Uniquely American: THE ONGOING STORY OF THE 1932 FORD "LITTLE DEUCE COUPE"
Jack R. Nerad | Jan 22, 2021
The 1932 Ford Coupe is far more than just a landmark car. It is a touchstone, a cultural icon, and a totem that tells a great deal about the land in which it was born and the people who bought it, own it, and, yes, love it. The 1932 Ford was a mass-produced consumer product designed for the multitudes, yet few cars — in fact, few products of any type — have achieved the universal recognition, fame, and sheer longevity of the "Deuce Coupe."
Not only were songs written about the car, most famously by the Beach Boys, but the '32 Ford became the basis of a cultural phenomenon (hot-rodding) that spawned a movement (the Youth Culture of the 1960s). And that demonstrates the remarkable "staying power" of this car because even in the early Sixties, it was an antique car enjoying a new life as the emblematic hot rod. Who would guess that the popularity of the '32 Ford Coupe would still be going strong more than five decades later?
How popular is it? Evidence of that is as clear and direct as the value listed for a '32 Ford Coupe today. The car that sold new for $485 in 1932 now commands a retail price as high as $119,000, which turns the term "retained value" on its head.
From Model T to '32 Ford Coupe -
The story of the 1932 Ford Coupe started in the mid-1920s when uber-industrialist Henry Ford decided that his company would have to replace the Model T, the car that put America on wheels. It was a bold decision because, in 1924, Ford would not only sell its 10 millionth car (in June), but by the time October rolled around, it would sell its 11 millionth, representing an unheard-of sales rate.
Commanding a solid 50% of the American car market, Ford Motor Company was riding high as its Model T "Tin Lizzy" outsold everything else that moved. Yet Henry Ford could see that the competition was gaining ground rapidly as the company's signature and only car model became more and more antiquated. The contemporary Chevrolet offered a more powerful 4-cylinder engine with a more modern drivetrain and better chassis than Ford's rapidly aging Model T, and more expensive mid-priced brands like Nash, Dodge, and Buick were selling cars that were even more refined yet within the price range of middle-class Americans.
These facts weren't lost on the public either. In 1926 Ford's market share plummeted to just 36%. So, even though it had successfully sold nearly 15 million Model Ts, Ford began to develop a new model.
Since they were starting all over again, Ford decided to call the new car the Model A. As development continued, Henry Ford's son, Edsel, became the driving force behind the car. He insisted that it have a conventional three-speed, sliding-gear transmission instead of the Model T's planetary gearset. He pushed for substantially improved engine performance. And he closely directed the chassis and body design to make sure the new car wasn't just better than the old one but more attractive, too.
The Model A that emerged was as handsome as it was inexpensive. With its lower chassis, it was longer and more substantial than the spindly Model T. The new model's hood and cowl were much larger and longer than those of its predecessor, hinting at the bigger, more powerful engine hidden underneath. The car's all-new 200.5 cubic-inch 4-cylinder engine delivered twice the horsepower (40) of the Model T.
Introduced to the world in 1928, the Ford Model A created a frenzy that reached far beyond the mere automobile business. Some people estimated that within 36 hours of its debut in showrooms, more than 10 million people had seen the car in person.
The massive changeover from the Model T to the Model A cost Ford Motor Company $250 million, an unheard-of number in 1928. But the gamble paid off. By July 1929, more than two million Model As had rolled off the assembly line.
But, not unlike the pandemic that struck the economy without warning in 2020, the stock market crashed in October of 1929, bringing on the Great Depression. And it changed the car business forever. Innovation came faster and faster, and by 1931 the Model A — a car Henry Ford hoped would carry the company for at least a decade — was already slipping. Cars like the Chevrolet "Stovebolt Six" were eating Ford's lunch. This set the stage for yet another all-new Ford model — actually two closely related models — for 1932.
The 1932 Ford Deuce Coupe -
Planning to leapfrog competitors yet again, Henry Ford decided that his newest model would not have a 4-cylinder engine or even a 6-cylinder engine like arch-rival Chevy. Instead, the '32 Ford would get a V8. The sophisticated engine configuration promised exceptional power and smoothness, and it represented a radical advance in the non-luxury segment of the market — another giant gamble.
The engine that emerged from Ford's development shop was a 221 cu.-in. powerplant delivering 65 horsepower. Constructed of cast iron with side-operated valves, the new Ford V8 wasn't as sophisticated as the overhead-valve V8s in some luxury cars. However, Ford could manufacture it for a fraction of the cost of a Cadillac or Lincoln V8 yet still deliver similar smoothness and performance.
Ford dubbed the new V8-powered car the Model 18, and its lineup included a variety of attractive open and closed bodies whose looks were similar to the Model A. Among them were two coupe bodies that quickly came to be known as the 3-Window and the 5-Window. The 3-Window has just a single side window on each flank, while the 5-Window has a large door window and a second smaller window behind it. Both are "Deuce Coupes," with "deuce" referring to the fact they are 1932 models.
In addition to the Model 18, Ford also hedged its bets by offering a 4-cylinder-powered Model B in 1932. It, too, was built in a bewildering array of body styles — roadsters, sedans, cabriolets, and coupes. With the same chassis and overall design, the Model B coupes are as attractive as the Model 18 V8-equipped coupes, and they also qualify as "Deuce Coupes."
The new 1932 Fords created a sensation in the marketplace when the automaker unveiled them to the general public in April 1932. Even before it appeared in showrooms, Ford booked 50,000 orders for the V8, and there is no doubt it was one of the bargains of the decade. Customers could purchase a V8-powered Model 18 roadster for as little as $410, and a Tudor (two-door) sedan, the most popular body type, was just $450.
