[Editor’s note: This piece comes to us from reader Jack Groat, via the “My Hemmings” pages.]
I just bought the car of my dreams. Well, it was the car of my dreams when I was 15 years old. It is a ’56 Ford Crown Victoria. I grew up in a rural community in the 50’s. In that community, people who did buy new cars bought basic Fords and Chevys with blackwall tires, 6 cylinder engines and stick shifts. Seeing a Crown Vic was a rare experience, and I drooled over them when I saw one. Chevy did not have the exact comparable model. They had a 2 door hardtop, the Bel Air. I considered that the equivalent to Ford’s Victoria. They didn’t have a “Crown Bel Air” so to speak. I don’t want to get into another argument with Chevy lovers as to what model was equivalent to what other model. I had enough of those arguments in my youth. Let’s just say, I liked the Ford better than the Chevy in 1956, and for me, that’s all that matters.
However this purchase renews my old love/hate relationship with the Ford Y-block V-8. Let me explain.
My Dad was a Ford guy. Mainly, I think because the Ford dealer was a friend of his going back to high school. He also hated 6 cylinder engines based on some bad experiences he had in the past. So when it came time to buy a new car he got a Ford with the only option being the V-8 engine. Myself, my brother and my mother pleaded for a radio and we did have a radio in the ’59. The first Y-block in the family car was a ’57 with a 272 cu in engine. I don’t remember driving that car much, probably because I was too young. I remember it was a real dog. What I do remember is the ’59 with a 292 engine. That started as the family car and eventually became my car. I drove it to college and got married and drove it on my honeymoon.
I grew up on a farm but the small town nearby was where I hung out on Saturday nights. On a 2 lane highway north of town a friend and I painted two white lines across the highway a quarter mile apart. We planted rumors around town that the state police had painted those lines to catch speeders from the air. It worked because I was warned many times about the speed trap set up north of town.
Everybody drag raced everybody else. Nearly all in their family cars borrowed from Dad on Saturday night. Some of them may have hit as much as 65 mph in the quarter mile. Probably half of my drag racing opponents were driving 6 cylinder engines. Having a V-8 with a stick shift put me up into the middle of the pack.
Here is where the Ford/Chevy discussions took place. Myself and some other Ford guys were mocked by the Chevy lovers. Some local guys had modified their small blocks with a cam, carburetion, and headers. This put them head and shoulders above us poor guys driving our family cars. I never knew anyone in my town who tried to modify a Y-Block. But I had heard rumors, and the Chevy guys had heard the same rumors. They would spit pushrods if pushed to higher RPMs, and the 312 version broke crankshafts. All of them had upper oiling problems and they had copper tubing running from an oil port in the lower part of the engine up to the rocker arms. My ’59 had this modification and I don’t recall how it got there. I think my dad took it into the dealer for some service and the dealer installed the kit without asking.
The transmission was another story. The first time I broke low gear was one evening when I was drag racing and apparently revved the engine a little too much before dumping the clutch. I must have broken a tooth on low gear. The gear wasn’t gone but when you took off in low you heard a click every time the gear rotated. My dad drove it the next day. He noticed. I faked innocence. I said I had not heard it, what could it be?
My dad took it into the Ford dealer where the analysis turned out to be a broken tooth on low gear. What a surprise! The mechanic told my dad that the cause was pulling the shifter down into low when the car was still moving. Then I had to listen to a lecture about how to shift the gears and to never, never try to put it into low gear until the car has completely come to a stop. I promised to obey.
My 1959 Ford Custom 300 Tudor sedan.
Later when the car was turned over to me I got more aggressive launching off the line. I scattered multiple transmissions. The junk yards sold old Ford 3 speed transmissions for $15. I sometimes drove for a week with only 2nd and third gears available until I could get to a junk yard. Then I would stop by my friend’s house where we swapped out the transmission. My dad never knew.
But let’s get back to the Y-block. I did modify mine a little. I picked up a 4 bbl carb and manifold from a junk yard for $15. I installed a dual exhausts, a tach and floor shift. It was not a Sun tach or a Hurst shifter but it added a little to the “cool” factor.
