Curbside Classic: 1953 Ford – You’ll Never Guess What’s Under Its Hood

(first posted 3/7/2011)   Childhood imaginations run rampant, especially when it comes to what’s under the hood of a car. I used to convince myself that our ’65 Coronet 440 really did pack a 440. And I endlessly fantasized about engine swaps; that precursor to another type of swapping fantasy.

Our first car, an elderly 1954 Ford, was the original canvas upon which to project my mental machine-ations, despite it sporting the first OHV V8 in the low price field. But the ’54 239 CID version of the new Y-block had a very modest 130 hp, so I quickly set myself to various engine implant schemes to perk up its sluggish acceleration. The “Thunderbird” 312 was an obvious starting point. Maybe even the new-for 1961 390, which came in a wild NASCAR-friendly 401 hp version. Or a big 430 from a Lincoln, for its mammoth torque. And by 1961, plenty of Chevy small-blocks were finding themselves under all kinds of hoods, especially Fords. Or…or…well, even my fertile imaginations on the endless possibilities never came up with this combination…

(looks just like Iowa in 1960)

In case it wasn’t obvious yet, I’ve been trying to find the cars that correlate to the various chapters of the Auto-Biography as it gets replayed. So far, so good, but sometimes one has to accept minor fudges. We actually had a 1954 Ford, which looks close enough to this 1953. But there was a big difference in terms of what was under the hood: in 1954, Ford had the first OHV V8 in the low-price field, and ours proudly proclaimed that it had one by the new V8 emblem on its front fender. Ironically, although the 1953 Fords celebrated the company’s fiftieth birthday with commemorative  horn buttons, there was little cause for celebration about what was under the hood.

In fact was the last year for the flat head V8, that first saw the light of day in the legendary Deuce 1932 Fords. Despite its vaunted history and drag racing exploits, it suffered intrinsic shortcomings from its shaky beginnings. The side-valve inherently is not an very efficient design, although legions of in-line flathead fours, sixes and eights gave satisfactory service for most of the first half of the twentieth century. But the V design makes for a thorny problem: how to route the hot exhaust ports, because they’re down in the cylinder block, not up overhead like in an OHV head.

Cadillac, which largely pioneered the side-valve V8 engine (above, in a Ford hot rod, no less), took a prudent course by routing the exhaust (gray manifold) out directly into the middle of the vee. Of course, that creates a bit of a plumbing challenge co-mingling with the intake manifold.

But to simplify things, and keep the hot exhaust away from the carburetor,  Henry chose to have the exhaust ports on the opposite side of the block where the valves are. So  the exhaust port for the two middle cylinders pass right between them, to bring them out on the low side of the vee (those two ports are siamesed, which is why Ford flatheads (above) only have three exhausts per side. Passing that hot exhaust right through the block had the nasty effect of heating the water in the cooling system more than it could readily dissipate, and thus the tendency of of the Ford to overheat. It was thermodynamically challenged.

This article wasn’t meant to denigrate the Ford flathead V8, which had a glorious career despite its intrinsic limitations. But that may have been in part due to how common and cheap old Fords were; after twenty-one years in production it was hard not to stumble over flathead blocks littering side yards. Its hot rodding success was because of all the collective effort that went into it the aftermarket and modifications, not exactly Henry’s genius.

By the time I arrived in 1960, the flathead Ford was already old hat. The 1949 Cadillac and Olds OHV engines started the revolution, and early adopters (with the bucks) started stuffing Caddys into Fords and slick Studebakers right away.  And when the Chevy V8 arrived in 1955, the Ford was handed its death warrant.

So there I was scouring the ‘hoods for a ’54, and it’s not like they’re littering the streets of Eugene, despite its reputation. When I spotted the distinctive plump rear end (and  a very nice one it is; one of my all-time favorites actually. In fact I have a framed hand-colored photo of a ’53 Ford butt on my wall, which I bought years ago. But it has Overdrive…) Now where was I? Nice butts do tend to be distracting.  Yes; when I saw it in the back yard parking lot behind this house, my heart jumped a bit. Could it be a ’54?

Fortunately, Robert, its owner is retired and was at home, and was quite happy to show it to me and bring it ’round front. But the minute he fired it up, I was a bit flummoxed. This was not the very distinctive and slightly lopey burble of a flathead V8, nor… Let’s build the tension a bit more while we do some 1953 Ford history. We mustn’t be accused of shortchanging the facts, eh?

