The Ford V8 as a Racing Car
A Remarkable Facet of Between-Wars Indianapolis History
The Ford Motor Company has won so many races and other competition events that it is permissible to look back on an ambitious racing effort that did not come off. In this context, although it is sometimes thought that Ford had to turn to motor racing and rallying in order to live down the reputation of a utility-car manufacturer, this is untrue.
Admittedly the unique Model-T Ford which opened up the outbacks of America and brought inexpensive transport to Europe — the much loved and hated “Tin-Lizzie”, the famous “Flivver” which sold more than 15,000,000 of its kind between 1908 and 1927, was the utility car per excellence. But even the Model-T had been successful in racing, especially when endowed as it was with overhead valves, single and double overhead camshafts and even multiple valves. And anyway, Henry Ford had been a racing driver himself long before the “T” arrived in 1907 and had, indeed, broken the French monopoly of the so-called Land Speed Record in 1904, when he drove a car of his devising at 91.37 mph in 1904, and on a frozen lake at that…
The more conventional Model-A Ford that replaced the “T” also had its moments of glory in speed contests. For example, a Fronty-Ford so engined, its cylinders bored out to give 218½ cubic inches capacity, qualified for the great 500 Mile Race at Indianapolis in 1931 at over 108 mph but retired when a wheel came off. But when the Ford V8 made its significant breakthrough in 1932 it was seen to be less easy to tune. Ford’s clever foundry techniques had made it possible to cast all eight cylinders and the crankcase as a single unit, thus enabling such a power unit to be comparatively inexpensively made and quickly assembled. But this very feature of the “flathead” iron engine, and the fact that the exhaust ports were within the cylinder blocks for rapid warming of the mixture, caused chronic overheating if more power was extracted from it and it was ran flat-out for any length of time. As a road car the low-priced Ford V8 gave outstanding torque and notably smooth and quick acceleration. Fine for trials and rallies, Fords of this hind winning the Monte Rally outright in 1936 and 1938, for instance. No-go, however, for serious racing. Ford had accentuated the problem by putting the water impellers on top of the cylinder blocks, sucking coolant from them and the overheating shortcoming wasn’t cured until 1937, when the pumps were moved into the cylinder blocks, pumping water through the system. Under the circumstances, it is all the more surprising that Ford sanctioned ten special racing cars for the 1935 Indy “500” using virtually standard V8 engines.
To put the situation in perspective it is necessary to look at how this classic long-distance track race had developed. For a few years after the first “500” in 1911 the competing cars looked much like the many-litred giants from the European road races, but with American makes like National, Loner, Marmon and Knox, predominating. But as war approached and then engulfed Europe, cars built for the French GP etc., began to run at Indy, the Peugeots, Delage and Mercedes, just as, after the Armistice, such aged but effective Grand Prix and Coupe de L’Auto cars enlivened racing at Brooklands Motor Course. However, while Zborowski might receive a £40 cup after winning there with his 1914 GP Mercedes, when Ralph de Palma was victorious at Indy with one of these cars in 1915 he took home 22,600 dollars…
Soon after racing resumed at Indianapolis in 1919 the cars used there took the form of efficient slim single-seater Duesenbergs and Millers, often racing under picturesque publicity disguises. The rules limited engine size first to 3-litres, then to 2-litres and 11/2-litres, following the European line, and as there, power was increased by supercharging. However, the financial depression of 1930 made it difficult to build and run such specialised cars and the Indy authorities altered the regulations to bring in engines of up to 6-litres capacity, so as to give cars using “stock-block” power units a chance. Superchargers were barred for four-stroke engines, as were more than two poppet valves per cylinder. Not more than two single-choke or one dual-choke carburetter were permitted, the minimum weight of the car was to be 1,750 lb, and two-seater bodies were introduced. It is a mystery why the last item was introduced, because the carrying of a riding mechanic had long been banned in road racing and his presence on the Indianapolis 21/2-mile oval with its slightly banked turns that were taken almost flat-out would be far less needed to warn of overtaking cars than in a road event. If the idea was to emphasise the stock-car theme or to give the more standard curia better chance, it seems an odd move to make when Indy had been the scene of some spectacular, and sometimes fatal, accidents. However the rule was made and an increase of eight inches in permissible wheel-track humoured it. There were other minor requirements and four-wheel-brakes were compulsory. To these restrictions, which must have dismayed the purveyors of single-seater blown racing jobs, was added for the 1934 “500” a limit of 45 gallons of fuel, reduced the next year to 421/2 gallons (less than 12 mpg). It was under these rules that Henry Ford’s V8s would face the 1935 Independence Day classic.
