The French Military Flatheads

These are new French military flathead blocks in their crates in Halibrand's trailer at the Heartland Hot Rod Reunion, 2000. The cardboard boxes in front hold various French engine components.

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I don't know how often I have heard people say they wished someone would cast brand new flatheads. Well, the next best thing has happened as the French military has decided to divest themselves of their stock of "modern" flatheads and a bunch of them are now here in the good old USA thanks to Halibrand Engineering and Motor City Flathead. (Actually, as it turned out, it was thanks to a third party, but I didn't know that when this was written.)

I got to drool over one at the Heartland Hot Rod Reunion. Halibrand wants $1500 each for a bare machined block which seems like a lot to me, but I have to say, they are BEAUTIFUL! Richard LeJuerrne, owner of Halibrand, says he bought the entire warehouse of French military blocks, some whole engines and bunches of parts. He says he doesn't even know what all he has. The blocks are in crates packed in a French version of Cosmoline.

They are quite interesting and are not exactly like American flatheads, although all our flathead goodies will apparently fit on them. The first thing you notice is the quality of the castings. No flash, no obvious core shift, not eaten up with 50 years of rot. The back ends are like a 59A style with a cast in bell housing and the main bearings are 59A style. Everything else is like an 8BA style including the water pump bypass and elongated slots in the rear cooling passages. The basic machine work is already done on them and they have fresh cam bearings. The idea was that the military could clean off the cosmoline, put them together with a minimum of machine work, and drive off.

The end exhaust ports are much nicer than the American versions. If you stick your fingers in those exhaust ports, you can feel that they are very smooth and round the corner on the way out. There is a lot of metal on the ends where American blocks get thin and have that wire that held the cores together. The French blocks have no wire. I think there is enough metal there that if you wanted to move the end ports more toward the end of the block, they could be milled down so the manifold surface was flat close to the end of the block and still have enough meat to hold a new stud. The exhaust studs, by the way, are metric and are the only metric thing on them that I know about so far.

The center head bolt that goes into the exhaust port is rather different in these blocks. The hole is unthreaded where it goes through the deck and water jacket with the threads starting in a boss that goes all the way through the center exhaust port. At first, I thought the deck was free floating in this area, but I have since been informed that I was simply suffering from the hallucinations associated with an old geezer spending two days in the sun at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. I was told this arrangement was to strengthen a weak area in the block. but I didn't know this was a weak area. In essence, the cast boss for the bolt forms an exhaust divider, but its shape and size may not be what is wanted. There looked to be enough meat in this boss to allow some carving if you were careful not to go too deep - it still has to hold the torque of the head bolt, you know. A little ingenuity will be required to put more complete dividers in. It seemed to me, although I didn't have a standard block to compare it with, that the center exhaust port was roomier than those of American blocks. I will not stand by that statement, though.

Much has been made of the extra holes in the rear for a distributor and speed governor, but what I noticed was an extra opening into the oil passage. The oil pumps, which Halibrand has separate, look like they are very well made and, instead of having a slot that the oil comes out of, have a round hole which lines up exactly with a passage that goes all the way out of the block. The passage that goes out of the block is capped with a threaded plug. I assume that the main oil line comes off this passage. I couldn't tell if any other lines intersect it, but it looks like a nearly full flow oil filter system would be a piece of cake because the block is already tapped for it. The rear main gets its oil directly off the space around the pump just like the old flathead we all know and love. The oil tube that runs through the valve chamber appeared to be screwed in rather than being a press fit. The block I saw didn't have the oil deflector that clips over the tube, but that may be because it was a bare block.

The intake ports are D-shaped with the flat part of the D on the top. According to LeJuerrne, Mark Kirby of Motor City Flathead flow tested one and it flowed better untouched than Kirby's street port. As an update, Mark Kirby says that the bowl area is smaller and more restrictive than the stock ford bowl and that the completely untouched French flathead flows less than the stock Ford design. If Richard LeJuerrne's statement is accurate, he must have been referring only to the runners and not the whole intake system.

The main bearing webs looked stronger to the people gathered around and I guess I would have to agree. The center main cap was definitely much beefier than the American version.

The transfer area of the block has a machined in relief, so if you think a relief is a bad thing, you won't like this motor. There is a single number stamped into each relief and no one I have talked to so far can figure out what it means. The number in the block I saw was 3.

I was told that these blocks weigh 30 lbs. more than the traditional flathead. There was speculation that this was because of the quality of the metal used in the casting - maybe more nickel or maybe cast steel instead of iron. Even though I could believe the metal is some top notch military specification, I could also believe there is simply 30 lbs. more metal in these blocks.

Among the other things in Halibrand's booty were rods (looked just like standard 8BA rods to me), adjustable and non adjustable lifters, very light three ring pistons, 3 3/4 inch and 4 inch cranks, and all the other stuff it takes to make a motor.

If your application requires you to have an 8BA style rear end, then you can't use this engine. Otherwise, I think it has a lot to offer. I'm anxious to see what people who have a good deal more money and expertise than I have can do with them. The only thing that I have any reservation about is that bolt through the exhaust port. It may not pose any problems at all, but I think a more complete exhaust port divider will be necessary and, because of the bolt, will be tricky to build.

Halibrand intends to make the rounds of the major car shows and nostalgia races, so the chances are good that you can see one in the flesh eventually. However, even though Ford produced millions of flatheads in the '40s and '50s, Simca didn't cast nearly that many blocks for the French military. I have no idea what the supply is except that, even though it is a whole warehouse full, it can't be infinite.

So what's the downside? So far, the sanctioning bodies for speed competition have not taken kindly to these engines. The Denver Flatheaders and the SCTA both have disallowed them.

Update: Beginning with the 2002 season, the Denver Flatheaders have allowed the French block in their drag racing events. I do not believe that SCTA has permitted them yet.

Update: Another source for these flatheads is Red's Headers. Red has worked out many of the oddities of these engines and has more information on his web page.

Update: Halibrand went bankrupt and the original importer bought them back, although you can still get them from Red's and a few others. Check this website for the source and pictures of a warehouse full of them. As of 2005, the Denver Flatheaders still let them compete and SCTA doesn't.