The Catallo Coupe
In 1930 the Ford Motor Company stood at a perilous crossroads. Only 27 years old, it had emerged from the primordial anarchy of the turn-of-century automobile industry (there were, by some counts, over 200 US car manufacturers established between 1900-30) as its undisputed champion. The key to Ford's success was simple: a virtuous circle of standardized mass production = low unit cost = low price = high sales = even lower unit cost. It was a formula Henry Ford had honed to perfection with the Model T. During its 1908-27 production run, the price of the Tin Lizzie dropped from $850 to $275, a price that made it the first affordable mass market car and gave Ford an astonishing 48% share of the global automobile market in 1914. Ford sold over 15 million Model Ts, a world record that would stand until 1973 when it was surpassed by the VW Beetle.
That early business model revolutionized modern consumer society, but by the mid 1920s it had become a marketing millstone. While Ford clung stubbornly to his "any color you want as long as it's black" low cost strategy, an increasingly affluent consumer market was demanding cars with more power, comfort and style than the stodgy Ford T. Into the breach stepped crosstown rival General Motors, which provided a range of stylish brands and models to cater to different consumer segments. Even GM's "entry level" marques - Chevrolet and the new Pontiac - offered panache and six cylinder power at a price comparable to Ford's dependable but weak four-banger.
Ford mounted a late defense against the competition in 1928 with the introduction of the Model A. It was a leap forward stylistically, and car buyers were finally offered a choice of colors from creme to Washington Blue to basic Ford Black. Still, it was a competitive stopgap, and GM continued to capture share. In 1930, the unthinkable happened: Ford dropped to #2 in sales behind Chevrolet. And with the ever growing crisis on Wall Street and looming national depression, #2 was a very uncomfortable position.
Henry Ford's response to the crisis would be audacious: for the 1932 model year he would double-down by introducing a V-8 engine. At the time it was a mind-blowing leap; consumers knew that V-8 engines were the exclusive stuff of handmade ultra-luxury marques like Deusenberg and Cadillac. Engineers knew that a V-8 block was too complicated to cast in a single piece, which would be required for low cost mass production. Ford shattered that conventional wisdom with his new mill: a 90 degree side valve 221 cubic inch V8, single piece cast iron block, offering an astonishing 65 horsepower in a car that cost as little as $320. It was all new on the outside as well, with a stunning body design supervised by Henry's son Edsel, featuring a sculptural grille shell and rakish slanted windshield.
While the new powerful flathead didn't immediately get Ford back to #1, it had a sensational impact on consumer perceptions. Unlike its boring utilitarian predecessors, the "Deuce" (so-named for the '2' in 1932) made Ford synonymous with speed and power, the very first muscle car. It earned thousands of rave reviews from owners like this Texas bank entrepreneur:
Mr. Henry Ford
While I still have breath in my lungs I will tell you what a dandy car you make. I have drove exclusively when I could get away with one. For sustained speed and freedom from trouble the Ford has got ever other car skinned and even if my business hasen't been strictly legal it don't hurt anything to tell you what a fine car you got in the Ford V-8.
Clyde Champion Barrow
Proud Deuce owner Clyde
Barrow with his B-400
Clyde and his companion Bonnie Parker weren't the only people to note the police-evasion advantages of the new 1932 Ford; in the Appalachian Southeast, moonshiners discovered it was an excellent vehicle for getting product to market ahead of the long arm of the law. They also amused themselves with recreational racing, a pasttime that eventually evolved into Nascar. Facing such speedy scofflaws, police around the country began demanding their own flathead patrol cars to keep pace.
But the consumers who had the most appreciation for the flathead belonged to a cult of young car enthusiasts in California. As far back as the 1920s, these men had been taking their Model T "gow jobs" to remote dry lake beds like Muroc and El Mirage to race against the clock. They had for years developed tricks to milk maximum performance from the humble Ford four banger, but the advent of the flathead made all those efforts obsolete. The '32 became the 'it' car for growing legions of racers.
After the interruption of WWII, the lakes racing hobby exploded with returning GIs, flush with cash and a taste for adventure. Their weapon of choice remained the 1932 Ford, especially the lightweight roadster model. They lightened them further by removing fenders, revealing its sturdy yet elegant frame. They lowered them and added speedboat windshields to slice the air, and souped their updated EAB and 8BA flathead engines with newly available speed equipment made by lake racing veterans like Ed "Isky" Iskenderian, Vic Edelbrock, Eddie Meyer and Stu Hillborn. With the modifications they were hitting 100, then 120, then 150 miles per hour at the new SCTA Bonneville trials. They were "hot roadsters," which was shortened to "hot rods," and the name stuck.
