The Ford Pilot - way ahead of the times

Public disdain for Ford meant that one of its best models failed, says Brian Sewell
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Indy Lifestyle Online

It was in March 1932 that Henry Ford introduced the world's first mass-produced V-8 engine. The V-8 configuration was not new, but for Ford, who had never countenanced even a straight six-cylinder engine since his first car chuntered out of his backyard in 1903, it was an astonishing leap into the future.

It was in March 1932 that Henry Ford introduced the world's first mass-produced V-8 engine. The V-8 configuration was not new, but for Ford, who had never countenanced even a straight six-cylinder engine since his first car chuntered out of his backyard in 1903, it was an astonishing leap into the future.

Rolls-Royce put a V-8 into production in 1906 and sold three; De Dion Houton followed with rather more in 1910, and by 1915 Cadillac had found the means of making them in quantity - but Ford, a survivor of the Great Depression, was confident and optimistic enough to make tens of thousands of them in a year when all his previous customers had settled for a simple four.

His design set two banks of four cylinders at 60 degrees, giving a capacity of 3,622ccs; with a single carburettor it developed only 65bhp, but was ideal for amateur tuning and immediately became America's power plant of choice in road racing and hot-rod circles. In Europe too it made its mark in sport; two Romanian amateurs won the Monte Carlo rally of 1936 in a Ford V-8 Roadster stripped for battle, and two years later two Dutchmen won it again with a Plain Jane saloon - an annus mirabilis for Ford, for of the 26 who entered, 19 won trophies.

The one blot on the V-8's reputation was Ford's economy version of only 2,228ccs. It used the same block but the cylinder bores were narrower, making it a long-stroke engine, lower in revs, lower in power and, mated to a gearbox of lower ratios, lower in performance. It did not suit American demand and was, as it were, dumped on the French and British markets where the lunacies of taxation made some small sense of owning underpowered cars.

The French took to it and after the Second World War produced an even smaller version of 2,158ccs; post-war Dagenham, however, reverted to the 3,622ccs V-8 and installed it in the Pilot, an engaging family saloon adored by spivs and spotty schoolboys. A 2,535cc variant was announced in a separate catalogue but seems to have been smothered at birth and was not among the five Pilots exhibited at the first post-war London Motor Show in 1948.

Power by then had risen to 85 bhp at 3,800rpm; still a side-valve engine and still fed by a single carburettor, the V-8's reliability was beyond question. Before the war it had hauled Jensens to celebrity; during the war it had been the work-horse of staff cars and Bren carriers; and for the two years before the Pilot came into being, the V-8 powered Allards in the Monte Carlo rally and up a thousand competitive hill-climbs. Allard's successes may indeed have convinced Ford that, even in the austerity of the later 1940s, a V-8 engined saloon may find enough buyers to make the venture viable.

Lazy, flexible, forgiving, the engine was mated to a 3-speed gearbox with synchromesh only on the upper ratios - but this hardly mattered, for the car was marketed as "a truly top-gear car ... unbaffled by the steepest hills, unruffled by slow traffic speeds". In looks it was chubby, chunky, Bunterish, well capable of seating six on its bench seats within the 9ft wheelbase, though its overall length was only that of a Ford Focus Estate. The cabin was essentially the Dagenham saloon of the later 1930s, with four wide doors on forward hinges (then unusual), but the nose was longer than before and fronted by an imposing upright radiator cowl that bore some slight family resemblance to that of the much smaller and ubiquitous Ford Prefect - way behind the Lincoln Zephyr nose that had influenced American Ford styling before the war and even further behind the mouth organ embellishments developed by Detroit in 1945.

It was a marketing mistake to remind buyers of the Prefect, the cheapest of all British Tens and utterly disdained by snobs, and the Pilot was phased out in 1951 - a year after its victories in the Tulip and Lisbon rallies; only 22,255 had been built in a four-year span, a level of production no better than Rover and Humber, much smaller and old-fashioned firms.

The Pilot failed because it was a Ford at a time when in public esteem Fords were at the bottom of the heap. British Fords were associated with interiors of painted tin and ghastly leatherette, and for the dashboard of the Dagenham V-8 they boasted "a new style plastic instrument panel of striking design in walnut grain".

But for £36 more than the £585 asked for the basic Pilot, the de luxe saloon could have leather upholstery, a radio, two loudspeakers and a built-in aerial; even the basic car came with built-in hydraulic jacks, heater, de-mister, rear blind and an opening windscreen - all then regarded as luxuries. The Pilot also had the now-neglected comfort of an almost flat floor and the despised convenience of a gear-change lever on the steering column.

At £585 it was absurdly cheap for a car that could exceed 60mph, cruise comfortably at a mile a minute, blast away from traffic lights with an endearing roar from its V-8 engine and yet keep 20mpg within its reach. In all these points it was superior to the Humber Hawk and the Rover 16, the one an under-powered lemon of a car for £695; the other, at £735, too reticent for its own good. But both had genuine timber dashboards and far better status in gentlemanly circles.

Autocar grudgingly dubbed the Pilot "a hefty and valuable knockabout machine'' - but it was a great deal better than that. Now rare, it can occasionally be seen in prestige auctions in its original liveries of dreary black and drearier beige (another consequence of post-war shortages) or as an almost coach-built "woody'' shooting brake. It was the best of all Dagenham machines, solid as a rock and equipped with an engine that is one of the "all-time greats'' of motoring history.

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