Sales Ad Saturday- Henry and the Ford Flathead
Honoring an important moment in automotive history while dispelling a few myths for this week's 'Sales Ad Saturday’. It was this week in 1932, March 31st to be exact, that the Ford flathead V8 was first shown to the public at an event at the Ford Highland Park showroom. The very first V8-powered production Fords actually rolled off the line on March 9th that year, but a public showing was delayed a few weeks as additional testing and logistics for the national roll-out of Ford’s new V8 was necessary.
Henry Ford had struggled to develop a controversial X-8 radial engine for several years in the 1920s. After fighting several issues, including limited ground clearance, consistently fouling plugs, complexity, and weight, Ford abandoned the development of the engine in 1926. The decision was made to stay with a conventional 4 cylinder when Ford introduced the Model A in late 1927. In time, Chevrolet had become a real threat to sales of the Model A with their introduction of a smoother and more powerful six-cylinder in 1929. Ford, looking for an aggressive response to Chevrolet decided his best option was to quickly focus on developing an efficient, low-cost V8, rather than a competing six. From the mid-20s, Ford had been slowly tinkering with developing a low-cost V8, but had problems perfecting a suitable casting process and struggled to make significant gains. In 1931, he got serious and recruited a new team to develop the new V8. Although the full resources of the expansive Ford Engineering Laboratory were at Henry’s disposal, the engineers working on the new V8 were instead quietly moved into Ford’s replica of Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park Laboratory. Ford built the tribute laboratory in 1928 on the grounds of Greenfield Village, less than a half-mile away from the Ford’s own Engineering Laboratory. Using what would have been considered primitive technology and tools at the time, Ford’s team worked tirelessly and in secret to perfect a single-piece engine block and design. By late 1931 Ford and his engineers believed they had a workable engine suitable for low cost, mass production.
Contrary to popular belief, the design and production methods of Ford’s V8 were not new or ground-breaking. The first V8 engine design had been patented in 1902 by Frenchman Leon Levavasseur around the same time Ford was fighting with his investors in his second motor company. Cadillac had successfully developed a 70 horsepower flathead V8 known as the Type 51 in 1914. Both Oakland and Viking developed single-piece engine blocks a few years before Ford did. While creating an engine block from a single casting was more complex than producing engine blocks cast in multiple pieces, it was one of the keys to keeping manufacturing costs low, a must for the V8 Ford to remain competitive. When it was introduced, the 221ci. flathead made 65 horsepower, just 5 horsepower more than the Stovebolt Six offered by Chevy. By WWII, the 239ci. Ford flatheads were making 100 horsepower from the factory.
The earliest flatheads were not without significant post-production issues. Although the Ford flathead ultimately proved to be a success, development was rushed and much of the initial product testing was conducted by consumers. Many first owners of flathead-equipped Fords found their vehicles plagued with oil consumption issues, porous block castings prone to cracking, an oil pan design that would cause oil starvation under cornering, and a poorly designed cooling system. In time, solutions to these issues were implemented and production and continual development of the flathead continued until the new OHV Ford Y-block was introduced in 1954. The historical influence of the Ford flathead V8 and the inexpensive, reliable power it provided the first generation of America’s emerging Hot Rod culture cannot be overstated.