As we noted earlier, the coupe, an upscale body configuration, cost $485. Using the relative strength of its 65-horsepower "cast-iron wonder" V8, a stock-off-the-showroom floor 1932 Ford Coupe had a top speed of 78 miles per hour and significantly better acceleration than the typical car of its era.
That elevated level performance didn't go unnoticed. The general public flocked to the car and purchased more than 430,000 1932 Model 18s and Model Bs. The Model B was overshadowed and outsold by the V8-powered car because buyers could get the V8 for as little as $10 more than the similar 4-cylinder model. The Ford V8's speed made it a favorite of, among others, notorious bank robbers John Dillinger and Clyde Barrow, both of whom wrote Henry Ford praising the car.
The Prototypical Hot Rod -
Since the invention of the automobile, mechanics and backyard tinkerers have always endeavored to personalize them and make them go faster. While the Model T "Tin Lizzy" seems like the antithesis of a performance car, its low cost and ubiquity made it the object of a booming "speed parts" industry in the 1910s and 1920s. When the Model A with its higher-performance 4-cylinder engine came along in the late 1920s, it was natural for the tuners of the day to gravitate to it for the same fundamental reasons; they were cheap, and there were a lot of them.
The '32 Ford Coupe was the next logical extension of that.
Interestingly, of the two 1932 Fords, the 4-cylinder-powered Model B first became the object of the "hot-rodding" craze. The reasons were simple. A used Model B was much less desirable and could be purchased more cheaply than a V8-powered '32 Ford. Plus, the Model B's 4-cylinder engine lent itself to using the same types of parts and techniques used to "hop up" Model As.
By the late 1930s, the "speed" industry was manufacturing a wide variety of parts to increase the performance of both the Ford "flathead" V8 and the 4-cylinder Model A and Model B engines. With hundreds of thousands of used Fords on the market, anyone wanting to build a fun-to-drive car could inexpensively buy a '32 Ford Coupe that could serve as a blank canvas for a variety of modifications. Among the simplest of those was removing the fenders and running boards, ditching excess weight and giving the car a purposeful look at the same time. Voila! A hot rod.
World War II intervened, but after the war, the hot rod culture began to gain steam again. However, relatively inexpensive and powerful high-compression V8 engines like the legendary Chevrolet "small block" changed the post-war hot rodding industry. Installing these engines in '32 Fords became routine.
A majority of the early hot rods were "open cars," typically stripped-down Model T, Model A, or Model B roadsters, but the '32 Ford Coupe continued to grow in popularity to become one of the centerpieces of the hot rod movement. While a true dyed-in-the-wool hot rodder still might point to a roadster as the epitome of what a "hot rod" should be, a strong case can be made for the Deuce Coupe. And one reason is its substantial presence in popular culture.
Pop Culture Icon -
"Little Deuce Roadster, you don't know what I got." As a lyric, it just doesn't have a ring to it, does it? But change it to the phrase, "Little Deuce Coupe, you don't know what I got," and you've got yourself the makings of a hit song.
That's what Beach Boys' leader, Brian Wilson, and collaborator/lyricist Roger Christian thought as they penned the tune in 1963. It first appeared as the "B" side on the Beach Boys single "Surfer Girl," and it became a hit song on its own, reaching the number 15 spot on the Billboard Hot 100 as summer turned to fall that year.
Students of pop music will tell you that the public loves the "ooh" sound, and with a double dose of it in the title and refrain, it only makes sense that the song wasn't just a hit but has also become an enduring favorite. The success of the "Little Deuce Coupe" single persuaded Wilson and Capitol Records to quickly produce and release a Beach Boys album titled "Little Deuce Coupe." With an album cover that used a photo of a blue "deuce coupe" obtained from Hot Rod magazine, the record remained on the charts for 46 weeks and peaked at number four. You can make the case the hit song and hit album did as much for the popularity of the '32 Ford Coupe as the '32 Ford Coupe did for the song and album.
But the Beach Boys tune isn't the only tribute to the '32 Ford. The hit song "Blinded by the Light," written by Bruce Springsteen and covered by Manfred Mann's Earth Band in hit form, contains the lyric "cut loose like a deuce" or "revved up like a deuce," depending upon the version. Both variations refer to the "deuce coupe." Springsteen is a classic hot rod enthusiast.
In the movies, many people of a certain age will never forget Big John Milner's '32 Ford Coupe hot rod in the George Lucas coming-of-age-film "American Graffiti," a movie starring numerous iconic American cars. And on the printed page, horror novelist Stephen King's "The Stand: The Complete & Uncut Edition" includes a character called The Kid, who drives a customized 1932 Ford Coupe.
'32 Ford Collectability -
The 1932 Ford Coupe's place in the culture and status as an icon has cemented its value. While the overall market for pre-World War II cars has waned in recent years, the '32 Ford continues to hold its value. One irony is it is difficult to find "stock" '32 Ford coupes because so many of them have been turned into hot rods — perhaps several times over — through the years.
The popularity of the "deuce coupe" body style also spawned a long-running cottage industry of replica coupe bodies and even whole "1932 Ford Coupes" fabricated from scratch. These days, owning an authentic 3-Window or 5-Window body rather than reproduction is a mark of distinction.
On one thing, there is no doubt. Whether you like cars restored to their original glory, cars that are modified to give them better performance and personalized style, or you are simply a fan of American pop culture, it is impossible to dislike the "Little Deuce Coupe."