America and the V8: a love story (from France)

Here’s an interesting little meander through time that takes us through the greater part of the past century – from the air war over the Western Front to Texan boogie rock.

In the 1900s, the design and development of internal combustion engines became a French speciality and in their bid to increase reliability and profitability the Monobloc engine was created. Effectively this meant that far fewer individual components were needed if the the cylinder block, cylinder head and crankcase were all forged as a single item.

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An early Monobloc design

Available as early as 1905 from manufacturers such as De Dion Bouton, the Monobloc truly came of age in the hands of Swiss designer Marc Birkigt, whose Hispano-Suiza V8 was lighter and more powerful than any other aero engine in the Allied arsenal… becoming effectively the Rolls-Royce Merlin of World War 1.

The Hispano-Suiza first found fame in the SPAD S.VII in which Capitaine Georges Guynemer briefly became the most successful Allied air ‘ace’ of the war, then became the power plant for Britain’s S.E.5 – arguably the greatest fighter design of the war. When the Americans arrived, they opted for the later SPAD S.XIII as their front-line fighter and in these machines were written the legends of Eddie Rickenbacker, Frank Luke and Raoul Lufbery, among others.

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Eddie Rickenbacker’s patriotic SPAD – beautifully captured by Jim Dietz

As with all Monoblocs, even the Hispano-Suizas encountered some problems along the way. Primarily this was down to the outsourced manufacturing quality of components rather than the fundamental engine design – although most failures would serve to highlight any inherent weakness around the gasket and exhaust.

Nevertheless, the sophistication and power of the V8, together with the enthusiasm for ‘ace’ pilots in SPADs, set America thinking. If it could use its industrial might to iron out any kinks, then V8 power could become central to postwar living.

The most effective solution to the Monobloc‘s problems was to adopt side-valve design, reducing the stresses on the weakest links in the chain. It was with the side-valve ‘Flathead V-8’ engine that Ford Motor Company took the motoring world by storm between the wars.

Having established the mass production of motor cars with the Model T of 1908, Ford was content to rest on its laurels for 18 years until the advances in engineering that emerged from World War 1 finally caught up with the old ‘Tin Lizzie’.

Ford’s belated response was the Model A, which was barely less Spartan in its simplicity than the Model T but was packaged far more elegantly and, unlike its predecessor, featured controls in the same layout as most other mass-market cars.

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The Model A Ford brought modern motoring to the masses

The Model A was a success, averaging almost a million sales per year, but the car buying market was growing ever-more sophisticated and demanding. Rivals such as General Motors were keen to offer an ever-increasing range of options based as much upon personalisation and comfort as they were to efficiency, while in Europe levels of style and sophistication were reaching their zenith.

Ford decided to try and outdo both.

The result was really only a single solution that went under many names, but for the sake of brevity it shall be called the 1932 Model B. As many major components as possible were carried over from the Model A but alongside the traditional 4-cylinder engine but alongside it in the showrooms was something rather special: a Monobloc V8 called the Model 18.

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Ford’s version of the Monobloc V-8: the side-valve ‘Flathead V-8’

This was a Model B fitted with what Ford called its ‘Flathead V-8’. At a stroke, the Blue Oval could offer a smoother-running, more powerful engine for just $10 more than the standard 4-cylinder model. In total the Model B was also available with an array of 14 body styles, from standard sedans through roadsters, coupés, woodies and trucks… the very model of platform-sharing diversity.

The Model B and Ford’s Flathead V-8 became motoring icons overnight – and remained that way for decades. They were cheap to buy, relatively cheap to maintain and sold at a rate in excess of 300,000 units per year.

In 1933 the Model B was reworked again. As Ford’s motor won a following, so the car that it belonged to was given a longer wheelbase, a radiator grille shaped like a medieval knight’s shield and smoothed out styling on the inside and out. The Flathead V-8 was also tweaked; gaining better ignition to boost power. This would become the Model C, with the Flathead V-8 version being named the Model 40.

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The 1933 Ford put a stylish face on a wide array of bodies

 

The V8 took hold among all American automobile manufacturers thereafter, but thanks to its low cost and endless variety of cars, Ford produced arguably the greatest icon of American motoring between the wars.

Not only that, but there were now European Ford V8s being built in England and Germany, led by the Ford V-8 Pilot. It was a boon to moonshine runners during prohibition, and in this era of Jimmy Cagney and Humphrey Bogart, the whole world fell under the spell of these smooth American engines.

