My latest project involves a 1939 Flathead Ford V8-60 engine which raises a lot of eyebrows in the technically savvy modern engine building world. I’m often asked, “Why would you spend all that money and time on a 60 horsepower engine to go slower?”
In some aspects, a Flathead V8 owner is a patron of the arts.
That’s a valid question and I’ll answer it in Socrates fashion by asking another question. Why do you bother going to historic sites like the Statue of Liberty?
Aren’t there more modern and technically advanced statues littering the countryside? Let’s take the Harry Carey Statue in Chicago for example. Sure, Harry was a baseball icon, first on the south-side then on the north-side…but is a modern statue of this baseball announcer more interesting than the Statue of Liberty, the Colosseum in Rome or the Potala Palace in Tibet?
History and Tradition
Flathead Ford V8s are always considered to be among the top ten motors of the 20th century. It’s an honor and a privilege to own one of these works of art from the great industrial age. In some aspects, a Flathead V8 owner is a patron of the arts.
What makes the Flathead Ford a work of art? It was the first mass market 8-cylinder, first V8, and first V engine available to the consumer. Purposely designed and built by Ford for mass production, the Flathead V8s were available from 1932 to 1953 in passenger cars and trucks.
While Ford employed a full engineering team, it was Henry Ford that provided most of the innovations and ideas for the new engine, including the most important innovation, casting the crankshaft and all eight cylinders in one engine block. Most of the multi cylinder cars of the day were designed with cylinder blocks bolted to a common crankcase. Ford’s monobloc engine design continues to this day.
Ford’s design had the camshaft above the crankshaft, which continued into the next generations of pushrod operated overhead valve engines.
While the engine enjoyed a 21-year production run in America, the Flathead Ford V8 was licensed to other companies and continued to be used in France until 1961 and in Brazil until 1964. Simca Unic Marmon Bocquet Military trucks used the Flathead engine until 1990.
The Baby Flattie
My personal project is the V8-60 Flathead, which saw a very limited production run from 1936 to 1940. The small bore and stroke (2.6-inch by 3.2-inch), combined with the 6.6:1 compression, gave the little 136ci engine a rated horsepower of 60. Because consumers were already used to the bigger Flathead, which promised 85 horsepower, the V8-60 was not popular with the public.
It may have struggled to gain acceptance with the public but racers coveted the little engine for midget race cars in the late 1940s through the 1950s. This is where the V8-60 Flathead earned it’s reputation. The V8-60 may have been known for overheating, yet it remains the first production-based engine to seriously challenge the Offenhauser engine’s supremacy in Midget racing.
Pride of Ownership
Finding parts for these ancient engine is difficult. A recent call to the Edelbrock corporation confirmed how much of a challenge sourcing key components can be. Edelbrock started its rise to success with the Flathead intake manifold. It was the single component that put the Edelbrock name in front of thousands of hot rodders nationwide. “How can I get my hands on a V8-60 Flathead standard two carb intake manifold,” I asked the Edelbrock tech crew.
“I’ve been here 30 years, and we haven’t made them in all the time I’ve been here,” was the response.
I managed to find one on eBay for a princely sum, which stung the wallet and budget for the project. Three days later the manifold showed up on my doorstep via UPS. Opening the shipping box with great care, my reward came in pulling out this piece of history and admiring the simplicity and brilliance of the piece.
“This is what got Edelbrock started,” I said to myself. Flashes of Rodger Ward running the #27 midget at Gilmore passed through my mind. Who knows? Parnelli Jones may have feed fuel through this very manifold at some point. Mel Kenyon, Pancho Carter or A.J. Foyt may have used it.
I was holding a piece of history and it was destined for my vintage race engine. Pride of ownership is the payoff for all the frustration and dollars spent finding a rare jewel.
Is it Worth it?
The Western Racing Association, the vintage racing organization that I am a member of, holds exhibitions of vintage car racing at tracks throughout California, Nevada and Arizona. Without fail, these vintage engines, cars and racers earn adoration from the fans at the tracks where they appear. “This is old school! This is how they used to do it. If you wanted to get to the Indy 500, your path was through the midgets,” say the announcers as the mighty midgets turn their laps.
If you are fortunate enough to see these vintage cars run, take a close look at the drivers as they navigate their cars through the turns. You’ll see an ear-to-ear grin on every one of them. That’s what racing was, and that is what started each of us in engine building. It was fun. It always is fun going fast and testing yourself against the other engine builders and their racing skills. So…”Is it worth it to spend more money going slower?” – oh yeah, it’s worth every penny and then some.