Car Restoration Projects
The Accidental Ford V8
Brian Cox wasn’t looking for a 1939 Ford V8 when by chance he stumbled across this unmolested example of classic US motoring architecture, resting in a garage in Sydney’s southern suburbs.
Brian Cox heard about the car after a casual conversion about old cars with a builder who was working at his house and who had seen the old Ford at another customer’s place.
Brian had enough on his plate at the time he encountered the Ford in question. Brian was in the process of bringing a 1934 Chev back from the grave and really didn’t need another restoration on his hands.
However, he knew a friend who could be interested, so he went along to look at the car on his behalf. Then his friend pulled out of the deal, so Brian, who has a penchant for classic motoring iron, thought the old black ‘Henry’, with only 28,230 miles on the clock during its then-55-year life, was just too good to let go, so he scraped up the cash.
It was August 1994 when the trailer carrying the new project pulled into Brian’s driveway, so he put the General’s Chevy on hold and got to work on Henry’s Ford.
Off came the doors, guards and jewellery. Then the renowned 221cu in (3.6-litre) ‘Flathead’ V8 was pulled from the old car’s loins.
The head gaskets were weeping and when Brian removed the sump plug, nothing came out! Then, after poking a screwdriver around in the drain-plug hole, a thick black ooze of congealed 30-grade was coaxed out and spiralled slowly towards the drain tin below. This was the legacy of sitting in a shed for some 25 or 26 years – testimony coming from the rego label on the windscreen that read ‘1968’.
It tuned out that Brian was the third owner. The first was a Ford dealer who hadn’t used it much and after he’d passed away and the business was sold, one of his son’s took it home, leaving it in his garage for posterity. The second owner, who knew the family, levered it from the son many years later, with the intention of restoring it, but only had it a short time before he thought it too big a job.
New owner Brian spent a full weekend, pounding with a hammer on blocks of wood; levering with as many implements as possible – without damaging the block or heads – to pry off heads that had corroded around their 24 head studs. (Later he found out from the initiated that the best way to attack this task is to loosen the nuts and crank the engine, letting the compression pressure do the work).
The next step was to remove the sump and scrape out all of the sludge that had built up over the many years of sitting around.
Sorting out the body
The interior was reupholstered by classic car interior specialist Cliff Hall.
The guards and doors were sandblasted and that revealed a driver’s door full of bog and the skin beyond repair. Brian was doing a panel-beating course at TAFE and his teacher was good enough to lend a hand to make a new one and fettle it to the frame.
Brian made repairs to the lower sections of the other doors and added extra drain holes. He also got some advice and help from Darren Freer, a friend who owned a Moss Vale panel shop.
There was some crazing in the duco on the main section of the body, but he elected to leave it as a sort of timeline on the old girl. Only the guards and doors were repainted in Henry’s ‘any’ colour, so long as it’s… black.
The interior was the next area to get some hue. After the base brown paint was applied, Brian smudged printer’s ink over the top with a rag, to replicate the original fake ‘wood grain look’ of the dash and window frames.
He said: “I’d been quoted a couple of grand to get this finish by a professional, so I thought. ‘I’ve got nothing to lose so I’ll give it a try myself’
“I reckon the end result is pretty good, as well as giving me a great deal of self-satisfaction and the big bonus was using my time and labour.”
The instruments’ glasses were removed and cleaned, and the bezels were re-chromed. The mechanical clock caused Brian some heartache, because he’d give it a good shake and away it would go with an even cadence for a few minutes, then it’d stop again.
“I gave up and sent it to a watchmaker, “said Brian Cox. “He pulled it apart and turned the gears around so they meshed on the reverse sides of their teeth.
“That fixed it and if I keep it wound up, it maintains perfect time.”
One of Ford’s engineering feats was when the front windows were wound down they firstly moved rearwards for an inch or so to act like a quarter glass venting in fresh air – before they dropped down into the door cavity.
Some worn parts, including door, windscreen and running board rubbers, and glass tail-lights were sourced from Bob Drake’s Ford Parts Reproduction Company in the USA.
A new wiring harness was purchased from Alan Taylor at Vintage Wiring Harness. Brian said:
“I’ve used Alan’s harnesses before and they always fit with millimetre precision.
“I’d advise anybody who restores an old car to fit a new wiring harness, because it’s just not worth taking the risk of having all your good work and money go up in smoke in an electrical fire.”
