Why the Flathead V8 Succeeded, and Why It Died

Photo credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images - Getty Images
Photo credit: National Motor Museum/Heritage Images - Getty Images

From Road & Track

The Ford Flathead V8 wasn't the first V8, but when it debuted in the 1932 Model 18, it brought this brilliant engine configuration to the American masses. With a simple design featuring a flat cylinder head (hence the name) that placed intake and exhaust valves next to the cylinder, this V8 was incredibly cheap to mass produce. And it was this same cylinder head design that forced it out of production in 1953.

Using a 3D-printed model of a Flathead V8, Engineering Explained's Jason Fenske goes through why this engine was perfect for its day, and what led to its downfall. Ultimately, its big problem was airflow.


By placing the valves next to the cylinder, air has to make two 90-degree turns in a complete cycle. Making things worse, intake and exhaust airflow are in opposite directions in a Flathead V8, further impeding efficiency.

The Flathead was also a very low compression engine, with Fenske noting the earliest 65-hp 3.6-liter variant had a compression ratio of just 5:1. Increasing compression could help boost power, but the flat cylinder head design meant doing so would restrict airflow further.

In the 1930s, the Flathead's low power and lack of efficiency weren't huge issues, but the rise of the overhead valve V8 after the war quickly magnified those problems. But, credit the Flathead for kickstarting America's love affair with the V8, leading Chevy to design the next great version, the legendary small block.

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