Great examples are common, and restoring one couldn’t be simpler
The easiest collector cars in the world to own are those you can get the most parts for. You can probably name a lot of them: the ’55-’57 Chevy, the early Mustang, the first-generation Camaro, the Triumph TR6, the MGB, and so on. As grows the hobby, so does that list (as do the criteria for being on it—which now includes complete reproduction steel bodies), but since the beginning, included the 1928-’31 Ford Model A.
The complete history of the Model A as a sensational new car – including its proven durability during the worst of conditions of the Great Depression and World War II, and its popularity as a simple and easily improved used car in the shortage-wracked postwar period – is too detailed to get into here, but suffice it to say that the historical popularity of the A translates to an extremely robust and complete aftermarket still supporting these cars on the eve of their centennial. Even in as-delivered form, the Ford Model A remains an eminently driveable car—married with some improvements developed when it was nearly new, it can traverse virtually any 21st century road with ease.
There are plenty of opportunities to do so, too. Two clubs serve the Model A hobby specifically: The Ford Model A Restorers Club (MARC) and the Model A Ford Club of America (MAFCA). They maintain technical libraries, advisors, and most importantly, communities of enthusiasts with whom to trade ideas, tribal knowledge, parts, and information. Both organizations are variously tolerant of modifications pioneered in the A’s earliest days as a used car, especially when the appearance is kept stock or made to resemble a period speedster or race car.
Many of those changes blend seamlessly into a road-ready car, ideal for participating in tours like those organized by MARC, MAFCA, and the local chapters thereof, plus multi-marque events run by other organizations. Moreover, unless you live in a really congested area, a touring-grade Model A makes a great fair-weather driver for any purpose —assuming your insurance provider and licensing authority agree.
Speedsters and more heavily modified cars will find themselves welcome at other sorts of events, including hill climbs and traditional hot rod gatherings like The Race of Gentlemen. Beware, though: Beyond a certain point, the more heavily modified the engine, the more temperamental it becomes and the shorter its lifespan.
The standard Ford closed body for all years of production was the two-door sedan (spelled Tudor by Ford, to complement its naming the four-door sedans Fordor). It also proved the most popular in original production, with 523,922 built in calendar-year 1929 alone (Ford didn’t track body-style production by model year) and 1,281,112 by the end of ’31 production in early 1932. Most in-demand today are the roadster and coupe bodies. The former is reproduced, and though repair panels are obtainable, no complete closed Model A body is. A late-1928 to 1931 Tudor makes perhaps the ideal Model A owner’s car for a variety of reasons, not least of which is the prospect of extra leg room in the front seats, attractive price point in the current market, and an all-steel body (compared with the wood-framed Fordors, built by outside suppliers). It’s on that specific model that we’ll focus here.
Engine and drivetrain
While it’s a flathead four-cylinder, and parts from the Model A engine have been made to work in the Model T block, there’s not much in common between the 177-cu.in. Model T engine and the 1928-’31 Model A engine, which displaced 200 cu.in. and made 40 hp at 2,200 rpm —twice the T’s 20 hp at 1,600 rpm. Famously, one reason the Model A is often seen wearing a quail radiator mascot is because its abrupt acceleration reminded operators of that bird bursting forth from the underbrush. The four-cylinder retained its reputation for quick starts right up through the V-8 era, when owners of “bangers” preferred to race from a standing or low-speed rolling start (the origin of the drag race) against V-8 owners. The V-8’s longer-legged nature was reflected in the popularity of the greyhound mascot on ’32-’34 Fords.
In its stock form with a heavy flywheel, the Model A engine remains a roadable unit, though it’s hard for most owners of driven cars to resist internal improvements when rebuild time comes along. Upgrades to the oiling system are popular, as are counterweighted Model B crankshafts (which permit a lightened flywheel and installation of a later clutch). Replacement of the poured bearings with modern-type inserts are frequently discussed, but probably overkill on anything but an engine regularly driven hard.
Top-end modifications, including additional carburetors (both stock-style updraft and later-style downdraft), high-compression (this is relative —stock used a 4.22:1 ratio) cylinder heads, high-performance camshafts, and free-flowing exhaust manifolds all exist and are of varying utility depending on the owner’s intended use of a Model A. Some more compression (Ford itself offered a Police head, though aftermarket heads usually boasted a superior chamber design and more compression yet—anything in excess of 6.5:1 is not advised with poured bearings), a distributor incorporating centrifugal advance (stock units are driver-adjusted from the steering wheel—not a situation favored by every modern driver), a Model B-grind camshaft, a downdraft two-barrel carburetor (Stromberg types being a good compromise between period tech, flexibility, and present-day parts availability), and a cast-iron exhaust manifold will give a healthy enough boost to any engine that you may wish to look into some of the brake upgrades discussed below.
Some A owners have gone even further than modifying the factory engine, yet without straying all the way into V-8 territory. More than one Model A has received, complete, the 50-hp four-cylinder engine originally found in a 1932-’34 Ford Model B. Aside from an external fuel pump, the Model B block looks very much like the Model A, yet it hosts oiling improvements and a counterbalanced crankshaft. Opinions diverge on whether the earliest 1932s had the balanced crank, but the real split in desirability seems to stem from Ford’s switch from sweated-on to cast-in counterweights, the latter of which aid immensely in rebuilding.
The Model B engine was originally packaged with a heavily revised transmission. The original Model A unit was scaled down from the big Lincoln transmission in use in the late 1920s — complete with multi-plate clutch. That clutch was soon replaced with a conventional disc unit, but the heavy flywheel and unsynchronized gears remained. When synchromesh was introduced to the marketplace, however, the consumer wouldn’t long stand for the necessity of double-clutching, and lighter flywheels had the added benefit of letting an engine gain rpm faster—though to the detriment of shifting unsynchronized transmissions.
For 1932, the Model B transmission was essentially that of the V-8 car, but in a gear case designed to work with the four-cylinder. In fact, gearsets from Ford passenger cars up through 1948 will fit in the Model B case, though it’s tight. Because the Model A bellhousing also mounts its pedals, many B-powered A’s will have been modified to accommodate the Model A oil pan, bellhousing, and transmission. Alternately, a variety of schemes have been worked up to use Model A pedals with later transmissions, including swaps intended for the Borg-Warner T-5 five-speed, the Ford SROD four-speed, and the 1932-’39 Ford V-8 three-speed.
Transmission choice complicates the rest of the driveline, as Ford cars built through 1948 had their driveshaft enclosed in a suspension member called the torque tube. The Model A axle, though theoretically not as strong as the V-8 units of 1933-’48, will mate with the later Ford transmission without modification to either. Adapters to fit the SROD and certain models of T-5 to the torque tube have been offered, and some enthusiasts choose to switch to an open driveline. That latter option is complicated, however, because the radius rods alone were not designed to deal with the braking and acceleration forces of the rear axle.
The Model A came with a standard gearing of 3.78:1 while V-8-era Ford axles were typically 4.11:1, so swaps to later rear axles are possible but rarely performed unless seeking added strength during a V-8 swap.