Without question the 1932 Ford—affectionately called the “Deuce”, is the quintessential hot rod. But how? And why?
A convergence of seemingly unrelated occurrences, certain characteristics unique to the ’32 Ford, and a touch of serendipity all played a part in Ford’s modest offerings for 1932 becoming the iconic hot rod aesthetic.
The ‘32 Ford featured a lot of firsts and also lasts, which helped endear it to hot rodders. It was the first year of the flathead V-8, which was the first V-8 in an affordable, mass market automobile. Initially too expensive for teenage hot rodders, it offered an easy platform to install a fast flathead once those engines became plentiful and cheap. Supply and affordability were key contributors to virtually anything hot rodders incorporated into their cars in the pursuit of style and speed.
Another first was its steel reinforced body, an improvement from mostly wood structures with stamped metal skins nailed to them that most car makers used in 1932. A steel inner structure meant lighter and more durable bodies less prone to degradation from continual structural stresses. As roadsters and coupes from contemporary manufacturers became exposed to the elements, dry rot and termites guaranteed an early trip to the junk man. 1932 Fords survived much better, leading to greater availability, which kept a lid on prices.
One of the unintended aesthetic advantages with a ’32 Ford is that removing fenders and running boards (done to save weight and increase aerodynamics for dry lakes racing) resulted in a clean body mass without gaps, aprons, and wonky body lines. They were harmonious and clean with or without fenders. Uniquely, a fenderless Deuce—or “high boy”, featured styled, exposed frame rails. Those exposed frame rails incorporated a stamped style-line that followed the front fender and running board attachment points. No other automobile, ever, had this styled frame detail. Because it was meant to be exposed, there were no brackets, brake lines, or body bracing a covered frame might contain.
As automotive styling evolved, the 1932 Ford was one of the last and most evolved designs of this upright and honest school of styling. Vertical grilles, tops, and door cuts met their end in 1933. In almost all cases, 1933 universally produced laid back grilles (or grilles hiding radiators), bodies extended down to meet running boards and to cover gas tanks (eliminating aprons), hoods overlapped cowls, and more angle was applied to both windshields and grilles. Streamlined styling swooped up the design and body details. Before the end of the 1930s headlights were integrated into fenders, tops blended into the body more elegantly, and fenders became more exaggerated. 1933 ushered the first unified, clamshell-like body styling, so the 1932 Ford’s styling marks a linear end from the inception of the automobile.
Finally, cars got larger after 1932. Smaller cars can poke through the air better so, everything being equal, they’re quicker due to less drag. Deuces were lighter, smaller, simple, easy to stuff a V-8 into, and plentiful on car lots and bone yards—all helping the 1932 Ford become the car of choice for racers. As street cars began emulating what ran at the dry lakes like Muroc and El Mirage in the desert northeast of Los Angeles, they also became the go-to hot rod for the street.
It was never planned. How could it be? No, the Deuce was an organic phenomenon. It developed from a need to go fast cheaply and easily, with some style thrown into the mix. Even though Fords are an entry-level automobile never known for the styling flourishes that distinguish high-priced Duesenbergs, Lincolns, and Cadillacs, they nevertheless offer a good degree of eye candy.
By the 1950s, teens were becoming a more publicly visible demographic, attracting attention to everything they did and significantly influence American culture. With rock and roll came songs about hot rods. The sport of drag racing developed from dry lakes racing, with surfing, slang, and a whole style and culture raising the intrinsic value of hot rods, which has uniquely elevated the Deuce high on the car collector’s consciousness.