Manifold Destiny: Ford’s flathead had countless intakes

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The Ford Motor Co. started more than one revolution when it introduced the flathead V-8 in 1932. Not only was Ford’s flathead the first affordable V-8 engine to be mass-produced for a low-priced car, but it ultimately helped define the performance automotive aftermarket as we know it today.

True, there was a fledgling performance aftermarket in place when Ford’s V-8 was introduced. Pioneers like Hal and Cragar had found varying degrees of success selling speed equipment for Ford four-cylinders and other early engines. But as racing and hot rodding became more popular, especially following World War II, the simple, powerful, easy-to-modify flathead V-8 set the performance standard. If you wanted to succeed in the performance parts business during the 1940s and ’50s, the first thing you did was make parts for the flathead Ford.

To get a good grasp of the Ford flathead’s popularity, look no further than the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed in Lincoln, Neb. The museum recently expanded its collection of aftermarket flathead V-8 intake manifolds to include more than 170 examples. The expansive display shows a wide range of engineering and execution, from crude home-built steel setups to dozens of cast aluminum varieties designed to accept everything from one to six carburetors.

It’s not surprising that intake manifolds were such popular flathead performance parts. Even those with limited mechanical knowledge realized that feeding more fuel and air to an engine would increase its performance, and the best way to do that was with multiple carburetors (remember, this was a time before four-barrel carbs became common). The manifold’s easy access atop the engine also made it a prime target for swapping.

Naturally, every company that built a flathead intake thought its design was the best – or at least good enough to sell well. A quick study of the museum’s collection shows several different philosophies at work. Some use long intake runners; others put the carburetors right on the manifold deck. One manifold might put multiple carbs in line, while the next mounts them side-to-side. A good number of the cast aluminum manifolds bear a striking resemblance to one another – an indication that “borrowing” a successful design is not a new concept in the aftermarket.

Ask a dozen flathead enthusiasts which intake they prefer and you’re likely to get a dozen different answers. Some preferences are dictated by purpose – whether the engine is destined for street-cruising duty or racing performance, or whether it’s going in a light-bodied hot rod roadster or a full-figured sedan. Some enthusiasts will argue that running more than two carburetors on the street is overkill, while others insist that three or four carbs work just fine in lightweight cars if the engine is set up properly. One thing seasoned rodders and racers seem to agree on is that smooth, gradual contours in the intake runners are important for optimum performance.

The Museum of American Speed’s intake collection includes many once-popular brands like Thickstun, Baron and Navarro, which faded away once OHV V-8s stole the flathead’s performance spotlight. Other companies, such as Edelbrock, Weiand and Offenhauser, were able to adapt to market changes through the years and remain a part of today’s performance aftermarket. Such companies will always be able to trace their roots back to Ford’s venerable flathead V-8.

If you’d like to take a more in-depth look into the intake manifold display or the history of automotive performance, plan a visit to the Smith Collection Museum of American Speed.

More information on the museum can be obtained by calling 402 323-3166, or by visiting www.museumofamericanspeed.com.

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