Thu, Aug 02, 2007 - Page 13 News List

Power to the people and motors for the masses

Seventy-five years ago, Ford brought power to the people. The 1932 V-8 was the first powerful automobile within the financial reach of millions of average Americans, and it became the canvas for the quintessential "little deuce coupe" hot rod


Lynn Stringer's 1932 Ford V-8 in Dearborn, Michigan. Its engine was designed in the Edison Fort Myers laboratory in Dearborn.Photos: ny times news service


The Age of Speed turns 75 this year along with the Little Deuce Coupe that ushered it in, democratizing horsepower and providing the clay from which countless hot rods would be molded.

Three decades before the heyday of the muscle car, Henry Ford inadvertently invented the hot rod by bolting a 65-horsepower V-8 engine into a light, attractive body. His breakthrough cost US$460 in its most basic form, a two-door roadster, only US$50 more than the same car powered by a four-cylinder engine. Ford figured that even in the depths of the Depression, this was within reach of the working class.

Six million Americans flocked to Ford dealerships on the announcement day.

Yet the car, which is now seen as a 20th century icon and one of the industry's most significant models, was not a financial success. After an initial spurt of orders, harsh reality set in: most Americans couldn't afford lunch, let alone installment payments, so Ford's 1932 sales were barely half of the previous year's volume.

Over 10 months of production, 178,749 Ford Model 18 V-8s were manufactured, along with about 75,000 Model Bs that had the same body but a 4-cylinder engine. Both versions of the 1932 Ford, each offered in 14 body styles, were lumped together under a common label: the Deuce.

After World War II, returning servicemen found that Deuces were cheap and plentiful used cars; that the flathead V-8 engine could be easily tweaked to produce more horsepower; and that the clean design lent itself to modification. Hot-rodders smitten by the combination made the Deuce the holy grail of home-built concoctions.

"The Deuce won the hot rodder's admiration because it was the first car that was both affordable and fast right out of the box," said Pete Chapouris, a hot-rodder for 50 years and the president of the SoCal Speed Shop in Pomona, California.

To check the vital signs of the seminal Deuce as it turns 75, I test-drove an original 1932 Ford V-8 DeLuxe Roadster owned by Lynn Stringer of Northville, Michigan.

Motoring sedately along park roads near Stringer's home in suburban Detroit, the Deuce copes without the trappings now considered necessary. Climate control is achieved by tipping the windshield open to flush the cockpit's heat with a cool breeze. Video entertainment is a soothing sky and a cloud show reflected in the rear of a headlamp shell. The soundtrack is a V-8 murmur so subdued that conversation with my chaperone was not impeded. Stringer's Deuce roadster elicited so many smiles and thumbs-up salutes that we felt like Marines in a Memorial Day parade.

The 1932 Ford was the most fruitful collaboration between Henry Ford, the homespun industrialist who put the world on wheels, and his son, Edsel, who was president of the Ford Motor Co from 1919 until his death in 1943.

By the late 1920s Chevrolet had passed Ford, whose Model T had lingered too long, in sales. Chevy countered Ford's new Model A of 1928 by introducing a "Six for the price of a Four" the next year. The 1932 V-8 was Ford's counterpunch: it cost only US$15 more than the Chevy Six and US$35 less than a four-cylinder Plymouth.

Henry Ford's other foe was the Great Depression, which drove the city of Detroit to bankruptcy, left half the local workforce unemployed and slashed car production to 15 percent of capacity. He hoped that an exciting new Ford might draw cash being hoarded under mattresses, driving the country out of the economic ditch.

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