Written by Eric Becker
When we think about V8s, we think about one thing above all else: that throaty rumble that’s music to many a gearhead’s ears. The pulsating orchestra of 8 pistons moving up and down at a 90-degree angle is unmistakable. But there’s more – much more – to the V8 than the aforementioned sound and fury. The engine has an earnest quality and simplicity that speaks of an unpretentious champion.
The V8 has been the emblematic powertrain throughout the history of the Ford Motor Company. Ford’s Model T may have put America behind the wheel, but when the first Flathead turned up in 1932, there wasn’t anything quite like it. At the time V8 engines were not uncommon, just more rarefied. Often powering the era’s top of the line offerings from Lincoln or Cadillac. Ford’s Flathead (L-head) made speed and performance affordable to everyone – a welcome offering during the height of the Great Depression. That performance had fans from all walks of life. Ford’s V8 history contains the names of some notorious figures in American lore, including John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow, who chose the Ford V8 to suit their purposes. Both notorious men allegedly wrote Henry Ford letters lauding the 221ci 65hp “Flatty” V8 for its performance and robustness.
But J. Edgar’s Most Wanted weren’t the only ones piloting a Ford V8 on some back-country roads. The likes of Bruce McLaren, Ken Miles and Denny Hulme did just that – only in France. When Ford and Ferrari battled at Le Mans, the Scuderia brought its most potent and cutting-edge V12, which was constructed with the precision of a Swiss watch. Ferrari’s engine was light and compact, measuring just 4.0 liters. Ford carried on that robust performance: The Blue Oval arrived at La Sarthe with 427 cubic inches of Detroit Muscle, besting the prancing horse by some 3.0 liters and rendering the advantage of all those cylinders, camshafts and carburetors null. The simplicity of the “big Ol’ V8” trounced Ferrari’s finest engine, bringing Ford its maiden victory at Le Mans and powering nearly all of the marque’s most sought-after models.
As Barrett-Jackson has had the privilege of hearing and seeing a number of Ford’s finest engines roll across the block, we thought it only right to chronicle some of the best 8 cylinders to leave the FoMoCo foundry and find themselves at auction.
In the early 1920s Henry Ford was set on designing an X8 engine – essentially a radial engine with two V4s sharing a crank and facing opposite directions. Much to the elder Ford’s chagrin, it didn’t work. Under pressure from Chevrolet’s new 6-cylinder and his company’s aging lineup, Ford assigned a batch of engineers to begin work on a V8. The team began work by acquiring V8 engines from high-end manufacturers and immediately taking them apart in an effort to determine how best to produce the 90-degree V-block at an efficient cost. The decision was made to put the all new Flathead – so named for its valve in block design – in the 1932 Model 18. Crossing the block at the 2007 Scottsdale Auction, an exemplary 1932 Ford Model 18 Deluxe Roadster was a pristine example of what someone could buy at the time. The ’32 Model 18 would see a final price of $150,000.
Though the early Flatheads were plagued with teething problems – cracking engine blocks being one – the engine accomplished Henry Ford’s goal of one-upping Chevrolet’s 6-cylinder. Ford continued using the Flathead engine for 21 years. The engine would quickly earn itself a reputation amongst bootleggers and the burgeoning new hot rod craze. It was no secret that with some basic tools and backyard know-how, the “Flatty” could produce more power. As members of the military returned from overseas in the years following World War II, the ease of acquiring a Flathead-powered ride made it the staple powertrain for hot-rodding’s golden era. The “Deuce Coupe,” as it affectionately became known, served as the quintessential hot rod. From SoCal to Appalachia, the streets and hills were rife with tuned Flatheads. The gods of industry took note, and soon simple garage-based shops became ingrained into the bedrock of the automotive aftermarket. When it crossed the block at the 2020 Scottsdale Auction, a radical Model A Custom fetched a staggering final price of $302,500. The build, commissioned by famed gearhead Wayne Carini, is an astounding homage to hot rods of yesteryear, still powered by Ford’s humble Flathead V8.
The FE, the Cammer, Cobra Jet and the Boss, a legendary lineage of Ford-powered V8s, have helped define American motoring and reflect execution of a unique powerplant vision.
