1949 Ford Six. Click image to enlarge
Article and photo by Bill Vance
Henry Ford’s V8, introduced in 1932, turned out to be a wonderful engine. After some early problems such as overheating and cracked blocks, that first low-cost V8 proved so reliable that it powered Fords for more than 20 years.
It also became the darling of the hot rod set, raced at Indianapolis, and set records too numerous to count. From the 1930s to the ’50s the V8 engine was so strongly associated with Ford that when Fiat of Italy launched its own V8 in 1952, it called it an 8V because it believed V8 was a Ford trademark.
In that period, before the model proliferation we have today, sales leaders Ford, Chevrolet and Plymouth had different and distinctive engines. Ford had a side-valve V8, Chevrolet an overhead valve six, and Plymouth a side-valve six.
The loyalists for the various marques swore by their engines, and good naturedly poked fun at their competitors. Fords were known for peppy performance but were called “oil hogs.” Chevy’s “Stovebolt Six,” sounded like “bolts in a pail.” And while Plymouths were quiet, “if they saw a raindrop they wouldn’t start.”
This situation started with the 1929 Chevrolet six, the 1932 Ford V8, and the 1933 Plymouth six, and continued until their new overhead valve V8s arrived in the mid-1950s.
But there would be an exception. In 1941, Ford slipped a ringer into the established order by quietly introducing a side-valve six for the U.S. market only. It displaced 3.7 litres (226 cu in.) and developed 90 horsepower, the same as the slightly smaller 3.6-litre (221 cu in.) Ford V8.
The six’s horsepower was raised to 95 in 1948, by which time the V8 had moved on to 100, and 3.9 litres (239 cu. in.). Introduced as a lower priced alternative to the V8, Ford had not treated the six to much fanfare. The V8 was seen as the mainstream performance engine.
Then in 1950 a revelation took place when Mechanix Illustrated’s Tom McCahill road tested a Ford six. Tom was quite a Ford V8 fan; his pioneering American road test, done on his own new Ford V8, appeared in the February, 1946, pages of MI.
In 1949, he had Andy Granatelli (later of STP and Indy car fame) of Chicago hop up his famous ’49 “MI Ford” V8. For a mere $121.75 Tom reported that it would beat the pants off two of America’s fasted stock cars, the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 and the Cadillac.
Since Tom was such a V8 fan his test of the Ford six came as something of a shock. In his famous zero to 60 mph (96 km/h) acceleration run, which Tom claimed to have invented, the understated Mr. McCahill wrote: “When I got a look at my stopwatch, my eyes nearly popped out of my head: 12.1 seconds. In this little crate? Impossible! I tried it again, 12 seconds flat! I was dumbfounded.”
It was indeed too good to be true because at an indicated 60 mph on the optimistic speedometer the car was actually travelling only 54.38. Correcting for this, Tom got 14.9, 14.4 and 14.5 seconds – not as spectacular, but still very respectable. He noted that the best he had recorded on a Ford V8 was 13.9, and this was a fast example; 15.0 to 15.5 was about average.
“When it comes to breaking fast from a traffic light or snap passing on the highway, the six can make the V8 look as loggy as your Aunt Tillie after a hard day’s shopping in Macy’s bargain basement,” wrote Tom.
Regarding mid-range performance, Tom said “The Ford six can tear the ears off the V8 in acceleration and performance, right up to 75 mph (121 km/h).” But “Above 82 or 83 mph (132 or 134 km/h), the Ford six flattens out like a Chinese pancake… it finally lays down and dies at about 91 or 92 mph (146 or 148 km/h) tops.”
The Ford six was economical too, winning its class in the Grand Canyon economy run. But in spite of its excellent performance and good gasoline mileage, the Ford six never gained much popularity. Estimates put the six at no more than 15 per cent of total Ford sales. In 1952, the side-valve six was replaced by an overhead-valve six, which Road & Track reported was also quicker than the V8. But the overwhelmingly-popular Ford engine would continue to be the eight.
Overshadowed as it was, that early Ford six marked its own tiny place in automotive history by being able to out-jump its V8 engined sibling, which was considered one of the faster American stock cars of its day.