The 1932 Ford and the Flathead V8

in #historylast year

Today I stumbled upon this documentary about the '32 Ford with its innovative Flathead V8. At the time it was called the Model B, or in V8 trim, just the Ford V8. The Flathead Ford V8 wasn't the first V8 ever made, or even the first one made by Ford, but it was the first one mass produced for use in a vehicle that was at an entry-level price. I took note of a few things about that V8 that I wasn't aware of until watching this.

First, its secret to success wasn't just how much power it made. As I said, Ford already made V8's and put them in Lincolns, which more than likely outperformed this one. Its secret innovation was that the entire engine block was cast as one piece, which would simplify the process of machining and assembling the engine to the point that it could be comparable in manufacturing cost to Ford's existing 4-cylinder engines used in the Model A. Doubling the cylinder count in a package that was only slightly larger and heavier than the outgoing engine with minimal cost increase was no small accomplishment. As usual with technological advancements, the real feats of engineering come from making them cheap enough so that the masses can afford them. As Ford did with the original Model T, he repeated history by offering this V8 in a similar fashion. It took years of painstaking research and failed designs to come up with this winning formula, along with the millions of dollars spent to do so. I am often reminded of Steve Jobs when I hear stories about Henry Ford's successes. This instance is no exception.

Next, the manufacturing process for the engine was done to very tight tolerances that I wouldn't have expected for the time period, especially in a consumer application like this. For example, the connecting rods were individually weighed, and more specifically the big ends were also weighed, along with the pistons themselves all being ground to a specific weight using an ingeniously-designed automated machine. All of this data was then used to build matched sets of piston-rod assemblies for a dynamically balanced rotating assembly, the same as if one were to build a high-revving engine for a racing application today. As far as I know, this level of care in engine assembly was not continued later in the 20th Century, and I would venture a guess that except in cases of special model runs of performance street cars, OEM's still don't go this far to ensure their rotating assemblies are so perfectly balanced.

What was also noteworthy about the parts manufacturing, machining and assembly of these engines, is that it looked like from the footage, that they did 100% quality checks on every single part. They had special gauges and measuring tools that allowed workers to hand check each piece before it could be used in an assembly, like the above mentioned matching of sets of pistons and rods. Doing something like this today would be near impossible to do profitably I imagine, even with all of the advances in automation at manufacturers' disposal, but somehow back in 1932 they were still able to pull it off with nothing more than hand work and carefully designed gauges and machines. Truly remarkable.

A couple of things to note were features that aren't significant for their presence, but because they were later removed from Ford Motor Company's very own engines. One was related to the oil pan on the engine. When the early versions of the '32 Ford V8 went around corners, oil would slosh to one side of the pan, the oil pickup would run dry and lots of the engines were blowing up when they momentarily lost oil pressure repeatedly under load. This was fixed by adding a simple baffle system to the oil pan, which Ford used in an endurance exhibition to prove its effectiveness, along with proving the overall reliability of the engine. Now, I actually owned a late-60's model Ford with a small block V8 in it, a more advanced overhead valve design, and that car actually had this same problem. I was a teenager when I drove it, and so I often drove it hard, and if I slid the car around a corner with wheel spin that allowed the RPMs to climb simultaneously, the idiot light on the dash would flicker on and off, indicating that my oil pressure was dropping momentarily. I think at the time of the original Flathead V8 the engine oils were so poor that they simply had to address this issue in their design or face catastrophic engine failure, but later during the 60's, durability wasn't compromised too much with the superior oil designs so they just ran without those design features to save on costs. At one point I built one of those later model small block engines for performance to put in a hot rod, and again, the oil pans with baffling systems and windage trays for preventing oil starvation were available in the aftermarket for racing, but the OEM pans didn't work so well. Maybe there was a bit of planned obsolescence mixed in there I imagine? They certainly were trying to make the engines last as long as possible in 1932.

Another design that was similarly removed from later models was a feature that the Flathead V8 had right from the start. It had a waterproofed distributor and ignition wire system. I remember one time my father drove through a big mud puddle at speed with his late-70's Ford pickup truck. The engine quit instantly. The reason? The distributor got a little wet. Ford distributors of that era were so poor at preventing water ingress that you sometimes couldn't start the engine in the morning if it was damp out the night before. We would carry some WD40 and starting fluid in the glove box to dry the inside of the cap and displace the water on the outside when this problem happened. A simple built-in o-ring on the cap and a vent tube on the bottom of the distributor housing would have easily cured this problem on that particular distributor design, but the manufacturer again saved a few cents per unit by leaving this critical design element out. Several decades earlier Henry Ford himself thought it was important to have for reliability purposes, and those who followed him left it out.

Some neat things not related to the engine I'd also like to mention. The rear suspension had very long control arms that extended very far forward in the chassis. This allows the axle to articulate up and down, and given the huge radius of those arms, it stays located fore and aft, and due to the triangular shape of the arm/axle configuration, it adds a lot of strength to keep the axle located left to right. These are design elements that at some point got removed and then later on were added back in using different techniques since the handling of a vehicle with a live axle rear suspension suffers greatly without them. The axle was a full floating design as well, meaning that the axle housing supports all the weight of the vehicle, leaving the axle shafts to only do duty dealing with torsional stress from the drivetrain, making for a very strong design. You don't really see this in later model live axles used in passenger cars. They're usually only seen in 3/4 ton and larger trucks.

Still on the suspension and steering are a couple of interesting things. The shock absorbers back then were basically a stack of disks designed to create a certain amount of friction to dampen the springs. The neat thing about the '32 Ford's shock absorbers was that after initial installation and factory adjustments, they automatically adjusted themselves as the friction surfaces wore. Same goes for the steering gear. They designed the gear to automatically tighten itself as it wore. I sure wish my old '60s car with the super sloppy on-center steering had that on it.

Finally, the roof fabric of all things stuck out to me. The narrator pointed out that because the wire mesh used in the roof fabric was fully insulated from the body of the car, they were able to use it as the antenna for a radio if one was optioned. It's little details like these that I noticed during the documentary that made me realize once again; it doesn't matter what technology is at your disposal, if you don't know what to do with it, it doesn't mean a damn thing. Henry Ford and the people who followed him at the same company proved that assertion quite well.

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and today, Fjord (and other american car companies) design parts to last a certain time and then fail. Not designed to last and last. Not designed to be the best part possible, but designed to fail.

American car companies should never have been bailed out, they should have been stricken from the earth