backed it out of the driveway and drove down the street. The first turn I had to make was a 90 degree turn. When I made the turn, I made it real wide because I had no idea the car was going to steer so hard. I couldn’t believe how much hard the steering wheel was to turn when compared with my 52 Ford and the car I used in drivers ED.
I don’t know what kind of car it was, but my father was visiting his friend who owned a gas station / repair shop. My father said a guy came in complaining that his car steered to easy. My father and his friend thought the guy was probably complaining about nothing until he demonstrated his steering. With the car running and standing still he reached inside and gave the steering wheel spoke a single push with his finger. The steering wheel rotated all the way in one direction until it couldn’t rotate any further, then rotated in the opposite direction until it couldn’t rotate any further and then half way back in the other direction all from that single push. That’s amazing! Maybe it was one of the Chrysler you mentioned above.
I 100% agree with you calibrick. I believe that was a 1954 model purchased from Mrs. Lesh. The sound effects the producers had that car making as Barney drove down the road were priceless and absolutely hilarious, especially when Andy said “well at least it fell off and can’t hurt you any more”. As an aside, in another episode Aunt Bee was driving a 1954 Ford convertible.
Aunt Bee drove a really nice 1955 Ford Sunliner.
Paul, the more I think about it, the more I’m with you on fuzzy dice. At least on ’50s Detroit iron – something like your Xbox could pull it off ironically. But not as much so as that Jag from earlier in the week…
My younger brother got his first car about 1981 first thing he did was hang furry dice all the go he reckoned, I didnt like em then still dont like em now.
Car shows with 50’s rock n roll. 😫Audible fuzzy dice. Music from 70 years ago. Who wants to hear that shit in 2019? And I grew up in the 50’s.
A ’32 Ford V-8 is what turned my grandfather off to Ford products for the rest of his life and he didnt buy another V-8 until 1965, a Plymouth with the 318. Along with the overheating, oil consumption was horrible. I dont know what the technical reason was, unlike the obvious cause of overheating.
The ’32 V8s had a number of issues, including high oil consumption. Ford had great difficulties in casting the blocks properly, and a large percentage had to be discarded. That may have been the cause, or other reasons.
Early V8s were getting rebored @30,000 miles after that they were apparently ok soft unaged blocks were some of the problem overheating on hills easily here was another, whateva they werent as good as the 4 banger they replaced initially.
My farther told me 1932 Ford had a breathing problem. The engines weren’t properly vented and I don’t think they corrected the problem until either 1933 or 1934. My friend had a 1965 Dodge Cornet with a 318 in it and he drove it well over 100,000 miles so I was surprised to hear the above comment. My father had a 1966 Chrysler NewYorker with a 440 in it which I never heard his complaint about. He loved his 66 Chrysler and his 1929 Chrysler Model 75 Roadster.
Goes to show how vital customer morale is; despite all the energy marketing types invest in psyching out potential customers (see Edward Bernays’s classic work “Propaganda”), the idea that a lemon could lose them a customer for life seems not to have a permanent hold on some carmakers.
Reminds me of men with more talent for wooing women than keeping them.
Thanks Paul for a very interesting article – and the AUWM detour, thanks Aaron – it answers some questions I have about a piece of (dealer?) advertising I received as a gift.
Who knew Ford was going out of their way to woo customers to last of the flatheads.
“this was not Ford at its usual best.”
Huh? Thanks for a hearty Monday morning laugh!
How is it that the 1953 & 54 Fords are so much more modern-looking to comparable Chevys, only to fall on their faces when the 1955 Chevys came out? In any event, this is a beautiful if over-done Crown Vic, but I’d drive it, but those stupid 1950’s clichés like fuzzy dice must be done away with for good. I liked that stuff when I was a kid for about half an hour…
Is there a better sounding engine than a Ford Flathead through dual exhaust? It may not be a great engine, but it sounds good! Y-Blocks sound good, too.
Inherently poor breathing must spawn magical acoustics!
Agreed…they sound THE BEST of all !
