At some point in every car lover's life, he or she will come across the term "deuce coupe." The slang is shorthand for a 1932 Ford passenger car in coupe form. On a more rudimentary level, a coupe is a car body type with two doors and a fixed roof, but the word "coupe" has even older roots from the days of the horse-drawn buggy and means a carriage designed for two passengers and a driver. In more modern times, a coupe body style is further differentiated from a two-door sedan as having no integral door frame surrounding its window, but at the time of the 1932 Ford, doors without integrated window frames (a body style called a hardtop) had not been invented.
The "deuce" part of deuce coupe refers to the model year 1932, a significant one because 1932 featured many mechanical and stylistic improvements. Use of the term "deuce coupe" to describe any modified 1932 Ford coupe initially came in favor with the American hot-rodding subculture during the late 1940s and 1950s as the popularity of modifying the V-8-powered 1932 Ford Model 18 for speed contests, bootlegging, and car shows increased. In the decade after World War II, the 1932 Ford Model 18 gained momentum as the most popular type of car to modify, and how this came to be is fascinating.
Ford built 275,000 passenger cars in 1932, and about 185,000 of them were V-8-equipped. Today these manufacturing quantities—though still large by today's standards—aren't especially eye-popping, but remember we're talking about 1932, just a scant three years after the start of the Great Depression. Henry Ford was responsible for putting the automobile within reach of the average American with his Model T, but it would be the Model 18 of 1932—the V-8-powered variant—that pulled Americans out of the muck and gave them performance aspirations.
Although the Model A of 1928 was an important breakthrough in styling (it was the first major improvement to the appearance of the Ford passenger car since the Model T), it was the equally important confluence of two important improvements in 1932 that catapulted the deuce coupe to its vaunted position today: the availability of the first affordable mass-produced V-8 engine—the Flathead—and the aesthetic and structural refinements of the 1932 body style and "pinched" frame over the previous 1928-1931 Model A. The match that lit the bomb was the fact that a V-8-powered 1932 Ford only cost $50 over the cost of a Ford four-cylinder Model B—the designation for Ford's four-cylinder model.
For the first time in history—even more surprising that it happened in the depths of the Depression—the average person didn't have to settle for something quantitatively less than the wealthy had. The mobility, performance, and dignity that the Ford Model 18 of 1932 provided became a bellwether of American life before the Second World War, and when the war ended, the 1932 Ford became an affordable, easy-to-maintain used car well into the 1950s. While postwar vehicle manufacturing ramped up to all-new levels, resources continued to be scarce, and for many, one of Henry Ford's used deuce coupes was the right car at the right time.
It's impossible to overestimate the influence of Henry Ford's decision to deploy an affordable V-8 engine in the 1932 Model 18, but without it, the landscape of today's high-performance V-8 engines wouldn't exist. In the wake of World War II, the deuce coupe played the primary role in the formation of the aftermarket performance industry, which was buoyed by the popularity of modifying it for one of three things: running from the law, chasing after criminals, and partaking in speed contests.
For nearly two decades, the Ford side-valve flathead V-8 was the only affordable mass-produced V-8 available. Even when more technologically advanced overhead-valve V-8s like the Oldsmobile Rocket 88 (1949), Cadillac (1949), Chrysler Hemi (1951), and Buick Nailhead (1953) became available, the low-cost Flathead remained competitive with its increasing arsenal of speed parts provided by companies like Edelbrock, Offenhauser, Weiand, and Iskenderian. The Flathead was so popular, the famous automotive engineer and racer Zora Arkus-Duntov invented an overhead-valve hemi-head conversion (called Ar-Dun), considered the pinnacle of hot-rodding tech in its day. To understand how pervasive the Model 18's Flathead V-8 was in the hot rod world, look at the photo above, taken at Speedway Racing's American Museum of Speed in Lincoln, Nebraska. You can see that an entire wall of the museum is occupied by different aftermarket intake manifolds—all for the Ford Flathead V-8!
Once the technical superiority of the overhead-valve engine was established and the price of these new high-tech engines came down, especially after the introduction of the small-block Chevy in 1955, the deuce coupe got yet another shot in the arm. Overnight, the engine swap came into vogue, and hot rodders embraced the act of hybridizing powertrains and body styles from different manufacturers. (And you thought "hybrids" and recycling was a tree-hugger phenomenon? It all started in the hot-rodding world.) The small-block Chevy swap into a 1932 Ford became so popular that today the number of 1932 Fords with Chevy engines rival extant examples born with Ford flathead V-8s or inline-four engines.
