Henry Ford had some world-changing ideas—and some other ideas that went nowhere at all. Here’s the story behind his strange but fascinating X-8 engine.
One notion that captured the imagination of Henry Ford throughout his life was the X-8 engine configuration, and he experimented with the oddball layout in various forms for decades. Despite its obvious shortcomings for automotive use (in our view, anyway) the concept is not as off the wall as it may seem. General Motors launched an extensive two-stroke X-8 development program in the 1930s, and the 1935 Hoffman X-8 prototype (created for the Fisher brothers by engineering consultant Roscoe Hoffman) uses the engine design to good effect.
Though Ford’s experiments through the years included numerous variations, here we’re going to focus on one particular X-8 engine: the 1920-1927 prototype that Ford hoped would eventually replace the venerable 1908-1927 Model T. Let’s jump in for a closer look.
Above is one of the drawings for Henry Ford’s patent no. 1,639,333, which he applied for in 1920 and was granted on August 19, 1927. The Ford take on the X-8 could be described as two V-4 engines conjoined, one pointing up and one pointing down, but with one notable difference: The single-plane crankshaft has only two throws, one for each plane of four cylinders, front and rear. The two main journals carry caged ball bearings, and there are two camshafts on opposite sides of the engine, driving conventional L-head poppet valve gear.
Much of the design and development work was carried out by Ford’s right-hand engineering man Eugene Farkas (1881-1963), a Hungarian immigrant and a graduate of the prestigious Royal Joseph Technical University in Budapest. Apparently, Ford’s contributions to the X-8 were mainly in vision and supervision, as there were dozens of Ford projects commanding his attention in these years, from railroads to rubber plantations.
While there were water-cooled and overhead-valve versions of the X-8, the primary design settled upon an L-Head layout with air cooling and a fan at each end of the crankshaft. As many as two dozen prototypes of this model were built, and a good handful still exist today, including the example above on display at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Displacement in these prototypes was typically in the 110-120 cubic-inch range, with a bore and stroke in the neighborhood of 2.5 inches and 3.00 inches, respectively. The flywheel and ring gear doubled as a type of supercharger, but the crankshaft speed was insufficient to produce significant boost, reportedly.
A car was designed to house the X-8 engine in 1925, and with no need for a radiator, the design employed a sloping front doghouse similar to the early air-cooled Franklin. However, by 1926 the X-8 was nowhere near ready for production. Despite years of development, the engine’s cooling and lubrication problems were never solved. As Ford’s inner circle, including his son Edsel, struggled to persuade him to replace the aging Model T, part of the difficulty was in convincing him to drop the troublesome X-8. Their arguments won out, and when the Model A was introduced to the public on December 2, 1927, under the hood was a conventional 200.5 CID inline four.