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Activating The Henry Ford Archive of Innovation

Ford’s Game-Changing V-8 Engine

March 11, 2022 Archive Insight
Engine mounted on stand
1932 Ford V-8 Engine, No. 1. / THF101039

It’s been said that when the Ford flathead V-8 went into production in 1932, Ford Motor Company revolutionized the automobile industry—again. And the engine put the hot rod movement into high gear.

What made this engine revolutionary? It was the first V-8 light enough and cheap enough to go into a mass-produced vehicle. The block was cast in one piece, and the design was conducive to backyard mechanics’ and gearheads’ modifications.

Illustration of two engines, one without and one with protrusions; also contains text
This 1932 brochure illustrates the difference between the Ford V-8, with the cylinders and crankcase cast as a single block of iron, and a traditional V-8, built by bolting separate cylinders onto the crankcase. / THF125666

With so much at stake, you would think Henry Ford would set up his engineers tasked with the engine’s design in the most state-of-the-art facility he had at his disposal.

Not so. Instead, Ford sent a handpicked crew to Greenfield Village to gather in Thomas Edison’s Fort Myers Laboratory, which had been moved from Fort Myers, Florida, to Dearborn not long before.

Two men in suits, one wearing a hat, stand in front of a wooden building partially obscured by vegetation
Henry Ford and Thomas Edison with Fort Myers Laboratory at its original site, Fort Myers, Florida, circa 1925. / adapted from THF115782

“Henry Ford likely used the building because it provided his engineers with privacy and freedom from distraction,” said Matt Anderson, Curator of Transportation at The Henry Ford. “I imagine he also thought the team might be inspired by the surroundings.”

Ford’s plan worked. In just two years, Ford’s engineering crew left the lab in Greenfield Village with a final design.

This clip from The Henry Ford’s Innovation Nation provides even more background into the birth of the Ford V-8. / YouTube

It was with the skill and determination of foundrymen at the Ford Rouge Factory Complex that their ideas came to life. While most V-8 engines of the day were constructed with separately cast cylinder banks and crankcases, Ford was insistent on simplicity and was determined to create a one-piece block with integral cylinders. By 1931, the engineers’ concepts on paper became prototypes forged and built at the Rouge and first road-tested in Model As.

Man in work clothing and cap works at large piece of equipment
Employee in the Rouge Plant foundry machine shop working on Ford V-8 cylinder blocks, 1934. / adapted from THF115352

Eventually, 3,000 of the famed flathead engine blocks were rolling off the lines at the Rouge each day. And they continued rolling until production of the engine stopped more than 20 years later and once more than 25 million Ford cars and trucks with the V-8 were on the road.

Ford’s V-8 went to market in 1932. (Be sure to search out the 1932 Ford V-8 Victoria on your next visit to the Ford Rouge Factory Tour—it was powered by the flathead V-8 engine.) It proved so popular that the company stopped selling its four-cylinder engine by the 1935 model year.

Close-up of car grille with V-8 icon
V-8 Badge from the 1932 Ford V-8 Victoria on exhibit at the Ford Rouge Factory Tour. / THF120031

Less than a year after the V-8’s debut, vehicles powered by the motor were breaking racing records, dominating the 1933 Elgin National Road Race and clocking speeds of 109 mph at the 1934 Indy 500. By 1936, modified vehicles with the Ford V-8 had also won the first Daytona Beach stock car race, even impacting European motorsports with overall victories in the 1936 and 1938 Monte Carlo rallies.

Man sits in early, open racecar with other cars and people in the background
New Hampshire native Fred Frame raced Ford V-8s in the 1930s, winning the Elgin National Road Race with one (clocking an average race speed of 80.22 mph in the 205-mile event) in 1933. / THF271594

“The American hot rod hobby was built around Ford’s flathead V-8,” noted Anderson. “The engines were cheap and plentiful, and a host of speed shops sold everything from performance manifolds and camshafts to cylinder heads.”

And when boisterous street racers gave the hobby a bad name, Hot Rod Magazine editor Wally Parks organized the chaos, staging competitions on purpose-built drag strips under the supervision of the National Hot Rod Association—the same NHRA that governs professional drag racing today. “Nearly every form of American auto racing has been touched by the Ford V-8,” said Anderson. “And it all started in a historic lab preserved in Greenfield Village.”

To see more artifacts from our collections related to the Ford V-8 engine, check out our expert sets on the engine itself and the ways Ford publicized and sold it.

This post was adapted from two articles (“Sweet Spot” and “Breaking the Mold”) in the January–May 2020 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.

Additional Readings:

Greenfield Village history, Greenfield Village buildings, Greenfield Village, Ford Rouge Factory Complex, Henry Ford, Ford Motor Company, manufacturing, design, engineering, engines, race cars, cars, racing, The Henry Ford Magazine

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