These early lakes racers were, in some respects, like mechanical jazz musicians. Through improvisation and experimentation, they stripped out the basic notes of the '32 Ford and created an entirely new canon. It formed a new identity for the '32 Ford, owing itself to the original, but quite distinct and cohesive. Where Bebop had Gillespie, Monk, Miles, and Bird, hot rodding had Edelbrock, Doane Spencer, Joe Nitti, Bob McGee and Jim Khougaz.
The Deuce and the flathead's racing significance was not confined to the dry lakes. In 1935, a fast-talking Michigan car dealer named Preston Tucker convinced Henry and Edsel Ford to let him field a team of 8 flatheads at the Indy 500. Only one finished, which soured the elder Ford both toward Tucker and corporate team racing. But the real impact of the flathead was in grass roots motorsports. In the postwar Southeast and Midwest, '32 coupes became the standard source material for dirt track jalopy racers. And when the first legally sanctioned drag race took place - on an abandoned airstrip service road near Goleta, California, April 10, 1949 - the two competitors were, inevitably, flathead 1932 Fords: a supercharged roadster belong to Tom Cobb and the nitro-fueled 3 window coupe of Fran Hernandez. Hernandez, whose car-length victory won the title of Quickest Car in L.A., later became head of Ford's Racing Division.
Just as things were heating up on the track, GM launch an engineering shot across Ford's bow. In 1949 Cadillac and Oldsmobile introduced new V8s with a modern pushrod-overhead valve design that had much more performance potential than the suddenly-outdated flathead. Seeing an opportunity, a immigrant Belgian design engineer in New York, Zora Arkus-Duntov, began selling aftermarket bolt-on heads to convert your old Ford V8 to overhead valves. The expensive aluminum "Ardun" heads featured immense valves and hemispherical combustion chambers that translated into crazy power. Unfortunately for Arkus-Duntov, few were sold due to their high price point. His company folded and he picked up a gig at GM, where among other things, he became father of the Corvette and headed the Chevrolet racing program.
So the death knell had sounded for the flathead. All the major motor divisions were introducing OHV V8s; in 1951 the Studebaker and the Chrysler Hemi (employing a design that bore a suspicious resemblance to the Ardun Ford), in 1952 the DeSoto Hemi and Dodge Red Ram "baby Hemi", in 1953 the Buick Nailhead, and in 1955 the Chevy and Pontiac small blocks. Ford retired the flathead after the 1953 model year in favor of a new OHV "Y-Block" design. Strangely, the new modern OHV cars did little to diminish hot rodders' enthusiasm for the old '32. If anything, they became even more popular; rodders began tossing out the flatheads, wedged one of the big new motors in between their frame rails, and headed back to the strip. By the late 50's the Deuce had established such a dominant presence that it was virtually sanctified as THE ultimate hot rod, no matter what engine it ran. The yellow Milner Deuce coupe in George Lucas' American Grafitti perfectly illustrates that totemic power: even packing a 327 Chevy, it's still a Deuce - and still the Fastest Car in the Valley.
74 years after their introduction Deuce bodies are still seen in serious racing competition. Witness the BMR Racing '32 Ford 5 window pictured here; that chunk of ancient Detroit steel is still tearing up the salt at 205 miles per hour. And backyard engineers are still coaxing more power out of the obsolete flathead; the nuts at Vortex Engineering hold the current world record with 700+ horsepower and 300+ mph out of a humble '46 Ford block.
Ironically, the Deuce's icon status increasingly made it too valuable to risk on race tracks, and by the late '50s more and more were retired into duty as street and show rods. One was an Olds-powered 3 window coupe belonging to young Detroit hot rodder Clarence "Chili" Catallo. After a few years campaigning it on Michigan drag strips, in 1960 Catallo handed it to George Barris and the Alexander Brothers to perform a wild metallic makeover. It later appeared on the cover of the Beach Boys' 1963 "Little Deuce Coupe" LP, making it perhaps the most widely-recognized Deuce of all time. The Catallo coupe demonstrated the malleability of the original Edsel Ford design, and established yet another distinct identity for the Deuce - the radical show custom. The apotheosis of this approach might be the "Lil' Coffin" Deuce Tudor of Dave Stuckey, instantly recognizable to anybody who glued models or played with Hot Wheels before 1975.
