The V-8 under the hood of my 1932 Ford chuckles contentedly as I motor sedately around Dearborn, Michigan, on a steamy Sunday afternoon. This is one joyride with noble intentions: we’re toasting the divine Deuce on its seventy-fifth birthday and searching for what moved Henry Ford to give working-class Americans their first shots of speed.
This is not an epic trek, because in addition to being America’s first industrialist with a global reach, Ford was a loyal homebody. Less than four miles separate his birthplace, his longtime home, and his grave site. Ford’s pack-rat nature also eases the task of exploring his life and times. Thousands of the cultural artifacts that he gathered are at Dearborn’s version of Disneyland, a museum recently – and aptly – renamed The Henry Ford and Greenfield Village, an assembled community of homes, workshops, labs, and factories where American genius, including Ford’s, thrived.
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2008/01/0710_02z-rouge_assembly_line-historical_photo.jpg" alt="Assembly-line workers at the Rouge Plant were
lucky to have a job when the Deuce debuted.” class=”wp-image-476754″ />
My sponsor for this venture is Lynn Stringer, a devout admirer, collector, and restorer of ’32 Fords. Before, during, and after his thirty-five-year engineering career at Ford, Stringer harbored Deuce passion, an affair that began during his Steubenville, Ohio, teenage days. After a few years of hot-rodding, Stringer decided that he really needed a ’32 roadster. In 1978, he purchased the car we’re driving for $7000 in Minerva, Ohio. It had sat for sixteen years following a career transporting grand marshals and beauty queens in parades.
Stringer spent eight years returning his De Luxe Roadster to factory-original condition. He painted it with the same medium maroon nitrocellulose lacquer Ford used in 1932. Instead of dipping the fenders as the factory did, Stringer sprayed them with original black enamel. His twenty-year-old paint job radiates an authentic glow that makes the Early Ford V-8 Club of America judges swoon. Stringer values this prime example of Henry’s handiwork at $125,000.
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2008/01/0710_03z-1932_ford_de_luxe_roadster-front_three_quarter_view.jpg" alt="Stringer's factory original '32 zips by Ford's
first R&D lab.” class=”wp-image-476777″ />
Unlike restorers afraid to risk their cars to the rigors of the road, Stringer is game for our rolling historical quest. The tight confines of his ’32’s doorway serve as a gauge to remind us that the average American has grown in stature and girth. Climbing aboard the well-stuffed, leather-upholstered seat is easier than the exit maneuver, which involves cruel contortions to squeeze past the steering wheel, the seat, and the doorjamb.
After I switch the ignition toggle and mash a metal floor button, the engine starts with a subdued rumble. The shift lever pokes proudly out of the floor to position its plastic knob next to my right knee. Little or no throttle is needed to get rolling. In fact, more gas merely excites a stronger and longer-lasting quiver through the limber body and frame when the clutch engages.
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2008/01/0710_04z-1932_ford_de_luxe_roadster-side_view.jpg" alt="The Dearborn inn hosted passengers and
presidents as the world’s first airport hotel.” class=”wp-image-476800″ />
Our first destination is the Dearborn Inn, a Marriott hotel steeped with rustic charm and located in the shadow of Ford’s engineering complex. When it opened in 1931, this was the world’s first airport hotel, built to host passengers and flight crew arriving across the boulevard at the Ford Air Port. Ford’s aviation interests ran the gamut from dirigibles and flying bombs to the manufacture of Tri-Motors, B-24 bombers, and troop-carrying gliders. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh landed his Spirit of St. Louis here to give Henry Ford his first airplane ride. In 1947, the airfield was reconstituted as the company’s first proving ground.
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.
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2008/01/0710_06z-1932_ford_de_luxe_roadster-front_view.jpg" alt="It's a seventeen mile run from Henry Ford's
Fair Lane estate to the Willow Run plant.” class=”wp-image-476872″ />
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 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.
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2008/01/0710_08z-1932_ford_de_luxe_roadster-side_view.jpg" alt="The V-8 engine was secretly designed in
a Greenfield Village Edison Lab.” class=”wp-image-476920″ />
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.
