In 1926, Henry Ford, inarguably a genius, had a hard time accepting that his hugely successful Model T was no longer in demand. But he couldn’t dismiss the fact that Chevrolet production was fast-approaching one million units per year, and then surpassed it in 1927 beating out Ford in the yearly sales race. Model T production was also approaching the milestone one-million figure, albeit from the opposite direction. This was sobering for Henry, as just four years prior his company was building almost two million cars per year, selling the famous Lizzy as fast as hot cakes without any real advertising.
Consumers were practically demanding more refinement in their low-priced vehicles. Henry took measures in 1926 to make the Model T more enticing by offering (for the first time since 1913) a choice of colors plus a nickel-plated grille-shell. But it was too little, too late. Dealers were unhappy as well. It was clear that changing the color of this rose didn’t dismiss the fact that it had thorns.
Accepting the fact that the T needed to be replaced, Henry Ford stood steadfast in demanding that its replacement must also be revolutionary. It had to be faster, smoother and more durable to compete with the likes of Chevrolet, Essex and Plymouth. Henry strongly felt that offering a select-shift transmission and modern distributor ignition was most important, his son Edsel (a right-brain thinker and president of the company), wanted to make the car “appealing,” attractive in design and comfortable with interior appointments. At constant odds with each other, Edsel was given the nod based on the success he’d had with the restyled Lincoln.
The new Ford, the Model A, was introduced before Christmas 1927 – $100 million and a full seven months after Model T production ended. And it was slick... often times called a “baby Lincoln.” But while the car slowly became more prevalent on streets around the country (Ford was having a hard time meeting production demands), Chevrolet was well on its way to pumping out another million-plus vehicles. Slightly redesigned in 1928, hardly anyone paid attention to the fact that Chevrolets gained four inches in length – all of it in front of the windshield – with its little four-cylinder engine still mounted close to the firewall. General Motors was secretly gearing up to throw its trump card down on the new Ford, waiting until all the fanfare was over with the Model A. But with Ford’s production problems in 1928, Chevrolet unexpectedly won the sales race again.
Then came GM’s trump card – the 1929 Chevrolet “International” series, a car that could be equipped with “a six for the price of a four.” The key ingredient was Bunkie Knudsen’s “cast-iron wonder,” the overhead-valve “Stovebolt Six.” Not extremely remarkable, but built economically with a design so sound that it powered Chevrolets well into the mid-1950s.
While Ford regained the number one spot in sales for 1929 and ’30 with Model A production up to speed, the margin was very close. Too close. The title was lost again in 1931 and wouldn’t return to Ford until 1957. Henry was up against the ropes. In the summer of 1930 he put a team together to develop what became his last great personal engineering triumph, his “en block,” or one piece V-8 engine. While Lincoln had been powered by a V-8 from its inception in 1920, and Cadillac since 1915 (and other companies experimenting with the idea going all the way back to 1900), those engine blocks were cast in pieces, machined and individually assembled on a bench. Extremely expensive to build, with completed cars costing up to 10 times more than the economical Ford. Henry had envisioned a mass-produced engine, and the block had to be cast in one piece.
History shows that this team – Emil Zoerlein, Carl Schultz and Ray Laird, and later Herman Reinhold – was successful with their first try in producing a one-piece block early in 1931. Almost surprisingly, as Henry had them working in primitive and highly top-secret confines unbeknownst to anyone.
Mass-producing this block, however, was a stumbling block that didn’t fall as easily. In fact, they were still fighting with it early in 1932 when all Ford plants were shut down and with the company in serious financial trouble. With the help of production boss Charles Sorensen personally rolling up his sleeves (he started his Ford career as a pattern maker during Ford’s first days in business) the major obstacles were overcome and the world’s first mass-produced, low-priced V-8 engine was a reality. Production for the 1932 Fords officially began on March 9, and by the end of the month, every Ford dealer had one to display. A new era had begun.
Upon the newly engineered chassis both an updated Model A-type four-cylinder engine, called the Model B, and the new 221cid/65hp V-8, was available. The Model B four-cylinder was offered not only as a fall-back in case the V-8 casting problems couldn’t be solved, but for stalwart four-cylinder fans who couldn’t be talked into a V-8. But the new V-8 powerplant, with its down draft carburetor, enabled 1932 Ford to outperform all other popular competitors and was 20 years ahead of its time.
On Edsel’s side of production, an all-new line of open and closed bodies were being built by Briggs, Murray and Budd. Basically face-lifted 1931 Model As, the cars still retained the look of the luxury flagship Lincoln, reflecting Edsel’s genius for design. Body styles included roadsters, four-door phaetons, coupes, two-door sedans (Tudor), and four-door sedans (Fordor), along with a cabriolet, victoria and a convertible sedan (convertible victoria). Prices ranged from $410 for the four-cylinder roadster to $650 for the convertible sedan.
Ford wasn’t out of the woods, however. After all, the economy was heading into the worst of the Depression and it didn’t matter about the flash of V-8 power or its strikingly good looks. In addition, problems with the engine soon started developing both in casting and engineering, and while the problems may not have been wide spread, the publicity was. Between the Depression and the opinion that the V-8 wasn’t any good, Ford was forced to shut down 24 of its 30 plants.
For 1933, things looked up. But not before another all-new face lift on a longer wheelbase, which pushed production back three months. Mechanical problems were also ironed out, and the car was getting praise and public acceptance. Best of all, the V-8 was capturing the attention of hot-rodders. The new body design was fantastic, and now considered one of America’s best classic designs.
West Peterson is editor of Antique Automobile, the official publication of the Antique Automobile Club of America.