Ford’s Flathead V8 Fueled the Hot Rod Revolution
Every legend has a beginning, every epic a genesis. Like Cassius Clay before Mohammed Ali, or the Iliad before the Odyssey, nothing is without prologue. The continuously unfolding story of America’s love affair with the V8 is no exception.
Although the American V8’s roots can be traced back to Cadillac’s L-head design of 1914, it was Ford’s democratization of multicylinder power in the dying days of prohibition which really cemented the configuration as the prototypically American motor—previous to this V8s were only seen in very exclusive, very expensive luxury cars.
In the late 1920s Ford’s four-cylinder powered Model A was steadily losing ground to Chevrolet and their six-cylinder Series AC International, which was marketed as “a six for the price of a four”. Henry Ford, in typical style, wouldn’t be satisfied with merely matching Chevy’s six, and so set out to beat it by two, in 1929 instructing engineer Fred Thoms to begin work on a new V8. After acquiring a number of high-end V8-powered cars from makes like LaSalle and Cadillac, Thoms and his small team set about dismantling their motors to see where money could be saved and production streamlined. Working in secrecy and hand-building components to avoid leaks from within, the team finally presented two working prototypes in late 1930.
Displacing 233 and 299 CID, respectively, both featured 90 degree vees and single cast blocks with integral valves—hence the name “Flathead”. Smooth-running and powerful, there were nonetheless massive teething problems—notably a block scrap rate approaching 50%. A year later in winter of 1931, with sales still slipping, Ford made the executive decision to go-ahead with the V8 for the upcoming ’32 Model 18, despite ongoing development. From the off customers complained of overheating and cracked blocks, both of which were eventually rectified, at least for the most part. Despite inadequate testing prior release, the V8 was a huge hit with an ever more power-mad buying public.
Due to its ready availability and relative stealth and speed, the Model 18 also found immediate success with bootleggers and gangsters, most famously with Bonnie and Clyde. Though some question its authenticity, a letter attributed to Barrow thanked Henry Ford for the V8’s contributions to his criminal success:
While I still have got breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen’t been strickly legal it don’t hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the V8.”
Clyde Champion Barrow”
Ultimately, the two would meet their end in a V8 Ford on May 21st, 1934 in Shreveport, Louisiana, when a posse of six lawmen ambushed the moving car, unloading more than 130 shots from various automatic rifles, shotguns, and handguns, stopping only when they’d run out of ammo.
Later, these early V8s would play an instrumental role in the dawn of hot-rodding, as soldiers returning from battle in WWII quickly snatched up what was then only a cheap, but fast, secondhand car. As these veterans and their friends quickly discovered, there was always more power and speed to be extracted from tinkering with fueling, exhaust, and by stripping away extra weight.
Soon, an entire industry sprang up around the scene to supply hot-rodders with aftermarket performance parts, fueling a tradition which lives on today in the garage workshops of millions of guys—and girls—equipped with old muscle cars, secondhand tools, and Jegs catalogs. This DIY culture of home-brewed performance eventually spilled over our borders, spreading across the globe as Europe, South America, Australia, and Japan each took hold of the hot-rodding bug, a worldwide phenomenon directly and inextricably linked back to Ford’s humble, bone-simple Flathead V8.