Somewhere between my freshman and sophomore year in college the old engine was getting a little sick. My buddy, the one who helped me swap transmissions, found an old 292 Y-block and we decided to rebuild it. His father was a former mechanic and he helped guide us thru the project. No modifications, just a conventional overhaul. That engine was swapped into my car. Yes, it already had that external oiling kit installed. That engine proceeded to go for nearly another 100,000 miles.
After rebuilding that engine, I was riding with a friend who was building a Chevy small block. He said his block was ready at the machine shop and he was going to stop by and get it.. I hopped out and offered to help him carry the block out to his truck. The guy at the machine shop went in the back to get the block and returned carrying it ALL BY HIMSELF and set it up on the counter. I almost fell over. You didn’t pick up and carry a Y-block by yourself. I know, I had just rebuilt one.
Once I got back to my friends workshop, he had the small block all laid out for assembly. Again I was in for a big surprise. The Chevy which did NOT have a reputation for spitting pushrods had these cheap stamped rocker arms. Not like the expensive machined rocker arms and expensive machined rocker arm shaft that exists on the Y-block. I think the Chevy crankshaft was lighter too. The Chevy engine was a simpler, cheaper design that worked better. No, I never mentioned that to my Chevy friends.
It was about then that I vowed after I got my engineering degree I would go to Ford and show them how to design an engine.
As it turns out, I did go to Ford and I did design engines. I could write a book on what I found when I got there, but that is for another time. What I did do is run into an old timer who was on the design team for…… (are you ready for this?) the Ford Y-Block!!!!
He was very proud of the accomplishment. Before I explain why he thought that way, let me tell you how the industry works. There are two kinds of engineers. The design engineer and the manufacturing engineer. The design engineer spends his time hovering over a drafting board. Making sure everything fits, calculating balances, compression ratio, port sizes. Once that is done he makes a prototype, and tests it. Anything that goes wrong he fixes it. If the engine does’t produce enough horsepower he fixes that too, or tries to. After he is satisfied with the design, he releases all the blueprints to the manufacturing engineer.
The manufacturing engineer takes each blueprint and proceeds to figure out how he can make as many as he can as quickly as he can. I have known many manufacturing engineers and they really don’t care if they are looking at the worst piston or camshaft ever created by mankind. Their job, and they will be judged on this, is how many parts they can produce per hour.
That being said, this guy I met was clearly a manufacturing engineer. That engine came out in the ’54 model year which means late in the ’53 calendar year. Since it takes at least 4 years or more from the time you lay down the first line on paper until the first production engine comes off the end of the line. That means the design phase started in 1948 or 1949. I doubt that Ford had a engine product engineering group at all at that time. The flathead had been going on for about 20 years. So Ford probably grabbed some manufacturing engineers and told them to design the new overhead valve V-8. I don’t know what happened but this particular gentleman was very proud as to how fast they could run the block down the machine line and how fast they could plunge the boring tool down through the cylinders. My guess is that he had no idea of its poor reputation especially among hot rodders.
As a product engineer you brag about torque, horsepower, fuel economy, and light weight I was a product engineer on several Ford engines and I have no idea how fast they could machine the block. So my mind is a little clearer on the origins of the Y-block.
When shopping for the Crown Vic, I was looking for a model where the engine was swapped out for a different engine. But I found a beautifully restored one that had a rebuilt Y-block. To add a little pizzaz, it did come with an offenhauser manifold and 3 two barrel carburetors. So I am resigned to owning another Y-block. I have been doing some research on the internet and it turns out there are many die hard Y-block lovers out there. Some guy pulled over 600 hp from a normally aspirated Y-block (http://www.hotrod.com/articles/make-600-horsepower-vintage-y-block-engine/) Wow, if I knew that in could be done in 1960 I would have had my chin up and chest out when arguing with the Chevy guys. I found out why the 312 broke crankshafts. It wasn’t the crankshaft but the block that broke first. That heavy, bragged about, deep skirt block was the culprit.
I plan on treating this Y-block with the utmost in gentle care. In a funny turn of events, my son wants to drive it. He has a lead foot. I have to remind him that old Ford 3 speeds are no longer available at the local junk yard for $15.