Q Because I didn't have anything better to do a few weekends back I went with my buddy, Jim Pyle, to an equipment auction (he's in construction). The place looked to be a combination of an old trucking/construction outfit and a scrap dealer. In a pile of flattened former hardtop racer sheetmetal (none of which was salvageable, and I'm an experienced bodyman so I say that with confidence) were some vintage race car parts. There were Flatheads with rods sticking out, a bunch of busted early Ford transmissions, and in a pile of broken and bent early Ford rearends was a bare centersection that had been converted to a quick-change. The rear cover is missing and the housing is cracked, but I thought it would look cool as a wall hanger in the shop.

One of the guys at the auction said he knew about a pair of brothers named Olsen who used to run the place and raced on the dirt tracks around Oklahoma during the late 1950s. He told us the Olsen brothers' uncle was the guy who would convert early Ford centersections into a quick-change. I've seen plenty of aluminum quick-change centersections, but never one made from stock Ford parts. Who originated these conversions and was it a common practice?

Leland Strauss
Via the Internet

A This question of who developed the first quick-change pops up from time to time and the answer is always the same—no one knows for sure.

We've been told that a few very early dirt track racers experimented with chains and sprockets at the back of the transmission as a form of changing gear ratios. But the real breakthrough came before World War II, someone somewhere searching for a way to gear their race car for the various length tracks they were running on came up with the concept of a quick-change we're familiar with today. Certainly any racer who could swap gears to suit conditions had an advantage over the other competitors so it probably didn't take long for word to spread and the demand for quick-change centersections to explode.

Those early examples of the quick-change were based on Ford centersections, both the Model A and the later V-8 design with the "straddle mount" pinion (the small bearing that supports the end of the pinion gear) were used. The basic conversion was done by rotating the centersection 180 degrees; with the centersection turned around and upside down, the original pinion shaft faced to the rear. The stock pinion was retained but modified to accept a support bearing and a removable spur gear where the driveshaft coupler once attached. A shaft that went from the driveshaft past the ring gear mounted a second removable spur gear and a housing was added to enclose it all mount support bearings for the pinion and new lower shaft (a few early quick-changes used sprockets and a chain, rather than gears).

It's been estimated that as many as 30 different brands of Ford-based quick-changes have been produced over the years, carrying such names as Bart Bilt, David, Frankland, Highland, Monroe, and a long list of others. Some were beautifully crafted while others were downright crude.

Few original fabricated quick-change centersections remain today, however there have been attempts to recreate them. As the interest in traditional hot rods began to grow several manufacturers attempted to bring a new fabricated quick-change to market. However the cost of tooling and the amount of labor required made them too expensive to be a viable product.

Q I recently bought a very straight, all-original 1952 Ford. It's complete, but the Flathead engine is in dire straits and needs to be rebuilt. The fellow I bought the car from included a Chevy 350, a rebuilt 200-4R transmission, and an IFS kit with rack-and-pinion steering but no brakes. He lost interest in the car and made me a deal I couldn't refuse.

My problem is the Chevy also needs to be rebuilt. I want to start building the car this winter with my two boys (8 and 10 years old) and want to get it on the road so we can enjoy it. I'm torn between a 1950s build style with the Flathead or a more modern version with the Chevy. What's your opinion on which is the best to go?

Nathan G. Donaldson
Via the Internet

A Regardless of which way you choose with this project we've got an advertiser's index full of parts to make it happen, and it will be a great experience for your kids.

The most important factor in making this decision is what you're going to expect from the car when you're done. Is it a daily driver, weekend cruiser, or a cross-country traveler? When selecting running gear that's a critical consideration.

There are a number of reasons to keep the Flathead—of course tradition is a big part of it, but it's also feeling how a good Flathead pulls, the way they sound, the inevitable aroma, and the spots on the garage floor from a drip or two of oil they always manage to squeeze out. And of course nothing looks cooler than a decked-out Flattie. Rebuild and performance parts are readily available, in fact much of what is on the market today is better than what could be found when these engines were still in production. However, at the risk of alienating our die-hard friends, and worse yet agreeing with Brennan, the decision to run a Flathead is usually based more on passion than practicality. But then whoever said street rodding was about practicality?

You've asked for our opinion, and here it is. As much as we love those vintage Ford V-8s (our everyday driver is powered by one), the truth is a rebuilt 350 is going to make more horsepower, get better mileage, and probably cost less than freshening the Flathead. If we were building a shoebox to travel with the family the Chevy and automatic would get the nod (attention readers: address all hate mail to brian.brennan@sorc.com). Sure, small-block Chevys are the street rodder's version of the belly button—but if they didn't work so well there wouldn't be so many of them. We'd slide a replacement for that IFS in place, spring for disc brakes and a later rearend, all with the goal of making the car safe and reliable. To keep everyone comfy add A/C and a killer stereo—the point would be to get the car on the road and then make it pretty.

As far as styling goes, the car can still have an early vibe—add some mild custom touches and keep in mind in the mid-to-late 1950s there were plenty of shoebox Fords with small-block Chevys. The main thing is get it on the road and have some fun with the family.