The term deuce coupe came into slang usage in the nascent subculture of hot rodding during the 1940s and gradually gained use through the 1950s, thanks to buff magazines like HOT ROD, Rod & Custom, Car Craft, and Custom Rodder. Nevertheless, the notion of a deuce coupe remained largely unfamiliar to the postwar world until the Beach Boys released the single "Little Deuce Coupe" in September 1963. Recorded as a B-side for the single "Surfer Girl," "Little Deuce Coupe" reached No. 15 on the Billboard Top 100 chart on September 28, 1963. A look at the second verse lyrics, as an example, leaves no doubt about what a deuce coupe was all about: Just a little deuce coupe with a flathead mill, but she'll walk a Thunderbird like she's standing still, she's ported and relieved and she's stroked and bored, she'll do a hundred and forty with the top end floored …
By the fall of 1963, the deuce coupe had become a part of mainstream American culture, but the Ford 1932 Model 18 would get one more pop culture boost when George Lucas directed his breakout cult classic, American Graffiti, released in August 1973. It's arguable that the film's canary yellow 1932 Ford deuce coupe was as much a star as Richard Dreyfuss, Ron Howard, Paul Le Mat, Mackenzie Phillips, Suzanne Somers, or Cindy Williams. The film caught many of its human stars at the ascendancy of their careers, but the deuce coupe was already a seasoned old timer. Unlike the "Silver Sapphire" deuce coupe featured on the Beach Boys album, which was decidedly on the custom side (the deuce coupe belonging to Clarence "Chili" Catallo), American Graffiti's Milner deuce coupe was a bare-bones street terror, circa 1962. As a historical observation, these two cars would've captured the deuce coupe at its cultural zenith around 1963.
If you know the difference between a coupe and other body styles (for 1932 Fords there were 14 in all, a common thing in the era before multiple vehicle architectures became common), you still need to ID the body style of the model year, in this case 1932. According to HOT ROD author Tim Bernsau: "Cars of that era are hard to distinguish one from another. The body styles were very similar. Even from year to year, people who know deuce coupes mistake a Model A dressed up like a 1932 for an actual '32. [editor's note: '32 grilles are frequently used on Model As.] The fact is, Fords are so much more prominent than any other marque for that era of cars. Go to a prewar hot rod show, and it's going to be predominantly Ford. There will be a handful of Chevys there, and you'll see a handful of Dodges, but it's going to be Ford-heavy, just like a postwar show is going to be Chevy heavy."
In this regard, the radiator grille shell and grille insert is a dead giveaway with its elegant widow's peak point at the top and folded-plate sculpted form. Earlier Model A grille housings (1928-1931) are more squared off, and the grille is flat without a crease down the middle. For 1932, the body was all new, the framerails are more sculpted and closer together for a chiseled look, and the area around the cowl and A-pillar is unique to that model year. The high body line and the curved ridges stamped below the window openings have a specific proportion that is easy to spot and is common to all 1932 Fords. Later 1933-34 Fords have a sloped-back grille (the '33 grille is additionally kicked out in a slight curve at the bottom), diagonal vents in the engine side panels, and a matching diagonal door opening, which all would presage more aerodynamic influences to come. Armed with these details, it's possible to go to a prewar car show and learn more subtle differences so you can impress your car friends!
Hot rodders will often make distinctions between deuce coupe body styles, and they come in two flavors: three-window and five-window. The names are derived not from the total number of windows, but from the number of windows minus the windshield, such that a three-window coupe will have a window in each of its two doors and a rear window back glass. A five-window coupe has a longer greenhouse with two small additional windows—one behind each door for a total of five (less the windshield). In either case, you can really appreciate how small a deuce coupe is when placed next to a modern car; there is just enough room inside for two occupants and a modest amount of stuff. Five-window coupes were valued for the modest amount of extra space afforded by their larger greenhouses, but arguably more important is the effect each greenhouse has on the overall proportion, and that's a matter for the owner's personal taste.
Unlike some classic cars that can fetch millions of dollars, getting behind the wheel of a deuce coupe is surprisingly affordable. Not only did Ford make a ton of them, but they are also being manufactured again today—at least the individual parts. It is possible to buy everything you need to build an all-new deuce coupe from a place like Speedway Motors, Jegs, or Summit Racing. A new all-steel body can be purchased for in the low $20,000s (fiberglass can be had for even less), but you'll still need frame rails, a grille shell, suspension, running gear, the drivetrain, an interior, and paint. A competent weekend mechanic on a budget can turn out a deuce coupe at home using all-new parts for about $30K, but a finished turnkey deuce coupe hot rod can be had for as little as $40K or $50K, with more refined examples built by top builders exceeding that amount by several multiples.
Watch: Hemi-powered Deuce Coupe