I had never had the pleasure until I got to listen to this one fire up and leave the parking lot a couple of years ago. Sublime!
Here come ol’ flat-top!
From FDR to Woodstock, it was always around…
Ford may have stopped putting it in its US cars in 1953, but the British and French Fords of the time didn’t stop making it. In 1953, the newest Ford V8 product outside of the US was the beautiful Facel-bodied Ford Comete Monte-Carlo.
And when Ford sold all its French assets to Simca in late 1954, a brand-new Ford Vedette (avec le V8) was in the dowry. So the Ford V8 became the Simca V8, which soldiered on in France until 1961, when the tooling was sent to Brasil, and the old flat-head was further tweaked until Chrysler (which had bought a majority of Simca in ’63) called it quits for the venerable vee in 1969, although larger versions were still in production for trucks until the 70s.
A truly global engine. One is humbled by its rumble all the way to the jungle.
Doffs hat, exits.
Btw, the “Here come ol’ flat-top” lyric — first used by Chuck Berry in his 1956 hit “You can’t catch me” was plainly purloined by John Lennon in the Beatles’ 1969 hit “Come together”. Lennon had no idea what it meant, just liked the sound of it, and got sued by Berry.
Got to be good-lookin’ ’cause he’s so hard to see…
There actually was a 1951 Ford Victoria hardtop, but it was a mid-year addition. Early ’51 brochures featured the pillared Crestliner, while the revised edition replaced it with the pillarless version.
They must have really wanted in the hardtop game, to tool up a roof so soon before the ’52 model with all-new sheetmetal!
Anyone know/recall if the early Ford hardtops leaked as much air/water and shook/rattled as much as the early Chevy hardtops did?
These tempt me as a “hobby car” because it’s my birth year, plus Ford’s 50th Anniversary, which they celebrated in several lavish ways. Here’s a ’53 ad promoting the 2-car family. I often look at these and wonder where they were filmed—supposing it’s a posh part of greater Detroit (Gross Ile?), or somewhere in greater LA (seems unlikely here). Anyone got a suggestion? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1R2d5RYfFZ4
Some new upper class Detroit suburb. No palm trees, too steep roofs for LA, and the house is red brick.
I often wondered why Ford didn’t use the technology they had developed for the GAA engine used in WWII Sherman tanks in a much scaled down automotive engine. The GAA engine, as I remember, was aluminum and had DOHC. Too complex for the average garage mechanic, perhaps.
The 6 cylinder Ford engine sounded just like a 6 cylinder Chevy engine when you stomped the skinny pedal hard.
As mentioned above: A flathead V8 Ford engine had it’s own distinct, pleasing growl when revved up; esp if running thru a pair of “Smitty” mufflers.
Well Worth the admission price!
A flathead through a set of glasspacks gives me goosebumps!
The front seat interior picture highlights the extreme angle of the Ford’s non-adjustable steering column and the size of the steering wheel.
My 5 ft 10 inch Father frequently commented on the height and angle of his Ford’s steering column; complaining that it made his upper back and between the shoulders area ache on long road trips.
This discomfort prompted Dad to dump the Ford for a new ’56 Chevy; a car that Dad said steered easier and was a more comfortable fit for him; but inferior to the Ford in every other way possible.
I do agree with Paul on the ubiquitous fuzzy dice choice.
A flathead V8 Ford, optioned with the Overdrive transmission, was a highly competent highway cruiser, capable of sustained, hour after hour, 65-70 mph cruising.
Just try doing that in an early 1950’s Chevy six cylinder car, with the low/no oil pressure “splash system” for lower end engine lubrication!
I need my memory refreshed. What was the model name of the Ford of this era that had the front half of the roof glassed in? Or was a Mercury? Seems I can recall a fabric cover that zipped into place on the inside as a sunshade.
I can recall being in one an uncle had, but I was very young. I do remember that the glass panel did you no favors in an Alabama summer.
Ford Skyliner, Mercury Sun Valley.
Was the ’54 OHV Ford V8 much faster than the ’53 Flathead V8 engine?