It’s 1932, the height of the Great Depression. Nearly a quarter of all Americans are out of work. What money is being earned buys less, as a 1931 dollar is worth 90 cents in 1932.
The President, Herbert Hoover, is a pariah — so much so that during his re-election campaign, Detroit’s mounted police are called to protect the president from jobless auto workers chanting “Hang Hoover.”
Of course, things aren’t going well for automakers either.
The previous year, 1931, Ford sold 395,000 Model As, down significantly from the million-plus vehicles sold in 1929. But the whole industry is down, having sold 1.1 million units, down from 4.5 million in 1929.
But the slump in sales hadn’t deterred Henry Ford’s plan to beat Chevrolet: build a Ford with a V-8 engine. Unheard of in a mainstream car, it was introduced 90 years ago this week, at the height of the Great Depression.
A wild idea to top Chevy
Whereas Ford once commanded 50% of the car market with his Model T, his refusal to change it gave competitors a chance to catch up, offering more power, more comfort, more amenities and colors other than black. And it wasn’t just Chevrolet. Mid-priced brands like Oldsmobile, Nash, Dodge, Hudson and others nibbled away at his dominance. While Ford still had the industry’s largest market share, it was sliding. By 1926, it stood at 36 percent.
The Model T was losing its luster.
So Ford shut down his factories as he developed his next car, the Model A. It would be a sea change from the Model T, with markedly better performance, thanks to its 200.5 cubic-inch 4 cylinder that produced 40 horsepower, double that of the Model T. It boasted a far more modern design and employed a 3-speed manual transmission, rather than the T’s planetary gearbox.
But while Ford’s factory shutdown cost him the lead in sales, it would reverse itself in 1928, with the arrival of the Model A. By mid-1929, Ford sold 2 million of them.
While Ford thought the car was good enough to last a decade, Chevrolet one-upped him, introducing its 60-horsepower “Stovebolt Six” and overtaking Ford.
Something had to be done.
Leapfrogging General Motors
As Ford planned his new model for 1932, he didn’t plan to meet Chevrolet head-to-head with a 6-cylinder powerplant. Instead, he would leapfrog them by producing a V-8 and hopefully leapfrog them on the sales charts.
The idea itself seemed preposterous. Until that point, only luxury cars were powered by 8-cylinder engines. But Ford was convinced he had a good idea. He would cast the crankcase and cylinder banks as a single unit, cutting the manufacturing expense so that he could offer a V-8 in a car costing less than $500.
After trusting the task of engineering the engine to his engineers, he grew frustrated with their progress and took control of the engine’s development. He gathered a small group and retreated to Thomas Edison’s old workshop on the grounds of Greenfield Village, his historic theme park.
What resulted was a 221 cubic inch V-8 producing 65 horsepower — five more than Chevrolet. Its compact size allowed it to fit in the same space under the hood as the old inline 4, which would be offered as well. By offering a V-8, Ford’s car was smoother than its competitors, while producing more power.
Its appeal was immediate; the Ford V-8 was a bargain, a car that could be had for as little as $410. Once announced, Ford had 50,000 orders on hand.
Introduced as the Model 18 alongside the 4-cylinder Model B, the V-8-powered Model 18 was as little as $10 more than its 4-cylinder sibling. By 1934, it would be rated at 85 hp, and the new flathead Ford V-8 became a favorite of hotrodders, speed addicts and criminals, most notably notorious bank robbers John Dillinger and Bonnie and Clyde.
“I have drove Fords exclusively when I could get away with one,” Clyde Barrow wrote in a letter to Henry Ford. Ironically, Bonnie and Clyde would be killed by law enforcement in a tan Ford after it was riddled with 107 bullets. Once the firestorm was finished, the Ford started up without a problem.
The rest of the story
The success of the V-8 didn’t end Ford’s financial problems. The company lost $125 million from 1931 to 1933. But things turned around for 1934, and while profitability and good rising sales returned, Ford Motor Co. would never again dominate the industry the way it had with the Model T.
During the next 21 years Ford Motor Co. would sell 16,388,762 V-8-powered cars, more than all competitors combined. The flathead V-8 would remain in production, with modifications, until 1953 when it was replaced it with the Y-block engine.
The 1932 Fords would become a key growth factor in the hot rod craze as aftermarket parts that could increase the flathead’s power appeared, especially after the war. That’s when these “Deuce Coupes” — a reference to their model year 1932 — were little more than inexpensive used cars whose engines could be hopped up or swapped out for a new high-compression V-8.
The cars have since become iconic, starring in films like “American Graffiti” and sung about in songs like The Beach Boys’ “Little Deuce Coupe,” which made the Top 20 in 1963, or Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light.”
Yet few automotive artifacts of the Depression remain a cultural touchstone today like the 1932 Ford V-8.