In 1930, Henry Ford, the aging founder of the Ford Motor Company, embarked on a truly ambitious project. Working in secret, Ford and a team of engineers set out to accomplish a task considered impossible by many within the automobile industry: the design and construction of a V-8 engine that was cheap and easy to produce. The efforts of Ford and his engineers paid off when the company introduced the world’s first low-priced V-8 engine car: the 1932 Ford Model 18, also known as the Ford V-8.
The Model 18’s development was largely prompted by the onset of the Great Depression. Ford offered a popular low-cost car at the beginning of the depression, the 4-cylinder Model A, but the worsening economy severely reduced demand for this car. Additional motivation was brought on by fierce competition from Chevrolet in the low-cost sector of the American automobile market. In response to this combination of a bad economy and tough competition, Henry Ford ordered the development of a low-cost V-8 engine. He did so hoping that a high-powered and low-cost car would capture the imagination of the American motoring public. He also hoped that the development of a V-8 would steal a technological march on Chevrolet, who had recently one-upped Ford by introducing a low-cost 6 cylinder car in 1929.
In terms of design, the Model 18 was essentially a more powerful version of the Model B, Ford’s 4-cylinder economy car for the 1932 model year. It employed the same chassis as the Model B and rode on a 106-inch wheel base. Handsomely styled by Edsel Ford, the Model 18 was offered in the same 14 different body styles as the Model B, ranging from the 2-Door Roadster to the 2-Door Convertible Sedan. Outwardly, the Model 18 was distinguishable from the Model B by its now-iconic “V-8” emblems, which were placed on the car’s grille and hubcaps.
But it was the car’s innovative Flathead V-8 engine that set it apart. Manufactured from cast iron, it was a 90-degree side-valve unit with a cylinder displacement of 221 cubic inches. The engine block, including its crankcase and cylinders, was cast in a single piece, which made this power plant cheaper and easier to produce than all other V-8 engines of the day. Ford claimed a then-impressive output of 65 horsepower for the Flathead V-8, which was enough to give the Model 18 a top speed of around 80 miles per hour.
The Model 18 was formally introduced on March 31, 1932. Sold at the astoundingly low price of $460-$650, the public response was overwhelmingly positive. The motoring public was impressed with the Model 18’s combination of high-performance, low-price, and handsome styling. The car sold well, but not as well as Ford hoped, mainly due to the prevailing bad economic conditions of the time. The Model 18’s Flathead V-8 engine experienced serious teething troubles, including but not limited to piston failures, bearing failures, and cracked blocks. But Ford soon solved these problems and the Flathead V-8 became a mainstay in the company’s engine lineup, remaining in production until the 1950s.
The Ford Model 18 was replaced by the Ford Model 40 V-8 for the 1933 model year. Approximately 223,000 Model 18s were built in the United States and overseas. Surviving examples are highly prized collectibles today.
Georgano, Nick, ed. The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile Volume 1: A-L; Norwich, England: The Stationery Office, 2000, p. 562.
A Great New Motor Car, The New Ford, Ford: Trade Catalogs, Z. Taylor Vinson Collection, Hagley Museum and Library
Kimes, Beverly Rae and Henry Austin Clark, Jr., Third Edition, Standard Catalog of American Cars, 1805-1942; Iola, Wisconsin: Krause Publications, 1996, p. 571, 591-592.
Kenton Jaehnig is the Project Archivist for the Z. Taylor Vinson Collection at Hagley Museum and Library.