The ’53 was the middle year of the ’52-’54 cycle of this body. But as far as I know, its underpinnings were probably still loosely based on the all-new 1949 Ford, the first modern (except engine) car since quite a while to come out of Dearborn. The ’49 was a critical car to put Ford back in the running, and after a few teething problems, the new Ford generation was doing the trick.

The new body for the ’52 helped propel Ford past Chrysler for second place (think of that; Chrysler as #2). Buoyed by its momentum, and perhaps to celebrate the company’s fiftieth birthday, Ford did something in 1953 that forever changed the US auto market: it invented channel stuffing. Ford decided to take on Chevy for the #1 brand position, and just cranked up the production and dumped them on dealer’s lots, with big discounts.

This unleashed the famous Ford Blitz, which Chevy of course countered. No serious sweat off GM’s back. But it was the death knell for the independents: Studebaker, Nash, Hudson, and Willys were all struggling with profitability anyway, and the last thing they needed was an all-out price war. The post-war seller’s market was officially over, and the independents’ future was sealed.

The Ford brand sold 1.2 million of these cars, and did take the #1 sales crown in ’53, at least by model year accounting. So Ford got its golden anniversary present, and that horn plaque was not made in vain. Chevy beat back Ford for the next few years, but buyers’ addiction to discounts was the price paid. Speaking of price, this mid-level Customline stickered at $1628, about $13k in 2010 dollars, before the discounts.

So the 1953 Ford was both the beginning of Ford’s second half century and the end of the flathead. Its 239 cubic inches (3.9 L) packed all of 110 gross hp; maybe about 90-95 in today’s net hp. Chevy’s venerable but OHV six made 115 that year. So Ford’s reputation as a quick car was mostly gone, having been established in the mid-thirties when Fords weighed several hundred pounds less than the competition. That was thanks to Henry’s unwavering determination to use the highest quality steels, and keep things simple.

In fact, Ford’s own new 215 CID OHV six that arrived in 1952 was probably a better choice for most folks, thanks to its better torque curve and more efficient design. Its 101 hp rating was probably kept a bit low to keep some distance from the more expensive eight, but there were drivers who swore the six was quicker in most applications.

In fact, Ford originally planned to only use the OHV six in the new ’52 Fords, but a last-ditch effort by product manager Chase Morsey to convince the Ford Board otherwise was successful, and the flathead was given a reprieve for two more years until the new Y-Block was ready.

When Robert, whose sparkling eyes, slight but wiry build and other feature gave him an impish quality, fired up the Ford and blipped it repeatedly to warm it up a bit, it reminded me of vintage sports car-racers of yore. The Maserati and Jaguar come to mind: a biggish six, packing a long stroke, but with a distinct bite from the obviously genuine split dual exhaust system. That really changes the sound of a six, from a silky purr to a mean snarl.

So I ponder: could this have the world’s only majorly hopped-up original Ford six in it? Chevy and GMC sixes were very common hot-rodding fodder in the way old days, with all kinds of aftermarket parts available. Although I suspect someone might have taken one on, I’ve just never heard about this generation Ford six having been hopped up much. Probably because it arrived in the OHV V8 era, so why bother?

After a a few warm up scales, I heard the distinct drop of engine speed that correlated to being dropped into gear on an automatic. Hmm. The Fordomatic was a dog; essentially a two-speed unless you manually dropped it into Low. The Ford blubbered its way out the driveway and parked out front. Enough already; open that damn hood!

Robert’s twinkling eyes and smile were in overdrive as he lifted up the hood of this otherwise very original and unassuming old beater of a Ford.

Holy Mopar! A slant six, and not just any old slant six. This one’s been very nicely warmed up with a Clifford intake sporting a Carter 650 carb with a nicely crafted cold air intake system, a cam whose provenance is now forgotten (to me), and Robert’s own handmade headers running into the dual pipes. And of course, there’s a Torqueflite to back it up.

This is Robert’s everyday driver. Recently, he drove  it to Las Vegas, where he crashed a major Mopar slant-six gathering. Well, he asked first, and told them that his car was Mopar powered. And to rub salt in the wounds, he shut down the genuine Mopar six Darts and Valiants in the drag racing event, with a respectable 15.3 @ 85 mph. Well, Robert loves him some slant six, and he’s got an even wilder one in a…stay tuned.

Related reading:

Book Review: The Man Who Saved The V8

CC: 1953 Ford Crestline Victoria – The End of the Long Road for the Flathead V8