Ford‘s Fair Lane estate lies half a mile due north of Greenfield Village. Completed in 1915, this fifty-six-room, 31,000-square-foot home presided over 1300 acres of gardens and woods on the Rouge River. The powerhouse’s hydroelectric generators served both the estate’s and some of Dearborn’s electricity needs. On the day of our visit, Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle and his 1901 Sweepstakes racer are parked in the garage. Wood trim accenting Fair Lane’s limestone exterior is painted the same medium maroon hue as our visiting Deuce.
In 1941, while the Willow Run bomber plant was under construction, Ford’s chauffeur drove the elderly magnate seventeen miles west from Fair Lane along U.S. 12 – the main highway between Detroit and Chicago – for daily site inspections. Suburban sprawl and two major Ford plants currently crowd the road, now five lanes wide in places, but it suffices as the Deuce’s high-speed test track.
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2008/01/0710_11z-1932_ford_de_luxe_roadster-1936_V8_engine.jpg" alt="Stringer's first year V-8 was replaced by
a smiliar but more robust 1936 engine.” class=”wp-image-476999″ />
After the V-8 engine’s birth defects were resolved, Ford owners began extolling their cars’ performance virtues. In 1934, public enemy John Dillinger wrote to “Old Pal” Henry Ford saying how much he enjoyed seeing other cars eat his Ford’s dust. Clyde Barrow added, “For sustained speed and freedom from trouble, the Ford has got every other car skinned.” Britain’s The Motor magazine clocked the Deuce’s run to 60 mph in less than seventeen seconds and reported a top speed of 76 mph.
Ford V-8s quickly became the darlings of the dry lakes, the drag strips, and the oval tracks. Preston Tucker and Harry Miller teamed up in 1935 to race four factory-backed Ford V-8-powered cars at the Indianapolis 500, but all were sidelined due to poor preparation. California hot-rodders were knocking on 130 mph in fenderless Fords before World War II and had topped 140 mph in high-riding V-8 roadsters by the early 1950s. As the ultimate tribute to Henry’s horsepower, Ron Main’s remarkable Flatfire streamliner set a 302.7-mph record at Bonneville in 2003 with a heavily supercharged and nitromethane-fortified Ford flathead.
<img src="http://enthusiastnetwork.s3.amazonaws.com/uploads/sites/11/2008/01/0710_12z-henry_fords_shop-exterior_view.jpg" alt="Henry Ford broke down a wall to his shop
to free his Quadricycle prototype in 1896.” class=”wp-image-477025″ />
Stringer’s Deuce – fitted with a 1936 model-year engine – accelerates in energetic spurts, thanks to its 2200-rpm torque peak and the 85 hp available at a heady-for-the-day 3800 rpm. While that energy level sounds modest, it’s burdened by a mere 2300 pounds of curb weight and aided by short gearing. As an antidote to the Great Depression, the new V-8 probably topped the arrival of color movies and the return of legal beer. I buzz the roadster to 27 mph in first gear after a stoplight, then to 48 in second. Shifting deliberately to let the synchromesh work, my top speed for the day is slightly less than 60 mph. That’s more than enough with cable-operated drum brakes prone to howling at low speeds and distinctly disinterested in deceleration at modern highway velocities.
At the end of a two-day journey that coincidentally covered seventy-five miles, here’s our conclusion: Henry Ford did not intentionally invent the factory hot rod. But after spending decades paring weight from his cars and scheming about ways to power past competitors, he couldn’t stop himself from this last, great legacy: V-8 engines for the masses and speed for everyone.
Sidebar: DEUCES WILD
Delightfully undisciplined examples of the hot-rodder’s art.
American Graffiti Coupe
The chopped ’32 five-window highboy in George Lucas’s 1973 American Graffiti flick found no takers when it was initially offered for sale for $1500. Rick Figari of San Francisco, who purchased this Deuce in 1985, also owns the ’55 Chevy it beat in the movie’s race scene.
Doane Spencer Highboy
Doane Spencer invented the highboy roadster in the mid-1950s by jacking up his Mercury-powered ’32 Ford to race it in the Carrera Panamericana. Modifications include a DuVall windshield, Lincoln drum brakes, and through-the-frame exhaust. Owner Bruce Meyer won the inaugural Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance Hot Rod Class award with this Deuce in 1997.
The aesthetically challenged Little Deuce Coupe is the most famous hot rod in history, thanks to builder Clarence “Chili” Catallo, top chopper George Barris, and five Hawthorne, California, surfin’ dudes. The 1963 Beach Boys album singing its praises spent forty-six weeks on the charts, topping out at number four.