1932 Ford V8
1932 Ford V8. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Henry Ford’s more than 15 million simple, cheap and sturdy Model Ts built from 1908 to 1927 put North America on wheels. But the Model T wasn’t Henry’s only legacy. Ford pioneered the moving automobile assembly line in 1913 that ushered in real mass production, and the $5 a day wage in 1914, making it possible for the workers who built Fords to also buy them.

But by the late 1920s Henry Ford’s empire was being eclipsed by General Motors with its more diversified line of cars. He had, however, one last great contribution to make to automotive engineering: the low-cost V8 engine.

The vee-type engine went back to the mid-19th century steam era, so when the internal combustion engine and the motor car came along, there were a few innovative thinkers who also tried the compact sturdy vee-type.

Four French companies were early with vee-type engines. Panhard-Lavassor had a Daimler V2 powered car in 1891. Mors is credited with a V4 in 1897, while the Ader company sold cars with V2, V4 and V8 engines in the 1900 to 1904 period. In 1910 de Dion-Bouton’s V8, the first in series production, is said to have inspired America’s Cadillac to adopt V8s for 1915, which it augmented with V12s and V16s in the 1930s.

When Henry Ford replaced the Model T with the Model A in 1928 he stayed with four-cylinders. Archrival Chevrolet, however, introduced a smoother, more powerful six in 1929. Henry immediately responded: “We’re going from a four to an eight,” he said, “because Chevrolet is going to a six.”

Henry’s approach was imaginative; make a low priced V8 with a one-piece cylinder block. V8s had previously had two or more sections bolted together, making them expensive and slow to produce.

In 1930 Henry selected three of his best and most trusted engineers, Emil Zoerlein, Carl Schultz and Ray Laird, to design his new V8. For complete secrecy they worked in the replica of Thomas Edison’s Fort Myers, Florida laboratory located in the Ford Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

Although Ford’s fully equipped engine laboratory was just a stone’s throw away, the V8 was engineered under quite primitive conditions. When the design was completed, they struggled with the daunting task of keeping the 54 moulding cores in place while casting the intricate, one-piece cylinder block.

They finally developed an engine ready for testing by 1931, and used Edison’s overhead lineshaft as a kind of crude dynamometer, driving it with a long belt from a pulley on the end of the V8’s crankshaft.

With an engine that would run, the team set about learning how to mass-produce it. Henry’s closest aide, pattern making wizard Charles “Cast Iron Charlie” Sorensen, was brought in. Overcoming his early prejudice toward the one-piece V8 block, Sorensen plunged in. After much heartbreaking scrappage, around-the-clock toil, and many failures, the Ford V8 gradually became a practical reality.

In early 1932 Ford publicly announced his low-cost V8. As insurance against possible failure of the eight, and to satisfy loyal four-cylinder fans, an improved version of the Model A four, called the Model B, was also offered.

Ford needn’t have worried. When the new V8 Model 18 (one-eight, for the first Ford V8) was unveiled in April, 1932, it was a sensation. In spite of the dire economic conditions, more than six million eager people flocked to see this new Ford.

Although elements of the Model A’s styling remained, Henry’s son Edsel had worked with Ford stylists to produce a quite pleasing design. A vertical strip grille hid the radiator, the fenders were nicely crowned, and horizontal accent striping gave a distinctly Lincoln-like appearance.

But the real story was under the hood: twice the cylinders of the famous Models A and T. It was a 221 cubic inch (3.6 litre) side-valve V8 delivering 65 horsepower (Chevrolet’s six had only 60) with almost turbine-like smoothness.

While the new V8 delivered vibrationless, powerful driving, early ones had some problems. There was also the usual scepticism of anything new, and the popular rumour that “pistons lying on their sides will wear egg-shaped.”

This was totally false, of course, but some early excessive oil consumption reinforced this old wives’ tale. There were also some bearing failures and cracked heads. With these teething problems, only 212,000 ’32 V8s were produced (Ford had made over half a million ’31 Model As). Gradually the Ford V8’s problems were solved, however, and refinements and improvements came with each new model.

Ford V8s dominated auto racing for many years, and the 1932 Ford V8 became the quintessential hot rod. The V8 engine was widely adopted in the 1950s, and became the standard of the American industry for almost three decades until dethroned by fuel economy concerns.

The Ford flat-head V8 was replaced with an overhead valve V8 in the U.S. in 1954, and in Canada in 1955. It had brought the smoothness of V8 power to the low-price field, and pointed the way to the future. It was Henry Ford’s last great engineering contribution, and it earned its special place in automotive history.

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