The inscrutable multi-millionaire Industrialist might never have agreed to the ploy had he not been influenced by his son Edsel Ford, who had been persuaded by Preston Tucker, a dapper man of much magnetism, who specialised in promotion. It is said that he could sell almost anything. In 1934/5 he sold Henry Ford the prospect of winning the much-publicised Indianapolis 500 Mile Race… Indeed, Tucker told Ford that he was certain that by running ten cars they would be able to finish I, 2, 3 in the race. He had contracted Harry Miller, whose cars had scored the previous seven consecutive victories in the “500”. Miller’s finances were at a low ebb, so he was delighted at the prospect of building ten Miller-Fords. Tucker formed Miller-Tucker Inc and set about convincing Ford of the advantages, while Miller signed on drivers; the idea was to have five top-rank and five good drivers for the race. De Paolo, Cliff Bergere and Ted Horn, the first two then celebrated lady exponents, signed at once.
Meanwhile, Tucker took his project to Edsel Ford, who eventually convinced his sceptical father. Henry Ford had been a regular spectator at Indianapolis since 1911 and had been a referee, what we would call a judge, there from 1924. In spite of the “stock block” engine-size advantage, and the handicap imposed on the special twin-cam straight eight racing cars by the banishment of boost and the wider bodies, these ageing contestants had the legs of the “stock-blockers.” The best the latter type cars had achieved was eighth in 1930, fifth in 1931, and third in 1932 by Studebaker-powered cars, with Buick-power taking fifth place in the 1933 “500” followed home by seven cars with Studebaker engines. Maybe Henry Ford thought it was time that a Ford V8 proved that a “stock-block” racer could win the highest lady prize. Tucker egged him on with dreams of Movietone news reels taken at the famous Speedway, with Eddie Rickenbaker and Barney Oldfield appraising his cars, after which they would run home to Miller’s eighth consecutive win in the illustrious “500”.
This must have made Henry Ford forget that in 1933 the Ford V8 of local-dealer Warnock was the slowest thing on the track, failing dismally to qualify, or that in 1934, although two V8s qualified, in the race they retired after 11 .d 110 of 200 taps. Like the racing-engine cars he would have to beat, Henry Ford was getting old; perhaps he was remembering how a Model-T with push-rod R-type Fronty head qualified at 83.9 mph at lady in 1922 and was running at the finish, how in 1923 local Ford dealer Corum qualified a Barber-Warnock Special with twin-plug, twin-carb, Frontenac SR head on a Model-T engine at 86.92 mph and came home fifth, at 82.58 mph. How, for 1924, three Barber-Warnock Fords ran, two with SR Fronty heads, one with twin-cam, 16-valve DO head, the qualifying speeds being 85.27 mph by Alfred Moss (Stirling’s father), 85.04 mph and 82.77 mph, with the cars finishing 14th, 15th, and 17th. Henry Ford had been an official that year and he no doubt had seen Chet Miller qualify his Fronty-Ford in 1930 at 97.36 mph, to place 13th in spite of a long pit-stop while a broken front spring was replaced with one from a spectator’s Model-T without the owner knowing, as they put it back before he drove home. Now, in 1935, Ford had put his faith in Miller, who had come up in 1924/5 with lady’s first FWD car, and had introduced his 4WD racer in 1932.
Quite why Edsel Ford thought this racing programme was worthwhile we may never know. Already a million Ford V8s had been produced and this model had the legs of the opposition in terms of performance, but in 1933 Chevrolet had been slightly ahead in the sales race and there were new innovations to face, like “knee-action” ifs. With race successes for the Type 40 in other fields, perhaps an Indy victory was seen as a viable clincher. Whatever the thinking behind the decision, the plans went ahead, albeit too slowly.
After Tucker, who had once worked at Ford’s, had put his proposition to Edsel he had to send telegrams to Ford’s General Sales Manager, W. C. Cowling, before anything moved. That was as late as January 1935, with the race on May 30th. A deal was agreed and J. R. Davis, the Assistant General Sales Manager was given the schedule. It called for Ford to supply a dozen V8 engines, drive gears and brake sets and to pay 25,000 dollars to Miller-Tucker for the chassis, bodies and incidentals of the ten racing cars. In the end it is believed that Tucker conned an additional 75,000 dollars from N. W. Ayer, Ford’s advertising agency. The money was ingeniously taken from the dealer advertising and Wes-promotion fund, the idea being that this would directly involve, and therefore stimulate, dealer participation in the lady venture, all dealer branches paying their share! Apart from the finance, Tucker borrowed machinery and equipment for Miller’s Detroit workshop and before the cars were ready he was trying to interest Ford in a new LSR bid.
Apparently the dealers were enthusiastic, seeing in this move a means of overcoming prevailing sales set-backs and a surge forward by General Motors. The cars were to be completed 20 days before the race. Miller contrived a low chassis of unconventional form, and front-wheel-drive in conjunction with all-round independent suspension, said to be another lady first.