Even back then Deuces were highly collectible. Car guys started hoarding them, heeding Mark Twain's famous advice to "buy land, they're not making it anymore." Strangely, though, they did start making Deuces anymore: high demand spawned an entire industry devoted to replica and restoration parts. Body repair panels and replica fiberglass Deuce bodies began appearing in the late 1960s, and are now available from dozens of suppliers, as are reproduction 1932 Ford frames. Recently several companies - such as Brookville Roadster and Dearborn Deuce - have introduced complete steel reproduction bodies. With a big enough budget, today you can make a pretty faithful steel recreation of a real 1932 Ford out of nothing but brand new parts. The paradoxical result is that 1932 Fords are more plentiful today than they were new. A scant 275,000 Fords rolled off the assembly line in 1932; today a greater number of "1932 Fords" are currently registered just in the state of California.
With that sort of provenance, it's not overstatement to say the '32 Ford is the single most influential car ever made. You sometimes see lists offering the "Top 100 Cars" but how many single make/years have their own hotly-debated top list? In preparation for the diamond anniversary of the Deuce, Ford Motor Company assembled a panel to name the Top 75 1932 Ford hot rods of all time. The incredible diversity of styles on it points out the core unique feature of the Deuce: it is a car more defined by how owners modified it than by its stock configuration. Classic car buffs will tell you that updates or modification a car decreases its value, but such rules don't apply here. The highest price ever paid for a Deuce, $522,000, went for a hot rod, the late Ernie Immerso's "Orange Twist" roadster. Normally the snooty preserve of Deusenbergs and Ferraris and Delahayes, the invitation-only Pebble Beach Concours d' Elegance has recently allowed a few 1932 Fords to sneak in - but all were significant historic hot rods like the Spencer and Khougaz roadsters.
And that's really the thing about the Deuce. It is the history of constant tinkering and remixing that make the car what it is. It has undergone a process similar to what French sociologist Emile Durkheim saw in his study of primative religions: the transformation of profane, or ordinary, objects into the realm of the sacred. Durkheim also noted that once made sacred, objects had a contagious value, imbuing any nearby objects with their own sanctity. Maybe that osmotic sacredness explains why racers still run flatheads and Deuce coupe bodies today, decades after their objective shelf life should have expired.
Or maybe that's just a lot of academic hooey. All I know is that the thing has a special quality all its own, timeless but adaptive. On a warm Friday night 75 years from now, long after today's appliance cars are all gone, I suspect you just might see a cold-fusion '32 Coupe cruising the streets. And it will still be the Fastest Car In the Valley. Forever, Amen.
If you've read this far, it's probably obvious that I like 1932 Fords.
Well, okay, I have a lust for 1932 Fords.
But it's an honest lust, one I share with a number of upstanding citizens, and one I've had for as long as I can remember. I've spent countless hours filling my grade school, high school, and college notebooks with crude drawings of the damned things, cataloging various schemes of how I would make one if I ever got the chance. I decided it would have to be a real Ford, a roadster or coupe, one I would plan and build. I considered every permutation of chop/channel/ section, fenders on/off, engine setups, tire and wheel combos. Forgive me Lord, for I have coveted.
I have owned a few hot hot rods, including a '31 Ford coupe I have mentioned here before. I've loved 'em all, but they've never diminished my unconsumated desire for a Deuce. Well, now my cherry's officially popped:
This is a 1932 steel 5 window coupe sitting on its original 1932 frame. It was a Chicago street racer in the late 1950s to early 1960s, chopped 3" sometime before 1963. Sometime around the mid 60's, the fellow that originally hot rodded it took it apart to update its worn-out flathead with a small block Chevy set up. He was drafted into the military, and the car never got put back together. It languished in his back yard for 25 years until the city gave him an ultimatum: store it or sell it, or we're taking it to the crusher. A friend of mine bought it from him and has been a careful custodian for more than a dozen years, repairing some body work but leaving it unassembled. After a few years of my whining, cajoling and arm-twisting, he finally relented and sold it to me a few weeks back.
I plan to restore this long-dormant Deuce in a style befitting its glory days: a no-nonsense, nasty ass 1950s street racer, fenderless/hoodless, blackwall 'stones on 16" Ford rims, juice brakes, 4 speed. For power, I've acquired a beefy little 1953 Dodge Red Ram Hemi. This will be the Coupe of Justice's angry garage companion, The Coupe of Wrath. I'll be posting the progress, so stay tuned. And Vive le Deuce.