If you can call Henry Ford one thing, it’s persistent. His disdain of 6-cylinder engines dates to the teens of the last century, mostly out of spite of his competition.

When Ford’s son Edsel pleaded with him to expand from the Model T and Model A 4-cylinder platform, Henry wouldn’t hear about a six. Even odd and exotic combinations such as Henry’s fascination with the X8 were always up for consideration, but never a six. Indeed, he leapfrogged past any 6-banger configuration, doubling down on double the cylinders with his monoblock flathead V8 for 1932. If there was one thing that saved Ford Motor Company from its internal quagmires and loss of market share, it was that V8.

However, the ever-growing V8 was deemed as too much engine for some buyers —especially Depression-era farmers and businesses. In a market rife with economical sixes, an eight was thought of as overly extravagant and more costly to live with.

Initially, Ford fought back with the 1937–40 136-ci 60-hp flathead V8, but despite the smaller displacement, it still had eight jugs. To fully compete with Chevrolet, Plymouth, Studebaker and just about anyone else in the entry-level market, Ford needed a six, plain and simple. So Ford finally gave ground in 1941 with the introduction of the 90-hp 226-ci flathead 6-cylinder engine.

Market competitor

While it may seem like Ford was taking a step backwards, they were actually meeting the 6-cylinder market face-to-face with an engine that was just as well engineered as anyone else’s — if not better. It featured full-pressure lubrication and all insert bearings, with a four-main-bearing crankshaft.

The six wasn’t just for cars, either. The pickup truck market in particular was almost exclusively 6-cylinder territory, outside of the V8 Ford and 4-cylinder Crosley and Willys. During World War II, Ford continued to make the six, putting it to use in the G-622 class “Burma Jeep” GTB series of 1½-ton trucks it was building for the U.S. Navy.

After the war, Ford continued with the six. 1947 saw a few subtle changes for an increase to 95 horsepower — essentially the last substantial change to the engine.

Even when Ford introduced their all-new post-war car for 1949, nothing changed under the hood. The flathead six was still available. Yet by then, the writing was on the wall and the flathead engine — be it inline or vee configuration — was on the way out.

Six or nothing — almost

Ford’s first all-new post-war automotive engine was a replacement for the flathead six — the 215-ci (later 223) overhead-valve inline six for 1952. It was first not just because the flathead V8 was a case of “it works, don’t fix it,” but because Ford had briefly considered going exclusively to OHV six power.

Henry Ford II’s “Whiz Kids” had nearly convinced The Deuce to meet GM head-to-head in products to gain market share. That meant the Ford was only going to have an equivalent Chevrolet OHV six under the hood. The V8 would stay, but only for Mercury and Lincoln. Wiser heads prevailed, and Henry II kept V8s available under Ford hoods.

In the new “shoebox” 1949s, any Ford bodystyle was available in a six or V8. Starting in 1950, the convertible and mid-year wagon became DeLuxe V8-only cars, as was the mid-year-introduced Victoria. The six also saw its last change: a bump up in the compression ratio, gaining five more pound/feet of torque.

All this continued into 1951, when the Victoria became a proper 2-door hard top. 1951 also was the first year of the optional Ford-o-Matic 2-speed automatic transmission — which was available on the sixes, at least initially.

Easy entry point

While almost all trim levels and bodies were available with the six, most installations tended to be into Tudor and Fordor sedans. Once they aged past the point of being used cars, without a V8, they were essentially ignored.

Today that’s a different story. While a six in a ’49 convertible or wagon has value as being an oddity, and in F-series trucks has been far better accepted for longer, the other body styles are now starting to be appreciated. What’s more, they provide a very economical way to enter the collector car hobby.

A good number of these cars that have surfaced in the market in recent years are older original examples, generally coming out of estates or long-term (if not original) owners. These present an excellent value for a car just to futz around with at local events with friends and family.

While not having the hot-rod ability of a V8, the sixes have more low-end torque and are actually better cars to have for today’s low-speed cruising events (where you’re mostly parked with your cool ride anyway) such as Back to the 50’s, the Woodward Dream Cruise and Hot August Nights. Keep the hood down when you park it and you’ll look just as cool as your V8 brethren. Do a split-manifold, dual-exhaust conversion (or if you find some of the few vintage speed parts for them) and you’ll have folks wondering where the hopped-up Chevy Stovebolt is hiding.

Parts availability for these engines may not be as easy as the flathead V8s, but they are out there in circulation, helped by their truck usage.

Since the rest of the car is the same regardless of the motor (aside from the 1949–50 center emblem in the bullet grille denoting 6 or 8), restoration and maintenance is otherwise equal. Indeed, you have two less trim pieces on a ’51 six, as they lack the “V8” call-out emblems on the front fenders. See, it’s saving you money already.

Worst-case scenario, now you can say that you are at par with your pals with stock Plymouths, Studebaker Champions, DeSotos and even Pontiac sixes of these same three years. They made do quite well with flathead sixes for 68 years, so why not a Ford?

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