FORD’S FLAT­HEAD V8

New Zealand Classic Car - - Feature -

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.

Proud owner

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.

Body off

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

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