Ate Up With Motor Chronicles the Ford Flathead V8 and the Fall of King Henry

Flathead V8
Image Credit: "dodgsun" on flickr

If you took the time to read through our review of Merchants of Speed, you might’ve recognized a funny looking V8 on the cover. That’d be the Ford Flathead, the predecessor to the Chevy small-block as the hot rodders’ go-to engine.
Ate Up With Motor, a more scholastic friend of Hooniverse has a great writeup on the flathead, Henry and his company through the same period covered in Merchants of Speed (the 20s-50s). Consider both required reading. The quiz will be next Tuesday.
The Lion in Winter: Ford’s Flathead V8 and the Fall of Henry Ford at Ate Up With Motor

22 Comments

  1. I started reading this series this morning. It looks to be a good one!
    Ate Up With Motor is a seriously kick ass site. Almost as kick ass as Hooniverse.

    1. I really, really love the site. I am almost through every article.
      What I can't get over is how many times we have learned every stupid lesson in the auto industry (in almost every country) and learned not a damn thing from it. Can we just fire every auto exec from every country and re-hire only people who have studied these lessons and love cars rather than profit? I guarantee profit would be the result.

      1. I'd argue the tricky part is that for every lesson, there's a counter-lesson.
        Engineering innovation leads to success? Look at all of the examples of stale, recycled chassis' being huge sales hits.
        Ok, fine: engineering innovation is a waste of time. Nope. Once you're way behind in technology and your sales start to drop, it can be nearly impossible to catch up.
        Still, having a broad view of what' come before can help weed out the mania that can surround the Next Big Thing.

        1. It's not necessarily a matter of stupid; a lot of the people involved with these decisions are very smart. The fundamental problem — which is a problem for the business world as a whole, not simply for Detroit — is that all of those smart people are primarily motivated by the desire to benefit themselves, rather than the business as a whole.
          For example, if you're able to demonstrate that you cut $35 million from a project by using cheaper materials, it'll get you a sweet bonus, put you on the fast track to promotion, and look really snazzy on your resume. No one will ask whether that change resulted in increased warranty costs, loss of customer good will, or a degradation of the company's competitive position, because that's probably not your department, nor is it the department of the people to whom you directly report. The folks who are theoretically supposed to be considering such things — upper management — are in turn trying to gild their own lilies, so they're not necessarily any more interested in the company's overall health than their employees.
          Since most senior executives get piles of stock options, they are motivated by the desire to increase stock prices — which is money in their pockets — regardless of whether those temporary bumps in stock value are good for the company's overall health or not. In 2005, when GM chose to starve passenger car development in favor of the truck and SUV line, they proudly proclaimed that fact in their annual report, and the board loved it. From the point of view of stockholders, who are mainly interested in how hot the stock is, it was a great decision, and everyone involved was richly rewarded.
          As long as you reward short-sighted and lemming-like behavior, you'll keep getting the same results. Hiring smarter people won't make it go away, because the smarter people will quickly figure out the way the system works, and they'll be even better than the idiots at gaming it for their own benefit.

          1. Well, it seems that you need a good balance of the two.
            Want engineering innovation? Great! Pony up the cash needed to get the job done right. It seems like too few execs have the power to step on a project $6.6 million into it. Forcing that last $500k to cover only enough to get it to market. How would those vehicles that suffered huge issues on the road have sold if they had been finished properly?
            Then, you have the opposite, leave engineering to be simple but still fail on reliability. Cost cutting is necessary, but it always seems the story goes that they decide to kill the funding only after the project near completion.
            I am not as versed as you two in the histories of these things, my knowledge source IS you guys, but I don't see how it can be hard to find a few people willing to put together a good vehicle and give them some control.
            Chrysler is done, they might live on under Fiat, but everything that made them the company they have been for the last 20 years will be gone (good riddance)
            GM might pull out of this, but I don't really believe it. While the car industry will recover from the recession fully, I can't see how GM isn't continuing the fine tradition of almost succeeding but not quite all over again. Too much re-branding, too much cost cutting, too much hype without real product. I grew up a big GM fan, and I would not buy a single car on the lot right now. (ZR-1 non-withstanding). I am positive I can find a better option at each price point/category. This includes the Camaro, which I lusted over as soon as the concept came out, only to grow tired of it after *constant* battery from the big car sites over the damn thing, and then have it *only* be competitive in the market. Give me one of those pretty new Mustangs instead. That hurts just to say.

          2. From my time at Ford, I can tell you that you're absolutely right.
            People are motivated to benefit themselves. It's a fact of life. Therefore, compensation structures need to be set up so that in order to benefit yourself, you benefit the company.
            If I, as a mid-level engineer, have a design that works out well and is innovative I can get a bonus and/or promotion. The same line of logic needs to extend to management. Management compensation needs to be tied to both short and long-term performance targets. GE has done this. Their CEO does not get his full pay unless GE hits certain performance targets at 1, 3 and 5 year intervals. It gets trickier for lower management, but there are ways to tie a vehicle program (or any program in any industry) manager's pay to the long term performance of the product. You get some percentage for staying on budget, some percentage for IQS scores in a certain range, and the balance for keeping warranty claims after 5-years below a certain level.
            Hell, if long-term performance were part of the equation we probably wouldn't be in the economy we are in now.