The Ford FE, shorthand for Ford-Edsel, was built to replace the aging Y-block engine and found its way across a wide swath of engines, from Le Mans-winning race cars to school buses and boats. Introduced in 1958, the FE was built from 332 to 428ci. The FE would serve as the workaday base for some of the most powerful and iconic engines capped by the Blue Oval. In the early 1960s the engine would be bored to 427ci and campaigned successfully in multiple series. Showcasing its apex was a stunning Raven Black 1964 Ford Galaxie 500 XL that crossed the block at the 2015 Scottsdale Auction. With a 427ci Hi-Riser sending 569hp through a Toploader 4-speed manual transmission and 4.11 Detroit Locker rear end, this special Galaxie would command a final price of $156,200. But in many ways, this was just the beginning.
Introduced in 1964, the “Cammer” was a deeply reworked version of the FE. Known as the single overhead cam, the SOHC (pronounced “sock”) was based on the Ford 427ci side-oiler block – a two-valve, single-overhead-cam, high-rpm monster. The Cammer was Ford’s in-your-face answer to the Chrysler 426 HEMI, destined for combat on the NASCAR ovals in the summer of 1964. A single four-barrel version of the engine would pump out 616hp at 7,000 rpm, with 515 lbs/ft of torque. But despite the impressive stats, the engine was simply a two-valve SOHC, based on the 427 FE. This not-so-sleight of hand, known within Dearborn’s hallways as the “90-day wonder,” was a quick and inexpensive fix while considerable efforts were directed to the famed 255ci DOHC, Indy-focused small-block engines to come. Crossing the block at the 2008 Las Vegas Auction, a stunning SOHC-powered ’69 Mach 1 bellowed across the block, bringing a final sale price of $165,000.
The now legendary Cobra Jet engine was a mid-year introduction in 1968; an affordable, mass-produced muscle car power plant to do battle with their GM and Chrysler competitors. Ford rated the 428 Cobra Jet at 335hp, but one lap on the track made it immediately obvious that this new offering put out much more than that. Estimates assessed the power output to be well over 400hp. The Cobra Jet became the top engine choice in the Mustang and other models, including the Torino. Today, with records that prove the point, the Cobra Jet is widely recognized as one of the most legendary muscle car engines, as well as the penultimate Mustang power plant. Crossing the block at the 2018 Scottsdale Auction was a 1969 Mustang, one of only 20 1969 Q-code 428 Cobra Jet convertibles built with a 4-speed manual transmission. The beautiful pony car is one of just three finished in Acapulco Blue and met a final price of $154,000.
Featuring a wholly different big-block architecture, the now-mythical Boss 429 arrived with thunder on the track. Conceived in 1969 as a pure racing engine, intended for use in NASCAR championships, the Boss 429 used four-bolt main caps, forged steel crank and connecting rods, and aluminum cylinder heads, with a semi-hemispherical type combustion chamber. Ford‘s legit claim of a HEMI was termed the “crescent.” One of the first 150 examples built, a beautiful and highly documented 1969 Boss 429 decked out in Candy Apple Red – looking just as it did when it left the Kar Kraft factory – was one of the standouts during our Online Only May 2020 auction, selling for $195,000.
The antecedent V8s continue to live on in Ford’s current lineup, more advanced and powerful than ever before. The Blue Oval continues to sit at the forefront when it comes to innovation and new technology. The second generation of Ford’s modular-derived Coyote platform upended the standard V8 affair and took a more exotic approach. Internally known as the “Voodoo” engine, the traditional cross-plane crank was replaced by a flat-plane crank configuration. The flat-plane design traces its routes to some of the earliest V8s used and has been a mainstay in high-revving race engines. Essentially, a flat-plane crank is best described as two 4-cylinder engines sharing a crankshaft. When one piston is at top dead center, its opposing piston is at bottom dead center. This design allows for a lighter rotating assembly and thus a more rev happy nature. The Voodoo engine would make its debut in the all-new for 2016 Shelby GT350 and GT350R. Barrett-Jackson had the honor of auctioning off VIN 001, with the track-focused Shelby Mustang would command a final sale price of $1 million at our 2015 Scottsdale Auction – all of which went to JDRF.
Ford’s latest V8 is also the most powerful production engine ever built by the Ford Motor Company. The supercharged engine produces 760hp and 625 ft/lbs of torque. Dubbed “The Predator,” the 5.2-liter Coyote-derived engine returns to a cross-plane crank and a 2.65-liter Eaton TVS supercharger. The first of the all-new Ford Shelby GT500s rolled across the block at the 2019 Barrett-Jackson Scottsdale Auction to benefit JDRF and wowed with a final price of $1.1 million.
It’s all well and good to read and write about proper V8s, but there’s nothing that quite matches one’s right foot conducting a symphony of eight pistons to command. Ford’s V8 legacy has been with us for nearly 100 years, and we hope it continues for as long as time will allow.