FORD’S FLATHEAD V8
The first Ford flathead V8 appeared in 1932 and was used through to 1936 with only minor changes during that time. In 1936, Ford introduced a vastly improved model that still had 21 head studs and water pumps on the heads, like the ’32 to ’35s. A unique engine was used in 1937 that had 21 head studs, full insert bearings, and the block changed to accept water pumps. There were a number of significant changes made in 1938, including a new block that had 24 head studs on each side. In 1939, the 24-stud engine was continued in Ford’s car and truck line-up, and, at the same time, a new engine was developed for large trucks — known as the ‘81T’. When the new Mercury line was introduced that year, Ford used the 81T engine, and the designation was changed to ‘99A’, but it was basically the same engine. These engines were the standard ‘big’ V8s of the late pre-war period, which were modified in 1940 then discontinued in ’41, when the flathead six-cylinder was introduced. Production was held up during the World War II era, and, in 1946, the famous 59A flathead V8 engine became standard, until 1948, in both the Ford and Mercury cars. Major changes occurred to the flathead V8 in 1948 for the new Ford trucks and, in 1949, for new Ford and Mercury cars. Heads were now bolted to the blocks with 24 bolts (rather than studs and nuts), while the water-outlet fittings had been moved up to the front corner of the head (rather than the middle of the head). Another major change was the use of the new Load-a-matic distributor, which was driven off the front of the engine but through a shaft mounted vertically at right angles to the axis of the engine. With this new engine, Ford stopped casting the bellhousing integral to the cylinder block and provided it as a separate component that was bolted on. Internal changes included using a straight-stem valve with one-piece valve guide. In 1949, the redesigned engine known as the ‘8BA’ appeared. Bore and stroke remained the same, water necks and pumps were changed, and the bellhousing became detachable — this remained the basic Ford engine until 1953.
A few years later, James Dean would drive a modified Mercury coupé to fame in what would be his last film, Rebel Without a Cause.
Who knows whether it was the movie or the car’s curves, but, just as the ’32 Ford coupé became a hot rodder’s favourite, so the ’49 to ’51 Mercury became one of the classic hot rod donor cars. The ’32 Ford coupé is known as a ‘Deuce coupe’ and the Mercury, which is almost as famous — at least among hot rodders — as the ‘ lead sled’. A quick internet search shows that the role of donor car has been the lot of most of the remaining examples. It is probably its popularity among hot rodders that accounts for the worldwide rarity of original examples of the cars today.
Another quick google will reveal that most of the models for sale internationally have been modified and that the few unmodified examples sell for between US$20K and US$80K, depending on condition. The owner of the car featured here believes that only this and one other original-condition Mercury of the same model exist in New Zealand.
Our featured 1951 Ford Mercury Eight sedan was imported from Australia about 45 years ago. Sometime later, when Ken Dudson bought it, he became the proud owner of “a rolling chassis and many boxes of bits and pieces”. Readers will no doubt remember one of Ken’s other cars, the gorgeous 1936 Chrysler Airstream coupé that featured in our July issue earlier this year. The Mercury was originally built as a righthand-drive model, probably in Canada for export as a complete knockdown (CKD) car to Australia. At some stage after that, the car was mildly modified but essentially remained the car that it is today.
Ken completed much of this restoration himself between 2003 and 2011. As with all the Dudson collection, a major effort was made to faithfully restore this car to original condition.
The work involved was painstaking, a complete bodyoff rebuild bringing the car back to life. The bits and pieces that had been changed were restored to original specs. The tail-lights, for example, had at some stage been replaced with Holden tail-light clusters, probably because of the scarcity of Mercury parts. Happily, all the necessary pieces, including the correct tail-lights, which match the original six-volt system, were found all over the place, and the result now is a car that looks as it would have done the day it left the factory in Canada or Australia.
Mercury targeted those slightly upper-income buyers and, accordingly, produced an extensive list of options to jack the price up. This car is now fully optioned, including having adjustable spotlights either side of the windscreen. It looks just like the sort of car government ‘spooks’ would have used.
Although currently powered by a later Ford Cleveland V8 engine, Gavin Miller, who, with his brother, Rick, does so much of the restoration work on the Dudson collection, would like to replace that motor with one of the original flathead V8s.
Now finished in Sheffield Green, one of the original factory colours, the car looks wonderfully menacing sitting on those large whitewall-tyred wheels. Combined with the correspondingly large and impressive bodywork — 5.2m long and just a shade under 2m wide — it all adds up to an impressive American classic.
Most ground-up restorations end up with one or two amusing anecdotes, and this is no exception. The original dash was missing, but Ken found a replacement lying in a paddock in Kumeu, north-west of Auckland. This dash had originally been converted from left-hand drive to right, and the workmanship shown in the conversion is remarkable. Another important replacement part was the front suspension — an entirely new unit had to be sourced when the original was lost in an air crash while it was being couriered for specialist work.
Today, the car is used occasionally as a wedding car and taken on various runs or to shows. Ken says that it runs as well as anything on the road and has no trouble cruising with the traffic. Restorer Gavin enjoys driving it and thinks it is one of the top choices from the Dudson collection when it comes to choosing a car to take out on the road. them stave off bankruptcy, Ford was just careful, and it never required the government bailout the others called on.
When the last car rolled off the production line in 2011, Mercury had been producing cars for 72 years. By the time Ford decided to axe the brand, it had produced some classic models, the Mercury Eight, and then, later on, names like Comet and Cougar had come and gone. Less glorious, perhaps, had been the introduction, under the Mercury brand, of the Ford Sierra and the Capri to the US.
Mercury doesn’t make cars anymore; hot rodders cut up any they could find; and so, now, there are precious few of these reminders of another era. Already, these cars are more than 60 years old. Given that much time again, we don’t know what cars will look like, what they will be made of, or how they will be used. Surely, though, a car of 2075 won’t weigh almost two tons or have a motor that uses 16 litres of fossil fuel to go 100km. Another era and a different way of doing things — just as well someone is keeping a record.
Christchurch and Banks Peninsula. ‘Old Blue’, as the car later came to be called, was found derelict by Jack Newell in the ’50s, and he restored the old warhorse and campaigned it in New Zealand and British rallies until his death.
The Newell family still has Old Blue, as well as a 30-98 Vauxhall to keep it company. How do I know all this? Well, Wally Scott went to England in 1933 to buy another Bentley to replace the 3.0-litre one he had previously owned. With a long queue and no favours accorded to colonials, Wally looked elsewhere and bought a Railton Terraplane with a Berkeley sports touring body, which we are lucky to have