As Classic Car Appreciation Day (July 13) approaches, we’ll be counting down each day with the greatest vehicle of each decade, from the earliest days of the automobile to the present. It’s by no means a final, definitive, for-all-time list, so please weigh in—respectfully—in the Forums with your comments, endorsements, and disagreements. Today: the 1930s.
If the Ford Model T was the car that put the masses behind the wheel, the ’32 Ford was the car that gave them style and power. Not only are the grille shell and clean body lines lasting icons, the combination of the car’s construction and its introduction of Ford’s flathead V-8 helped make it last for generations as the go-to for race cars, customs, and hopped-up hot rods.
Prior to the ’32 Ford, a Model A came with a 201-cubic-inch four-cylinder producing 40 horsepower. When the 1932 Model 18 debuted with its 221-cu-in flathead V-8, it belted out an impressive 65 hp. Other manufacturers had produced V-8 engines before, with Detroit rival Chevrolet building one in 1917, but they were reserved for high-end models. The ’32 Ford’s optional V-8 was one that people could actually afford.
The flathead V8 was Ford’s go-to V-8 until the overhead-valve Y-block V-8 debuted in 1954 models. Its long production run, large production numbers, and low cost made the engine popular with racers, especially after WWII. While Ford’s “banger” four-cylinder was also the frequent target of dry lakes racers and hot-rodders, the flathead Ford V-8 is responsible for the performance automotive aftermarket as we know it.
In its 68-year history, a ’32 Ford has won the title of America’s Most Beautiful Roadster 20 times, more than any other body style. So although it was only built for one year, the ’32 Ford is instantly recognizable and is the most enduring style in all of hot-rodding. It’s still being produced today, with faithful recreations being stamped out of steel to fill the market for hot rods and race cars.
Honorable mentions for the 1930s are the Bugatti Type 57, Mercedes 540 K Special roadster, and Alfa Romeo 8C. Each of these beautiful touring cars brought gorgeous Art Deco lines and tremendous power, along with a racing pedigree, to the street. None of them, however, possess the lasting impact on the world that the ’32 Ford has.