Hitting the road
It was 1999 and after five years on the operating table, Brian was finally off to the then-RTA (now RMS, but just as rapacious), with blue slip in hand, to make a donation to the NSW Government’s coffers.
He had brought the braking system up to 1939 standard and had fitted new radial tyres with period white walls.
Brian reckons Henry Ford’s ’39 model is a dream to drive. The gear lever falls to hand – the ’39 model was the last to have a floor gearshift – and selecting the slots is a breeze.
“I’ve found the steering is light enough when manoeuvring at low speed and learnt not to fight the steering wheel when travelling on a smooth road, but to just guide the car along,” he said.
While the original, poorly-maintained engine was a little worn and probably wasn’t pushing out the full 85hp, it had ample pulling power and typical V8 torque. However, by 2005, after several interstate trips and club days with the Razorback Crankhandle Association, the original engine was getting rather tired of pushing its pistons up and down.
Brian called on Ford V8 Flathead guru Eric Worner from Mittagong to wave his magic wand over a reconditioned engine for the old girl.
Eric sourced a worn Mercury engine from Canberra that would be ideal, he reckoned. In 1939 Ford powered the Mercury model with the side-valve V8, but with a larger diameter 3-3/16-inch cylinder bore, giving it 239cu in (3.9-litre) capacity and 100hp on tap.
The Offenhauser performance heads were sourced from Diablo Motors
Eric stripped it, increased the bore by 20-thou’; fitted a truck crankshaft with larger oil galleries; a full-flow oil filter; Ford Pilot exhaust manifolds; higher compression Offenhauser finned-aluminium heads; a 10-inch clutch and pressure plate and the engine was fully balanced from front pulley to clutch. The gearbox was also stripped and fitted with new bearings and seals.
By Christmas of that year the ’39’s new engine burst into life and burbled from a new stainless steel 1 ¾ -inch exhaust system: there’s no better sound than the thump of a dual system V8 exhaust!
Brian said the performance boost after fitting the reconditioned engine was a boon and fuel economy regularly equated to 22 mpg (12.8L/100km).
Brian’s background as a high school wood- and metal-work teacher meant he was able to put his skills to good use, by performing the majority of restoration work himself. His patience and punctilious approach to these tasks shows in the quality of the finished product.
The car’s speedo registered just over 40,000 miles when Historic Vehicles checked out the Ford. There’s no doubt Brian and his supportive wife Marilyn have been enjoying many cruising miles in the ‘Accidental Ford’.
Jim Gibson’s thanks to Brendan and Rachel Powers for letting us use their beautiful Camden property – ‘Camelot’ – as a backdrop for our photography.
The Flathead phenomenon
Ford’s V8 side valve engine is commonly called the ‘Flathead’ – the name derived from its appearance. The head is basically a flat piece of hollow cast iron or aluminium alloy containing a water jacket. It holds the spark plugs in its combustion chambers and acts as a compression lid for the cylinders.
Unlike an overhead valve (OHV) head, the inlet and exhaust ports are channelled through the cylinder block to where the valves are seated.
The Flathead was the first independently designed and built V8 engine produced by the Ford Motor Company for mass production and ranks as one of the company’s most important developments. Before its 1932 introduction in a Ford car, almost all production cars aimed at the average motorist used in-line-four and six-cylinder engines.
Development started in the northern winter of 1930-31 and 20 experimental cars were secretly built in an old Edison laboratory near Detroit. (That laboratory has been re-erected and today is on display in Ford’s Greenfield Village museum).
The Flathead V8 went on sale in the improved Model A, known as the Model B and many of the car’s components were redesigned to cope with the additional power of the V8 – particularly. In 1933 the body and chassis were completely revamped.
The Flathead engine lasted substantially unchanged for over 21 years – outliving even the Model T – and the last Ford car powered by this engine was the 1954 Customline. After that the OHV ‘Y’ block took over, first appearing in the 1955 model Customline.
The Flathead engine was licensed to Soviet Union automotive manufacturers and was used by the French Simca Company to power its Vedette model from 1954 until 1961. Of course, it was also used to power the English Ford Pilot.
The Flathead rates number four on Ward’s 20th Century Top 10 Best Automotive Engine ranking:
BMW 6 M06
Cadillac V8 L-Head
Ford 4 Model T
Ford V8 Flathead
General Motors V6 3800 (Australian Commodore engine – Buick)
General Motors V8 Small-block
Honda 4 ED CVCC
Toyota/Lexus V8 UZ
Volkswagen Flat-4 E-mo