The transmission Ford produced from 1932 to 1950 is metaphorically and physically next to its famed Flathead engine. It never was the strongest option but it more than compensated with abundance; Ford installed a variant of the design in every one of the cars and light trucks it built during those 18 years. And Ford built millions of vehicles during that period.
Two things especially endeared that transmission to enthusiasts. For one, technology developed at a whirlwind pace from 1932 to 1950 and Ford's design bears testimony to that evolution. What's more, Ford's philosophy of incremental improvement means many of the parts interchange. Externally the cases are nearly identical, making it possible to simply replace the crudest 1932 gearbox with the most developed one from a 1948 passenger car. But more importantly, with some gymnastics and fancy language, bits and pieces of the latest versions can be used to update the earliest. That wasn't lost on bucks-down enthusiasts who needed to repair an ailing transmission in a pinch. With nearly two decade's worth of transmissions to choose from, an enthusiast had no excuse but laziness to let a Ford lie derelict because of a broken transmission.
Naturally, fondness for Ford's beloved box waned as technology evolved. But a funny thing happened over the past 20 or so years: The vintage revival made stars of Ford's engines, axles, and of course its faithful gear changers. That reinvigorated popularity in the light of a radically diminished donor pool turned gray iron into gold.
A learning curve accompanies that newfound popularity though. Even if you were born during the hot rod's first golden period chances are you weren't old enough to gather real experience with old Ford transmissions the first time around. We need instruction. Though we're nowhere near the first to do so since the revival's start and we're equally limited to outline a comprehensive account, here's our bid to explain what goes on inside an old Ford gearbox.
You likely recognize our guide. Frank Wallic has a unique combination of traits: He's an amateur like most of us but tackles jobs that would make most professionals blush. He's probably most famous for his rivet work, specifically for the warbird-style seats that he builds. For that reason he usually adopts cheeky names like Rosie the Riveter but we're thinking of referring to him from now on as Fearless for his enthusiasm to tackle projects most enthusiasts consider daunting, if not forbidding.
As part of his roadster's construction, Wallic and his longtime pal and early Ford gearbox guru Ron Keilwitz, ran though an old Ford gearbox. And as usual he documented the progress. Wallic describes the rebuilding process as quite effortless, or at least they make it appear that way. "There's really nothing to these old transmissions," he assures. "They don't require any special tools or techniques." And he's right; the most specialized tool required to rebuild an old Ford transmission is a pair of retaining-ring pliers. Technically bearing installation requires a hydraulic press, "… but you could get the same results by just heating the bearing with a torch and tapping it in place with a pipe," he maintains.
That's not to say this is mindless work. The disassembly process, which we unfortunately can't do justice, requires considerable inspection and judgment. Though tough, these transmissions are still vulnerable to chipped teeth, pitted shafts, wallowed-out shift mechanisms, and outright broken cases, just to name a few. And as a result of the evolution the Ford gearbox underwent, there are near countless variations. Straight-cut First and Reverse gears made way to quieter helical gears. The case grew several times to accommodate various clutches and gear diameters. The shift hubs and forks got wider. At one point Ford divorced the shifter from the case and moved it to the steering column (shift mechanism aside, the rebuild procedure is the same). The tailhousing changed several times to fit various chassis and the driveshaft changed from an enclosed design to a fully exposed one.
And those are the obvious changes. Ford altered the internals subtly over the years. Ford bored its countershaft gear (aka cluster gear) with two diameters over the years. The 1-1/8-inch-diameter bore uses caged bearings and the inch-diameter needle bearing uses free needle bearings. And in some years Ford produced both styles. Ford also offered at least four variations of thrust washers for the rear of the countershaft gear. One had five teeth on its perimeter; the other two staggered pairs. Later transmissions could have either a single thick washer with four raised prongs or two thin washers.
Many parts interchange but they don't do so without the proper corresponding ones. It takes a fair bit of knowledge to understand which parts fit with what, and that's something that we can't cover fully in the space we have. That would literally require a book. And few books rank with the one Mark VanPelt publishes.
More than a rebuild manual, The Ins and Outs of Early Ford Transmissions is a field guide for old Ford transmission components. It outlines the seemingly infinite combinations possible by mixing and matching parts. VanPelt also offers a considerable catalog of replacement parts, which makes it a lot easier to source new bits for old bones. And finally, it does cover the shift tower assembly and side-shift variations that we can't resolve here.
Though we reduced it to its elements the process that follows isn't exactly an oversimplification of the rebuild process. It really is that easy, another thing that endears Ford's old transmission to every generation that discovers it. Rebuild one and you too just may fall in love with one of the most beloved beasts of burden, Ford's early three-speed transmission—Dearborn's donkey.