The economic prosperity that blessed the USA in the decades after the WWII, helped to consolidated the American cars as the standard for the automotive industry, they were big, elegant, powerful, reliable and above all, affordable.
The engine of choice for the American automakers, at that time, was the V8, the only machine capable provide good performance for such large cars. Thanks to the wonders of mass production and cheap gas, the V8 became extremely popular during the 1950s/60s/70s.
The raw performance, the sound, and the simplicity of this engine influenced generations of gear heads in their need for speed, and helped to create some of the most beloved car movements in the History: the Hot Rod, the Muscle-Car, and the Pony-Car. These movements conquered the hearts and minds of the aficionados all over the world and it is still going on even after more than 80 years after it started.
The Affordable Performance.
In the beginning, automobiles were seen just as an expensive toy for the riches, owning a car was more like a hobby than a necessity.
Thanks to the ingenuity of the American industry and the advent of mass production in the early 1910s, cars became affordable to the lower classes and an important part of daily life.
Later on, the companies added a very import aspect to some of their cars: Performance, and consequently created the “sports car” segment. As one can imagine, high-performance cars in the 1920s were very expensive and once again, the American creativity stepped in to bring the thrills of speed to the masses.
American high-performance cars were very simple machines, to make them affordable, the brands didn’t spend money with famous designers and with cutting edge technologies. What made them so desirable was the rough power provided by the engine under the hood.
The “Big Three” (Ford, GM, and Chrysler) created quite a few remarkable V8 and if I have decided to write about them all, I rather have written a book. Instead, I picked one engine of each brand that was pivotal to kick start the Hot Rod movement and later on, to consolidate it.
The Ford Flathead and the birth of the Hot Rodding.
The Ford Motor Company is one of the oldest automakers in the world and it is better known for the creation of the assembly line in 1913, but it can also receive the credit for being the first car company to give to the average customer access to a High-Performance car.
In 1932 Ford created another revolution when the company unveiled its first V8 engine. The breakthrough here wasn’t the engine itself, but the manufacturing process.
Ford didn’t invent the V8, after all, this kind of engine had been around for quite some time when the “Blue Oval” guys released their own. Back in the 1920s engines in the “V” shape were very complicated to build, the automakers didn’t have the knowledge of how to cast the engine block in one single piece and the solution was to cast it in two separate “banks’ and weld them together. This was a long and costly process and for that reason, “V” engines could only be found in luxury cars. To make matters even worse, the welding technology at that time was still rudimentary and those engines could easily crack in half under severe use.
Ford was the first car maker to master the technique to cast the V8 block in a single piece and it significantly reduced the time and cost of the production, allowing the company to offer the new engine into more popular cars.
The combination of performance and affordability made the new Ford V8 a smashing success. Soon every Ford model was offered with this engine: cars, pick-up trucks, and even heavy trucks. The engine became known around the World as “Ford Flathead” and on its first generation, it was able to produce 65HP. Nowadays it might sound like the power output of a scooter, but 88 years ago, it was pretty impressive.
Racers quickly learned to make race cars on a budget, installing the Ford Flathead into older cars found in junkyards (usually 1910s/20s Ford model T). Soon, small companies started to develop a variety of aftermarket high-performance parts for the new V8 and that was the foundation of the Hot Rod movement; perhaps the most “grassroots” of all automobile trends in History.
The flathead engines (either V8 or any other shape) are fairly simple machines, easy to build in a mass production line, and automakers heavily relied on them during the 1930s/40s. Ford built the “Flatty” for the American market from 1932 until 1953 but kept the production going on around the world for a few more years. In the end, an estimated total number of 10 million units were built. In its latest versions, the Ford Flathead V8 was already producing 125HP and it could easily reach 200HP with a few tricks learned by the racing teams, but the little engine has some serious project flaws: the flathead concept has the intake/exhaust valves placed in the engine block, that means the hot exhaust gases have to “travel” around the combustion chamber to reach the pipes, generating excessive heat in the block. The second flaw is the crankshaft is held in place by only 3 main bearings, making the engine very fragile for anything above 200HP.
All those flaws are inherent in an engine that was conceived in the early 1930s. I have been involved with Flatheads quite a bit during my professional life and I have learned to love the engine for its qualities and understand and accept its imperfections. Nevertheless, the Ford Flathead is considered to be the first pillar which the Hot Rod movement was built upon and consequently paved the way for the Muscle Car scene of the 1960s, and for that reason, the engine is adored by Hot Rodders all over the world.