We sometimes get mere minutes behind the wheel of a car. It might be that a manufacturer has tasked us with driving a classic or prototype that’s part of a parade, or that a friend has simply asked us to run round the block in their latest acquisition. These short drives are by no means long enough to comprehensively assess the car in question, but they can often be revealing and interesting. This series, as the name suggests, aims to catalogue such fleeting experiences.
The Pilot swept round the bend and onto the straightaway, scattering leaves in its wake as all of its eighty-five horsepower pounded the pavement. I lifted, snicked it into top, cracked wide its single Solex downdraught carburettor again and revelled in the increasingly fierce blat of its 3.6-litre V8. The air was cool, traffic was absent and its octet of cylinders was on song. And then, as I looked out over its pointed nose and past the prominent aeroplane-shaped bonnet ornament, I realised I had made an error of judgement.
Just ahead, the road dropped away quickly and then rose again. The modern cars I had been driving all afternoon had easily tackled the compression but the Ford V8 Pilot, the remarkably willing nature of which had lured me into a perhaps ill-advised romp, was far from modern. It wasn’t even considered modern when it was launched, back in 1947, as it was effectively a pre-war design – and it dawned on me that sump might be about to meet ground.
I did briefly mull throwing out the anchors but that didn’t seem wise. Firstly, I thought the nose might dive excessively and exacerbate the issue. Secondly, the chance of the Pilot’s hydraulic front drums and cable-operated rears delivering even and straight braking was about as probable as me providing a coherent and informed presentation on nuclear fusion after several pints. Better to just back off, bleed off a little speed, keep it pointing forwards, wince and wait.
A few increasingly long seconds passed before tyres met incline and the Ford’s beam axles, transverse leaf springs and lever-arm dampers went to work. But, instead of jarringly grounding out, the Pilot instead softly and gracefully sank as the road rose. And then it continued sinking, using up what felt like endless feet of ground clearance, before the suspension began to unload and the body heaved skywards.
My relief was palpable, in part because the car belonged to Ford itself, but I then noticed that I was still travelling downwards. The Pilot might have been climbing but I was still diving rapidly into its plush seat – until I completely flattened its springs and padding, at which point the combined upward forces suddenly catapulted me into the Ford’s headlining. No lap belts, natch, as was often the case back then.
All this excitement and comical pogoing action, witnessed by my trailing colleague, unfurled at a heady 30mph. No damage was done, and the limit had been established, but I nevertheless dialled back my initial eagerness and let the mobile museum piece settle into a more restrained cruise. Elbow out the window, one gently guiding hand on the delightfully thin-rimmed wheel, the other hand nudging the column shifter up and down, that legendary flathead engine just ticking along – what a place to be.
What struck me, having driven a few similarly ancient cars before, was just how accessible the Ford was. You could give the keys to anyone and, perhaps with a few token words of advice, they could merrily pootle down the road and back without slinging it into a hedge. They might grind the unsynchronised first gear a few times, and quickly realise how sluggish worm-and-sector steering can be, but they would otherwise return unscathed and grinning.
More time behind the wheel, and the familiarity it would bestow, would allow you to punt the Pilot along with more pace – but, as is often the case with classics, just gently burbling and bobbing down the road proved more engaging and fun than many a reined-in, traction-limited, overly attention-drawing drive in the latest and greatest supercar.
To a point, though, admittedly. Like many cars of its era, the Pilot’s pedestrian nature meant it felt very out of place amid modern cross-country traffic. If you were keen on a classic and wanted something you could venture far and wide in with comparative ease, a car a decade or few newer would unquestionably be the better option.
If your surrounding area otherwise resembles the set of Heartbeat, and you just want to cruise to the occasional car show, a Ford V8 Pilot would be a sublime choice. But, and I speak from experience, just remember to watch out for dips and crests. It might be called a Pilot, but that doesn’t mean it should fly.
Facts and figures
Model tested: 1949 Ford V8 Pilot
Price new: £780
Value now: £10,000-15,000 (good condition)
Engine: Naturally aspirated 3.6-litre petrol V8
Power: 85bhp @ 3500rpm
Torque: 205Nm @ 2000rpm
Transmission: Three-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
0-60mph: 21 seconds
Max speed: 82mph
MPG: Approximately 18mpg