The 1932 Ford Roadster Model B and Model 18 was seen as Dearborn’s response to the Depression.
After a 19-year run and a production total exceeding 15 million units, the Model T — upon which the Ford empire was founded — almost caused that empire’s collapse. The car, though still surprisingly good even in 1927, had nonetheless been upstaged by its contemporaries, and the director of this epic, Henry Ford, was not blameless. His dogmatic resistance to change allowed Chevrolet to beat Ford to the number-one position in 1927.
That first body blow came in a year when new car registrations were down by nearly one-million units. Chevy not only outsold Ford, but did it to the tune of a quarter-million vehicles. Of course, Ford Motor Company had been shut down most of that year, throwing 60,000 workers onto the street while Henry labored to rush his new Model A into production. The cost had been extremely heavy: hundreds of millions of dollars, plus the loss of market leadership again in 1928, when Chevy outsold Ford by another quarter-million units.
A good turn of speed and plenty of acceleration were qualities that soon endeared the Model A to the general public, putting Ford back on top in 1929 by over half-a-million registrations. The firm earned a handsome profit of $91 million.
Unfortunately, the economic boom ended abruptly as the Wall Street crash of October 1929 devastated the industrial world. The following year, helped by $29 million worth of advertising, Ford’s market share rose by over five percent — but sales actually fell by a quarter million. If anything, 1931 was even worse, with sales skidding another half million, and for the third time, Ford lost market leadership to Chevy. In fact, Ford’s production had plummeted nearly 50 percent, whereas Chevrolet’s drop was negligible.
Henry Ford knew that something had to be done, something that would catch the imagination of the buying public just as forcefully as his beloved Model T had done two decades earlier. Of course, Henry knew all along what was going on, but being a secretive man he disclosed few of his intentions. Engine development, for example, had been in progress all through the Twenties, and various configurations — even an unsuccessful X-8 motor — had been tried. But in the main, Henry liked fours: “I’ve got no use for a motor that has more spark plugs than a cow has teats.”
Nevertheless, Henry had said in 1929 (to a very select few) that “We’re going from a four to an eight because Chevrolet is going to a six.” As he revealed his plans to engineer Fred Thoms, he also instructed him to “Get all the eight-cylinder engines that you can.” Thoms duly acquired nine V-8s, most of which were of multiple-piece construction from high-priced cars such as Cadillac, LaSalle, Cunningham, and Henry’s own Lincoln, which sold for a towering $4,600.
However, while desiring the prestige of a V-8, Ford planned to produce more than 3000 engines a day, which meant that a cheap-to-produce monoblock design was critical to his plan. The 1930 Oakland and 1929 Viking (Pontiac and Oldsmobile companion cars) did have monoblock V-8s, but their engines were still expensive to manufacture; the cars were priced at $1,000 and $1,700, respectively.
Ford was determined to sell his V-8-engined car for $500-$600. Not surprisingly, it was nearly everybody’s judgment that a low-priced, mass-produced V-8, with the block cast in one piece, was impossible. Henry’s answer was simple: “Anything that can be drawn up can be cast.”
Designing the 1932 Ford Roadster Model B and Model 18
Designing the 1932 Ford Roadster Model B and Model 18 — starting with the V-8 engine — involved the input and planning of many people.
Under the direction of Laurence Sheldrick, engineer Arnold Soth had started work on a V-8 in May 1930. His 60-degree V-8 of square design had a displacement of 299 cubic inches. Once again, however, Henry Ford’s directives presented the engineers with problems. He wanted this engine built without an oil pump; instead, the flywheel would throw oil into a tank in the valve chamber from whence it would run down to the bearings. Needless to say, that engine quickly burned out on the dynamometer.
Unknown to anyone else, even his son Edsel, Henry had started engineers Carl Shultz and Ray Laird working on his ideas in Thomas Edison’s old Fort Myers laboratory, which had been relocated from Florida to Henry’s newly established Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford then asked Ed “Spider” Huff — who had worked with Ford since Henry built his Quadricycle in 1896 and was now head of the electrical laboratory — to develop the ignition system. Huff’s unwelcome reply was that it couldn’t be done the way Henry wanted and there was no use bothering with it.