As Miller’s former twin-tube front axle could therefore not be used he contrived a patented layout of two unequal-length wishbones and two transverse quarterelliptic springs on each side, at each end of the car. The upper and lower wishbones consisted of 17 in x 18 in dural sheets, pivotted to the frame and serving neatly to fair-in the front drive-shafts and the eight springs. Ordinary cable-operated Ford brakes sufficed, the chassis was extremely stiff, and the Ford-supplied transmission gave only two forward speeds; Miller hubs were used. The engines were near-standard V8s, in dimensions, cast crankshaft, valves and tappets, turned round to mate with the front-drive. The aluminium heads, standardised in 1933, were interchanged, to take the water outlets to the front and were held down by the normal 21 nuts. Four-ring pistons increased the compression ratio from 6.3 to 9.5 to 1, and laminated aluminium copper head gaskets were fitted. Again to line up with FWD the water pump was driven from the rear of the engine, as was the Bosch magneto. A high-lift camshaft and a two-gallon sump with finned-tube oil-cooler were other alterations, but the lubrication system was otherwise unchanged, except for a 21/2-gallon gravity reserve supply from an under-scuttle tank. Some of the cars had dual downdraught carburetters, others four single-choke carbs. A 15-gallon spherical fuel tank was three-point mounted, partly on rubber. Surprisingly, normal exhaust manifolds were retained, but feeding into flexible tubes that were connected to a corrugated sheet-metal silencer, six feet long, 12 in wide, and 11/2 in deep, under the steel floor of the body, but with an air-space between. Miller may have seen this as a way of disguising overheating exhaust pipes, or at any rate of preventing drivers and mechanics from burning themselves thereon. No tachometers were used, only 160 mph speedometers. The standard Ford V8 engine gave 85 bhp at 3,800 rpm and the output of these racing engines was, perhaps optimistically, said to be 150 bhp St 5,000 rpm, although it has to be remembered that pump fuel was net specified for the “500” until 1937.
The Miller-Ford V8s were clothed in very handsome bodies on the low-hung chassis, finished in two-tone paint jobs, with the “V8” emblem (still a Ford copyright trademark, I believe) somewhat squashed up and bodes its side, along the bodywork: The radiator shells over cut-down standard cores had a Ford-like appearance and, like all the runners the Fords were on Firestone track tyres. Alas, time had run out. The first car didn’t arrive at lady until May 12th; nearly two weeks after practice h. commenced. A big demonstration was staged for the dealers on May 15th but it was a disaster. A most un-Miller-like steering layout had been used, one shaft partly supported by two oldie outer cylinder head studs, with a universal joint close to the exhaust manifolding. After a few laps it began to seize up. Rumour says they added lard to the grease, trying to effect a cure…
Back in England, S. C. H. Davis had written in The Autocar: “Something of a sensation seems to have been created at Indianapolis by Edsel Ford when he entered ten stock V8s, some of them to be driven by de Paolo, Hepburn, Schneider, Bergere, Stapp and Moore. Those, of course, were exactly the type of cars that the organisers had been hoping for, suit will be interesting to hear whether they qualified — one sincerely hopes they did”.
Unfortunately, de Paolo and Bergere refused to go on, after the steering had repeatedly stiffened up. There was also a shortage of engines, with work going on frantically in the Dearborn plant. Chief Engineer Laurence Sheldick and designer Don Sullivan are said to have worked beside such top mechanics as Bill Speedie, Henry Todd, and Martin, a Ford coupe rushing an engine to the track as soon as one was ready. It is rumoured that some special ones were taken out of speedboats in the Detroit river, over in Canada. It was nine days after qualifying started that Horn’s Ford got by, at 113.213 mph, and Seymour’s likewise, at 112.696 mph. Bailey made it with just over 109 mph and Sall also qualified.
Only those four out of the ten promised Ford V8s started in the race, which Henry Ford is rumoured to have refused to attend, sending Todd, after his day’s work had ended, on an all-night drive from Detroit to lady, as the Company’s eyes and ears. After 47 laps Sall was out. His engine was overheating and when he stopped for water the officials found the steering seized. Bailey retired after 65 laps with steering problems, Seymour’s after 71, with grease leaking out of the front-end, and Horn on lap 165, again With defective steering. The old-type racing ears proved too quick for the “stockers”, Kelly Pctillo’s four-cylinder Miller-powered Gilmore Speedway Special winning at a record 106.24 mph, in spite of being slowed down on two occasions because of accidents and rain. For Henry Ford the 1935 Indianapolis “500” was an ignominious end to a too-ambitious project.
Apparently Ford somehow claimed all the race cars and it is said that they were locked away for the next two years in the Highland Park plant. Later some of them emerged, to nth again with souped-up Mercury and Offenhauser engines. The latter were more suited to long-distance racing than the Ford V8s had been, in spite of the proven suitability of this side-valve power unit for British mud-trials and sprints and the fact that Wilbur Shaw, three times winner of the Indy “500”, had used it for 1934 stock-car contests in California. — W.B.