Henry's Haunts

Don Sherman
Regis Lefebure

The Dearborn Inn and the Ford V-8 were both born in the teeth of the Depression. When the Model T outlived its welcome, Chevrolet topped Ford's 1927 and '28 sales. While the launch of its Model A put Ford back on top, Chevy's 1929 Model AC, advertised as the "Six for the Price of a Four," drove Henry Ford back to the drawing boards.

V-8 engines had been available for years in luxury cars, including Lincolns, but they were deemed too intricate and expensive for mass production. To trump Chevy, Ford created the first affordable V-8 by simplifying everything about its design. Cylinder banks and the crankcase were joined in one elaborate casting. The camshaft, valves, intake passages, and exhaust ports were all packed inside the block. Rudimentary ignition, cooling, and lubrication systems also kept down costs. With a base price of $460, the 1932 Ford V-8 cost only $30 more than the '31 Model A, $15 more than a Chevy six, and $35 less than Plymouth's four-cylinder PB.

It's a seventeen mile run from Henry Ford's
Fair Lane estate to the Willow Run plant.

Edsel Ford, Henry's son and company president since 1919, contributed the Deuce's iconic design. Never realizing that this styling would be worshipped by generations of hot-rodders, the younger Ford gave the new V-8 the looks of a baby Lincoln with a streamlined radiator shell, a raked windshield, fluted bumpers, and a tasteful array of bright accents. The '32 frame was a "double-drop design" to lower the body, and its side rails were contoured to attractively fill the gaps above the running boards. Inside, a chromed and engine-turned gauge panel, a wood-grained dash, and nickel-plated door handles added sparkle.

Ford's hope was that the 1932 V-8 would hobble Chevy, return his laid-off employees to work, and drag the country out of the ditch. It did none of the above. After an initial spurt, sales fell to twenty percent of the targeted volume. Most Americans couldn't afford bread, let alone a new car. The Big Three all tanked in 1932, with Ford's $75 million loss the greatest. A desperate Edsel effectively gave his Fay Wray a hairy chest: the 1933 Ford Model 40 abandoned many of the Deuce's elegant design touches.

The Willow Run plant where B-24s were built.

The Rouge plant, Ford's monument to integrated manufacturing, lies three miles due east of the Dearborn Inn's manicured lawns and sprawling oaks. Here, more than 100,000 workers converted iron ore, coal, natural rubber, and other raw materials to the steel, tires, glass, plastic parts, electricity, and even the paper needed for car production beginning with the Model A. Today, even though less than one-third of the original complex is used to build F-150 pickup trucks, the Rouge is still Ford's largest manufacturing plant. It's also one of the few remaining factories open to public tours.

After our rolling Rouge salute, Stringer and I motor back to Dearborn. The Deuce's steering is a throwback to automotive antiquity: ponderous at parking speeds, light but loose while cruising, and then heavy again when I arc into a 90-degree bend at 30 mph. Swinging the hard rubber wheel three turns lock-to-lock yields a trucklike 39-foot turn-ing circle.

The V-8 engine was secretly designed in
a Greenfield Village Edison Lab.

Ride motions also are archaic. The Deuce bounds over major bumps and then rocks its passengers with a few cycles of hobby-horse motion while the transverse leaf springs and lever-type dampers attempt to restore equilibrium. Rubber isolation between the frame, the powertrain, and the body was new that year, but it amounted to no more than a modest first step on the long road to comfort and composure.

In 1923, Henry Ford ordered construction of the palatial Engineering Laboratories Building, even though he strongly resisted any organized R&D hierarchy therein. The names of twenty-one scientists and inventors are chiseled atop this 800-foot-long edifice, with the surname of Ford's confidant, Thomas Edison, located over the main entrance. Inside, the office used by Henry Ford is preserved behind glass walls. Most recently occupied by Ford's Powertrain Operations, the lab building has been vacated by Ford engineers and may soon become another tourist attraction.

A few years after completing his engineering headquarters, Ford broke ground on the grand museum and village that became one of Michigan's top tourist attractions. We pause at the farmhouse where the people's tycoon was born, tour a replica of the workshop where his first experimental car - the Quadricycle - was constructed, and pay respects at the quarter-scale model of the first Ford factory. But what fascinates most is the Edison laboratory, which had been relocated from Fort Myers, Florida. This is where Ford established a Skunk Works to design his V-8 engine in secrecy. All blueprints were marked with Lincoln identification to thicken the smoke screen.

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