During World War 2, V12s were the weapon of choice in the air but in the late 1940s, Ford’s faithful Flathead V-8 was still a mainstay of post-war motoring. It became the focus of a cottage industry of tuners and tweaks – either those who wanted to race on the drag strip and stock car circuit or continue to keep one step ahead of the law.

The birth of the hot rod movement and the NASCAR stock car racing series ensured that Flathead V-8s remained at the forefront. Kids bought them, stripped them, tuned them and had a whale of a time in their Little Deuce Coupes and a whole host of other variations on the theme.

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The Beach Boys had their ’32 Ford – the Little Deuce Coupe

But then in the mid-Fifties, General Motors went and moved the goalposts with its ‘small block’ V8. This was a relatively fuel-efficient 90-degree V8 with overhead valves and pushrod valve train that would set new standards for light weight, compact size, general simplicity and remarkable durability.

After 40 years, the V8 Monobloc was history.

Chevrolet’s V8 became – and largely remains – the weapon of choice for America’s hot rodders and racers, who called it the Mighty Mouse for its ability to punch above its weight in the tuning shop – and colloquially the Mouse ever after. And among the legions of fans that the Mouse has won over the years was a man called Billy Gibbons, who is also among the world’s finest blues guitarists and one third of the boogie-rock band ZZ Top.

In 1976, Gibbons went to Don Thelen of Buffalo Motor Cars and Ronnie Jones of Hand Crafted Metal. The guitarist wanted to create the ultimate hot rod with the iconic looks of the 1933 Ford Model C and the refined power of a small block Chevy. It would take seven years to realise that dream – and the result was the legendary ZZ Top Eliminator.

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Billy Gibbons (centre), with Frank Beard (thank you Matthew Carter!) and Dusty Hill – ZZ Top

While the car was being completed, Gibbons just happened to be in the process of turning ZZ Top’s brand of gnarly Texan blues-rock into a powerhouse of radio-friendly unit shifters. ZZ Top created an album that was to become as much a part of the Eighties cultural experience as Tom Cruise, big hair and shoulder pads… and it too was called Eliminator.

The completed car became the basis for the album’s artwork. It also starred in all of the videos for the hit singles that it spawned – Gimme All Your Lovin, Sharp Dressed Man and Legs. In fact the car provided the story in all the videos, in which young men were rescued from Cinderella-style drudgery by a bevy of beautiful women, who scooped them up and carried them off in the Eliminator to a world of good times, cheap sunglasses and bearded blues-rock.

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Now, there are few elements of the American Dream that are as instantly recognisable as the burble of a V8 engine. It’s a 90-year love affair that shows no sign of slowing down, for all the Elon Musks of the world. So just remember, next time you see a Hot Rod or watch a NASCAR race – or when your favourite TV cop arrives at a crime scene in a jet black Escalade – it’s as all-American as escargots de Bourgogne, fine champagne and fresh fougasse. Indeed, as all-American as the Statue of Liberty itself.

Vive les États-Unis d’Amérique!

56th Daytona 500

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“Ain’t nothin’ stock about a Stock Car’

This Sunday, after the drama of the Le Mans 24 Hours had left us in a stupor, the S&G snug went in to full recovery mode by diving in to an evening of entertainment from the gentlemen and lady of NASCAR.

It is widely regarded as a perversion to harbour any enthusiasm for American stock cars on this side of the Pond… but if that is the case then we are serial offenders. For this particular scribe, the journey towards fandom was completed within the space of an hour – this being the highlights of the 2004 Winn Dixie 250 from Daytona.

After a stonking race, the last lap began with any one of top 14 cars looking like a potential winner. After his team-mate spun out, and accompanied by a primal roar from the stands, the number 81 KFC-sponsored Chevrolet of America’s sweetheart, Dale Earnhardt Jr, came thumping around the top of the banking seemingly intent on taking the win.

This seemed to annoy the 00 Chevrolet of Jason Leffler, who simply moved up and put Junior in the wall close to where his seven-time Winston Cup champion father had been killed three years earlier. As a result of Leffler’s antics, it was perennial hard luck story Mike Wallace who came through to take an emotional win. Meanwhile, Dale Jr was interviewed at the scene of the crime where he reflected: ‘Did you ever get so mad you didn’t care if you won the fight or not?’

The meat of the racing footage can be found here:

Ever since that night, NASCAR has been a passion at the S&G – and one that has brought rich rewards. In an era when sports stars are coached out of any possible personality trait, NASCAR has thrived upon rivalries between drivers, teams and officials that promotes a deluge of incidents and a whole notebook full of quotes at every single race.