That was hardly the kind of answer old Henry wanted. Instead, he instructed Emil Zoerlein to develop the ignition system, similar to those found today, mounted on the front of the engine and driven directly from the camshaft. Ford told him, “You’ll probably run into a lot of opposition on that, but that is what I want, and that is what is going on this engine.”
Henry also cautioned Zoerlein, as he sent him over to the Fort Meyers laboratory, “What you see back there I want you to keep to yourself and not say a word to anybody about it. We are designing a V-8 engine.” Ford was emphatic about its secrecy saying, “Keep Sheldrick out.”
Shultz and Laird were concentrating on transferring Ford’s ideas into reality, but there seemed little urgency, probably because business was good in 1930, with Ford selling more than one-million vehicles — almost double Chevrolet’s total. Success for Schultz and Laird came in November 1930 when two different 90-degree V-8 designs were completed. One was of the same square dimensions as the ill-fated 299-inch Soth engine, but the other had a bore of 3.375 inches and a stroke of 3.25 inches, giving a displacement of 232.5 cubic inches.
With the help of Herman Reinhold, blocks were secretly cast at the Rouge, and by February 1931 the first engine was running. By June, four engines designated Model 24 were installed in revamped Model As for testing. Even Henry Ford and his friend Thomas Edison drove them between Dearborn and Ford’s winter house in Macon, Georgia. But Ford decided that “The time wasn’t right, the depression was on, business was bad.” Instead, he decided to release an improved Model A, and work on that was begun in late summer 1931.
Perfecting the Design of the 1932 Ford Roadster Model B and Model 18
Designing a new V-8 engine for the 1932 Ford Roadster Model B and Model 18 took a lot of thought, planning, input, and effort. By 1931, the new engines were being tested.
The Ford Rouge plant was abuzz with activity, nowhere more so than in the engine laboratory, where it was realized that the new inline four must show a significant improvement over the Model A engine. While the basic 200.5-cubic-inch block was retained, numerous modifications were made to increase the power output. A high-lift cam, new crank, new larger mains, and new rods with bigger bearings were exploited with careful balancing.
When the engine was put into production in November, engineers believed they had the perfect four. It may have been perfect for Ford, but 50 horsepower wouldn’t have been outstanding even in 1927 when the Model A was introduced, and it certainly wasn’t in 1932. Contemporary cars, some with four-cylinder engines, produced more than this. For example, the 1932 Plymouth PB’s 196.1-cid four developed an impressive 65 horses, slightly more than the 60 generated by Chevy’s 194-cid, valve-in-head six.
Elsewhere in the Rouge, “Stamping Joe” Galamb came up with the idea of eliminating the Ford’s side aprons, suggesting a new full-width frame that would be visible between the body and the running boards, thus eliminating the need for the aprons. Unfortunately, these new U-section frames were not torsionally rigid.
To compensate, Gene Farkas designed a rectangular-section, tubular cross member. It would have been expensive and difficult to manufacture, and Henry was persuaded it wasn’t necessary. But the lack of rigidity became more apparent as the cars reached the road and twice dealers would be instructed to mount special strengthening plates. The problem was inherent, so the rejected cross member had to be adopted for 1933.
As usual, Henry laid down a few controlling factors, insisting for example that all his cars retain cross (transverse) springs. And, distrusting the tendency of brake fluid to leak, he always insisted on mechanical brakes, advertising the “Safety of steel from toe to wheel.” Ford wouldn’t make the switch to hydraulic brakes until 1939.
On the other hand, after having test driven a Model A across a field, Henry said that “Somebody must represent the public. It rides too hard. Put on hydraulic shock absorbers.” Their fitment to the Model A, and its successors, set a precedent for low-priced production automobiles.
Ford was always stubbornly reluctant to follow anybody’s lead. That’s why he wanted to go from a four to an eight (rather than to a six) and why he resisted the adoption of rubber engine mounts. “Cast Iron Charlie” Sorensen recounted the arrival one day of Walter Chrysler in his new Plymouth with “Patented Floating Power,” saying, “Henry Ford did not like it. For no given reason, he just didn’t like it, and that was that.”
Sure enough, the mounts were not fitted to the 1932 Ford Roadster Model B when it first went into production. Ford had, nevertheless, taken note of them, for they were installed on the V-8. The mounts were developed for Ford by Firestone engineers because Ford employed only about 200 engineers and — like many manufacturers then and now — used outside suppliers to help develop components.