Famous Engines

History of Ford V8 flathead

April 15, 2010

Ford V8 Flathead engine 1932By 1927, the venerable Model T was being rendered obsolete by the more advanced offerings from other manufacturers. Henry Ford needed another blockbuster success to regain the company’s position and compete with the burgeoning General Motors. The Ford Model A, produced between November, 1927, and February, 1932, was enthusiastically received and gained back a lot of Ford market share lost in the decline of the Model T. It also became the favorite of a new and growing breed of “hot-rodders” in California, so the prolific supply of Ford-based aftermarket speed equipment continued. However, as the Great Depression took hold of the country in the early 1930s, the 4-cylinder Model A began to be outstripped by the 6-cylinder cars from Chevrolet.

Henry Ford got his real blockbuster by masterminding another production triumph. This time, Ford’s industry first came in the form of a mass-produced, affordable V8 engine. The Ford “flathead,” introduced in 1932, took up where the Model T left off. The Ford V8 quickly became Everyman’s power for the road, and Everyman’s power for racing. Like the Model T, the flathead never was a great success at Indianapolis and the other “upper echelons” of American racing. But it was a huge success at the grassroots levels and, because it could be easily improved for racing with modifications, the V8 flathead became another bonanza for aftermarket parts suppliers.

The Ford V8 flathead can take a lion’s share of credit for the revival of U.S. road racing after the Great Depression, primarily because Ford V8 cars were relatively lightweight, maneuverable as well as powerful … and also inexpensive. On August 26, 1933, Fred Frame won the Elgin, Ill., road race in a Ford V8 “stock car.” The event was the first Elgin race run since 1920, and the last ever run. Ford V8 cars swept the top seven finishing positions. Six months later, on Feb. 24, 1934, Stubby Stubblefield won the Gilmore Gold Cup road race at Mines Field — an airport circuit in Long Beach, Calif. Of the 26 cars entered, 22 were Ford V8s, and Ford cars finished first through 10th.

All over the country, the Ford V8 was racing. It became the staple powerplant for East Coast road racing, which evolved into the Sports Car Club of America after World War II. The Ford V8 wasn’t used exclusively in Ford chassis, either. In the hands of these racers, the potent little powerplant found its way into the engine bays of many MGs, and even the odd Lagonda and Duesenberg. In the Southeast, it powered the fortunes of the early stock car and modified racers, including Bill France, Sr., founder of NASCAR. And on California’s dry lakes, the Ford V8 was a mainstay in the growth of hot-rodding, which has evolved into today’s NHRA drag racing. The flathead V8 made an impact in European motorsport, too, where its most notable successes were overall victories in the 1936 and 1938 Monte Carlo Rallies.

Henry Ford did make one high-profile attempt at the Indianapolis 500. For the 1935 race, Preston Tucker and Harry Miller persuaded Ford to enter a factory team of cars that Miller designed, powered by modified flathead V8s. Although it turned into a last-minute effort, the cars were beautiful-looking creations and technologically innovative, with front-wheel drive and independent suspension front and rear. Unfortunately, they had a flaw that the abbreviated testing didn’t reveal until it was too late. The steering box was mounted too close to the exhaust manifold, and eventually the exhaust heat caused the steering to seize up. Ten cars were built for the race, but only four made the start. All of them dropped out of the race, and the bad experience soured Henry Ford on the Indy 500, but not racing, for the rest of his life.

Production of the Ford V8 flathead continued into the early 1950s — the 1953 model year was its last. Some of the engine’s last hurrahs in racing were the first for Ford in the new NASCAR stock car racing series. A Lincoln holds the distinction of winning the first-ever NASCAR stock car race, won by Jim Roper, June 19, 1949, on a 3/4-mile dirt track in Charlotte, N.C. In fact, a Ford V8 crossed the finish line first, but the car was disqualified because it didn’t meet the requirements of being a “stock” car. It was into the next season before flathead V8 engines powered the first NASCAR Grand National wins by both Mercury and Ford cars. Bill Blair won in a Mercury on June 18, 1950, at a half-mile dirt track in Vernon, N.Y., and a week later “Shirtless” Jimmy Florian drove a Ford Coupe to victory on a quarter-mile dirt track in Dayton, Ohio.