Even the fans have a gift for one-liners that many comedians would kill for. Recently Dale Jr’s team decided to make a last gasp tyre change which resulted in yet another disastrous tail-end result. Whoever made the call, one fan said, was ‘like a hog looking at a wristwatch’.

Then there’s the imposing figure of recently-retired triple champion Tony Stewart, who is never at a loss for words… some of them printable and all of them coated with a unique mix of wisdom, enthusiasm and battery acid. Unsurprisingly, Stewart is one of the few veterans yet to be offered a big paycheque for critiquing the races from the commentary booth.

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Tony Stewart spent nearly 20 years lambasting NASCAR, the press, his rivals, his friends… and won an army of fans for his trouble.

This week sees the 68th anniversary of the first ever NASCAR Stock Car race. The venue was the now-defunct dirt track of Charlotte Speedway, and it saw the debut of an idea dreamed up by NASCAR chairman Bill France to make the cars that raced under his banner truly representative of the cars you could buy in your local showroom.

Many of the drivers drove to the track in the cars that they intended to race. Other hotshoes turned up in the hope of wrangling a ride. Everyone was curious to see how it was all going to play out – and the result was a sensation.

One of the drivers who had arrived with helmet in hand and looking for a ride was Glenn Dunnaway, who ended up driving a Lincoln owned by a gentleman called Hubert Westmoreland. Dunaway crossed the line first and was all set to take away all the glory when it became clear that Westmoreland’s car wasn’t all that stock – having been fitted with stiffer springs for the purpose of running moonshine.

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This Lincoln was NASCAR’s first winner – and the first car found to be outside the rules.

Arguably this was the birth of that great tradition of ‘cheatin’ up’ a stock car to get the best results possible: an art for which the greatest exponents are celebrated as long and loud as any of the drivers. King of the hill in this respect is Smokey Yunick, whose black and gold cars showed a clean pair of heels to the opposition in the Sixties and early Seventies – whenever they got passed by the scrutineers, anyway.

One of Yunick’s signature moves was to build an oversize fuel tank and place a basketball in it. With the basketball inflated for inspection, the tank held the maximum permitted amount of fuel. With the basketball deflated it could carry an extra lap’s-worth.

Once, NASCAR officials pulled the fuel tank out completely during an inspection that ended up with a total of nine infringements. Yunick got in and started the car (still with no tank in it) and said: ‘Better make it ten.’ Then he cheerfully drove it back to the pits. For a detailed look at one of Yunick’s greatest cars, go here at Dailysportscar.

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Touring car racing in Europe is a direct descendent of NASCAR

Stock car racing is often depicted as a hayseed sport from the Deep South, but it inspired a similar movement in Europe: touring cars. Although the images of Mike Hawthorn and Stirling Moss in their Jaguars may seem far removed from contemporary NASCAR, as do today’s F3 cars with roofs, many of the NASCAR cheats have made their way across the water as well – including Smokey Yunick’s basketball and a hatchback whose loose rear windscreen acted as an early form of DRS.

More than anything, it’s the cheating that shaped NASCAR. From the ‘stock’ races of 1948-66 through two separate eras when space frame chassis were mated to stock body panels between 1967 and 1991, there was a world of invention in the workshops matched to the heroics at the wheel.

This era peaked when the movie Days of Thunder was produced by the dynamic duo of Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, who had previously brought the world Top Gun. It’s from this film – quite simply the best motor racing movie of all time – that the title of this piece is taken, which the film’s Yunick-inspired car builder Harry Hogge (played by Robert Duvall), growls at the Californian hot-shot (Tom Cruise, of course) who thinks he can walk it in Stock Cars.

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Days of Thunder saw Duvall and Cruise bring NASCAR to the masses

Days of Thunder is not high art. Nor does it have the authentic petrolhead credentials of Frankenheimer’s Grand Prix or McQueen’s Le Mans. There are no iconic tee-shirts or posters to be found, but as a piece of raw entertainment it’s from another galaxy to any other racing movie.

In real life, Days of Thunder coincided with the official abandonment of original factory-built body parts. The teams had long-since done so anyway, and the era of bullet-shaped ‘aero cars’ came to the fore from 1992 onwards.