      2. Well, it seems that you need a good balance of the two.
        Want engineering innovation? Great! Pony up the cash needed to get the job done right. It seems like too few execs have the power to step on a project $6.6 million into it. Forcing that last $500k to cover only enough to get it to market. How would those vehicles that suffered huge issues on the road have sold if they had been finished properly?
        Then, you have the opposite, leave engineering to be simple but still fail on reliability. Cost cutting is necessary, but it always seems the story goes that they decide to kill the funding only after the project near completion.
        I am not as versed as you two in the histories of these things, my knowledge source IS you guys, but I don't see how it can be hard to find a few people willing to put together a good vehicle and give them some control.
        Chrysler is done, they might live on under Fiat, but everything that made them the company they have been for the last 20 years will be gone (good riddance)
        GM might pull out of this, but I don't really believe it. While the car industry will recover from the recession fully, I can't see how GM isn't continuing the fine tradition of almost succeeding but not quite all over again. Too much re-branding, too much cost cutting, too much hype without real product. I grew up a big GM fan, and I would not buy a single car on the lot right now. (ZR-1 non-withstanding). I am positive I can find a better option at each price point/category. This includes the Camaro, which I lusted over as soon as the concept came out, only to grow tired of it after *constant* battery from the big car sites over the damn thing, and then have it *only* be competitive in the market. Give me one of those pretty new Mustangs instead. That hurts just to say.

  2. This Tuesday or next Tuesday? Shit Shit Shit. I always screw up and study too early then forget everything. Shit Shit Shit. If I fail another Hooniversity exam, I forfeit my Hooniship, and have to move back in with my folks. Although, they have some pretty sweet rides I can hoon, so maybe I shouldn't study. Hmmmm.

  3. The Ford Flat head is commonly praised as America's first V8. Funny Fact of the Day: Cadillac produced America's 1st V8, beating the Ford Flathead by 3-6 years I think, and it had a 10-20 hp advantage over the Ford mill. Only down fall? They were in heavy cars.
    Cadillac should also be noted for the first electric starter, production automatic trans, and the (Clutch)-Brake-Gas and shifter setup we know today as the standard layout.

    1. The Ford Model T wasn't the first car ever made, but it's hard to argue it didn't put America on wheels. Likewise, the Flathead wasn't the first V8, but it helped make horsepower and that V8 rumble attainable for the average American.

    2. See the Mystery Motor article by Schmo, with my photos, for an early Cadillac flathead V8. Not that I knew what the hell it was when I took the pictures. Like Mr. Ate Up says, it used multiple castings, as is visible in both pictures.
      Yeah, it's neat that the first starter was based on the motor used for cash registers. High torque, low duration. Also, I pretty sure that Cadillac pioneered the first American independent front suspension and air conditioning.

      1. Cadillac didn't pioneer IFS, although they adopted it at about the same time as Buick and Olds in 1934-35. They did at least avoid Chevrolet and Pontiac's dubious flirtation with Dubonnet suspension. If I recall correctly, Packard beat them to air conditioning, as well, although A/C was very, very rare until a couple of years after the war. It was far from universal on Cadillacs well into the sixties, which makes sense if you consider its price. In 1953, for instance, it would cost you $620, which is close to $5,000 in modern dollars!

  4. It's always difficult to definitively say anything is first, because somebody will always come out of the woodwork to explain how it actually appeared on the 1902 Le Poisson 8/14. Often, things actually popped up many, many years before you might think. I have seen a lot of people, for instance, who think the 1978 Saab 900 Turbo was the world's first turbocharged passenger car, completely overlooking the Oldsmobile Jetfire and Corvair Monza Spyder of 16 years earlier.
    Cadillac launched its first V8 in 1914, and has made V8 engines pretty much continuously since then. Chevrolet briefly had one in the teens, and Oakland/Pontiac and Olds tried them in the late twenties and early thirties; all had flat-plane cranks, and were thoroughly unpleasant a lot of the time.
    The big challenge that the Ford V8 tackled was not how to build a V8, but how to build one cheaply enough to use in a low-priced car. The major issue was that the cylinder blocks of most earlier V8s were assembled from multiple castings, which was expensive to produce. Ford managed to do it with a single casting, although the early production engines would crack very easily. Cadillac didn't introduce its first "monobloc" V8 until four years later, but it was a lot more reliable.
    The first Hydra-Matic was primarily developed by Oldsmobile, although Cadillac and Buick were both involved. (Buick dropped out early, preferring smoother torque converter transmissions.) Olds was the first to offer it, for the 1940 model year; Cadillacs didn't get it until 1941.
    Cadillac's Henry Leland WAS, however, responsible for the electric starter. Hand-cranking was not only difficult, it was fairly dangerous — people would get killed every year by crank kick-back. Leland thought that was intolerable, so he hired Charles Kettering to develop an electric system to do it automatically. Kettering had previously designed an electric motor for use in electric cash registers, and the starter motor was essentially a scaled-up version.
    Incidentally, Leland got a certain amount of shit from GM management about the starter, because the board didn't understand why Cadillac needed to spend money on something like that when no other automakers had one. Same with the V8, which directly inspired the famous ad, "The Penalty of Leadership." See also: http://ateupwithmotor.com/terms-technology/48-bio

    1. Complete and total douchebag. I became infuriated just by reading about him. I can only imagine how his engineers felt. And genius? No, he seemed like an arrogant ass who refused to learn anything new. And he could barely read engineering schematics? Oh yay, a true American icon.

  5. I read the entire article last evening before heading for home. I was 10 minutes late because I couldn't tear myself away. Fantastic work Mr. AUWM!

  6. God I love me some history. Mr. Motor, that is one hell of a read, most of which I did not know before now.
    Glad you can share that bottomless well of knowledge with us hoons.

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