These cars were the equivalent of Group B in rallying and the ‘gizmo’ Formula 1 cars of the early 1990s. The racing was sensational (such as the Winn Dixie 250 above), and it was only after years of soul-searching that followed the deaths of drivers such as Kenny Irwin Jr, Adam Petty and Dale Earnhardt, that the safety-conscious Cars of Tomorrow appeared in 2006.

Unfortunately for NASCAR, while no effort had been spared for safety, the new cars looked awful. What’s more, the show was worse still and the fans voted with their feet. Those fans are yet to return completely, although the CoT was given its marching orders in 2013 and the current sixth generation cars have successfully combined much of the look and race-ability of the ‘aero cars’ with the best modern safety features available.

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The Generation 6 NASCAR has got the series’ mojo back

All of that rich history stemmed from a low-key race on a three-quarter mile dirt track on 19 June 1949. The endlessly quotable, rambunctious and downright spectacular world of NASCAR has gone on to create a bucket load of heroes – and anti-heroes – for millions around the world. At the S&G, it’s the best way to start a new week for 39 weeks of the year.

F-code makes the ultimate Q-car

Very few mass-produced motor cars have packed the same ‘wow factor’ as the original Ford Thunderbird. Its styling screamed of the jet age and mankind’s love of modernity. It was the ultimate chromium plated symbol of post-war consumerism.

What it was not, however, was much of a performer. While its looks could not be faulted, the T-bird arrived just as Chevrolet showed that it had picked up a thing or two about European sports car dynamics and conjured the Corvette as a result. European sports cars were being imported to the States about as fast as the likes of Ferrari, Jaguar and Porsche could pump them out of their workshops and all of these confections left Ford’s ‘personal luxury car’ looking a bit green around the gills.

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The original 1955 Thunderbird was all show, less go

Things got worse in 1956. In order to free up space in the boot – or ‘trunk’ as our trans-Atlantic cousins would have it – the spare wheel was moved up and out to stand vertically in a chintzy little case above the rear bumper.

Just as Georges Boillot discovered in the 1914 Peugeot, this did nothing to assist the car’s dynamic properties. The Thunderbird went from being a fast-looking two-seater with a performance deficit to being a slow two-seater with an unwieldy rear end. While it still looked like a million dollars, it handled like loose change and sold in pitiful numbers.

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Mounting the spare wheel vertically on the rear bumper did nothing for dynamics in 1956

That’s why, after two years, the alpha male among Ford’s so-called ‘whiz kid’ management team, Robert Macnamara, gave orders to kill the two-seat model off and replace it with a four-seater for 1958. This meant that, for 1957 only, Ford’s engineers had the opportunity to show exactly what might have been and to send the classic Thunderbird off with some genuine sporting credentials.

In 1957, Ford produced a total of 21,380 Thunderbirds. Of these, just 205 were delivered with what was known as the F-Code engine package. Soon to be whispered of in bars and at racetracks as the ‘F-bird’, Ford’s skunkworks delivered what was to be the ultimate Q-car of the 1950s.

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The recipe for F-Code took Ford’s highest performance V8 and added a thumping great supercharger

The F-Code engine was the largest of Ford’s small block V8s, the 312-cubic inch model, to which was added a McCulloch/Paxton supercharger, a hot cam, a Holley four-barrel carburetor, and unique cylinder heads, to keep the compression ratio at a reasonably sane 8.5:1. Either a three-speed manual or Ford-O-Matic transmission was available, running through a 3.56 rear axle – of which only 25 were factory fitted.

None of this muscle was ever intended to go into a showroom model: it was Ford’s super-package for NASCAR and other motor sport applications. The F-code offered a conservative 300 bhp and a still more conservative 300 lb/ft of torque which could propel the Thunderbird to 60 mph in fewer than six seconds. It ensured that the Thunderbird turned into a velociraptor that could make mincemeat of the Corvette.

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The same spec as Ford’s entries in Daytona Beach Speed Week was implanted for showroom consumption

All of this was a $340 factory option package on top of the ’57 Thunderbird’s $2,944 base price – cheap performance but putting the relatively hum-drum Ford into an exotic price bracket. That is why the volume of sales for the F-bird was so low – apparently endorsing Macnamara’s decision to kill off the two-seat car and replace it with something more family minded.

Sure enough the 1958 Ford Thunderbird, with more seats, less power and less sass, broke all records in terms of sales. Ford’s beauty became less of a show pony and more of a success and that’s fine. But if you want to buy a Ford can stir your soul, some six decades after it appeared, you need to find one of those 205 F-birds. And around $200,000 to bring it home.

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