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A Diesel-Powered 1929 Ford Model A Pickup

Henry Ford would take a second helping of milestone pie in 1927 when his company introduced the Model A for 1928. The new car was designed by Henry’s son, Edsel, and like its predecessor, the Model T, it would go on to legendary status. In the three plus years of production (late ’27 through most of ’31), 4,849,340 Model As were made worldwide. At the end, there were some 16 different body styles, each with a number of variations.

“When Cirius Noble went looking for a classic truck a few years back, he came across a 1929 Model A Model 82-A Closed Cab Pickup that tickled his fancy. It had been restored, not perfectly, but well enough to be a fun Sunday driver that he wouldn’t have to be paranoid about driving often.”

It’s a truck alright! It was only rated for 750 pounds of cargo, but was a useful light truck on a chassis that was very common and easy to maintain. An open cab version, called the Roadster Pickup (Model 76A), was also available. The Model AA truck, a 1 1/2-ton dually, was also available but had a heavier-duty chassis and drivetrain. Besides the body, there were few differences between the various Model A cars and the pickups. One of the them was 4.11:1 axle ratios vs. the car’s 3.77:1, though Noble says his has 3.77 cogs. Another was 10-leaf rear springs (also found on some sedans).

Cirius Noble’s son, Cyle, does a full power drive-by to make some smoke for the camera. The Model A is a reasonably good driver if you don’t get ahead of the suspension or brakes. The cable-operated mechanical brakes are surprisingly decent, especially after some of the available upgrades were performed. The transverse leaf springs front and rear means you shouldn’t try to toss the Model A around corners like a sports car.

The original Model A had a lot of optional features, both OEM and aftermarket, but diesel power was not among them. Henry Ford had fooled around with alcohol and distillate (kerosene) fueled engines early on, but diesel technology was in its infancy in the ’20s and compact diesels nonexistent. How a certain 1929 Model A Closed Cab Pickup acquired diesel is what this story is all about.

When Cirius Noble went looking for a classic truck a few years back, he came across a 1929 Model A Model 82-A Closed Cab Pickup that tickled his fancy. It had been restored, not perfectly, but well enough to be a fun Sunday driver that he wouldn’t have to be paranoid about driving often. Soon after purchase, problems ensued with the engine. Some like to tout the “simplicity” of old vehicles but when the tools and expertise to fix them are in short supply, they can become surprisingly complex. In the case of this ’29, the engine block had major damage that had been improperly repaired previously. There was no fixing it the second time around.

The stack is a clue to the nature of this vintage beast. The battery was relocated here from under the floorboards because it no longer fit after the engine swap. The 6-gallon fuel tank is temporary. The original 10-gallon cowl-mounted tank sprang a leak not long after the conversion was finished and because the top of it is also the top of the cowl, some paint and bodywork is required to replace or repair it. Since the paint is so nice, Noble wanted to enjoy the truck for a while before tackling that job.

Noble then began pondering the classic car conundrum. Do you jump through a lot of expensive hoops to keep it perfectly original or go the modern route? In this case, he did what many good diesel repair shop owners would do and swapped in a diesel. Noble wanted to retain most of the Model A flavor. He didn’t want a hot rod and that led him in the direction of a compact small diesel. Compact diesels that would fit into the Model A chassis without a lot of adaptation and other modifications made a short list. In the end, it came down to running across a tired ’86 Jeep Cherokee diesel and robbing it of the 2.1L, four-cylinder Renault turbo diesel.

The Renault J8S-814 diesel is very compact and with a wet-sleeved aluminum block, it weighs about two-thirds of the 40-hp, 200-cid Model A flathead. It makes 85 hp at 3,750 rpm with 7-8 psi boost and, in Cherokees, it could deliver low to mid 30 mpg fuel economy. In the very light (2,265 lbs) pickup, it could likely do better. The Renault diesel was once used to power a motorhome, the Winnebago LeSharo, and, in Cherokees, acceleration performance was on par with the standard gas four and the optional 2.8L V-6.

It’s interesting to compare the original gas four and the Renault diesel. There’s a big difference in displacement (126 cid vs. 200.5). Oddly, the Renault’s peak torque spec, 132 lb/ft at 2,750 rpm, only slightly overcomes the Ford’s 128 lb/ft. The old flathead, however, had a much narrower rpm band, with peak torque coming in at only 1,000 rpm and peak power at 2,200 rpm. The result is that the little diesel is not much stronger off the line but offers a lot better higher speed operation.

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Besides the relocated shifter, the interior looks nearly original at first glance. Noble took great pains to be able to use the original pedals. He succeeded with the clutch and brake pedals but not the accelerator. He left the original gauges and controls in place but added new gauges in a custom roof pod along with a stereo.

The Renault J8S-814 is an overhead cam diesel that was used in a variety of car and light truck platforms for many years in Europe. With an aluminum head and block (wet sleeved), it weighs about 300 pounds ready to run. The engine sits on the original front and bellhousing mounting points, but a transmission crossmember was added. The pump is a Bosch VE and it’s driven by a cogged belt along with the cam. The turbo is a Garrett T2. It originally came with a small air-to-air intercooler, which Noble left off because there wasn’t room. The aftermarket aluminum radiator is a modified unit from a Mustang II application with a custom bracket built to mount the new radiator in the old shell. With an electric fan fitted, the 2.1L TD has more than enough cooling capacity.

The donor 2.1L was mated to a Warner AX5 transmission, but it was a 4×4 unit. The diesel had a special bellhousing so Noble and his shop crew found a 4×2 AX-5 and mixed and matched a 4×2 transmission to fit it. The original Model A used a closed-tube driveshaft that coupled the rear axle directly to the transmission. Noble built a new open driveshaft setup using the front shaft from the Jeep and a custom-built adaptor on the Ford axle.

Beyond what was necessary for the conversion, the rest of the Model A was left original. Noble added a few improvements to the mechanical brakes, a 12-volt electrical conversion, gauges appropriate to the new engine, stereo and a few other minor changes. The diesel is a powerhouse compared to the old flathead but it’s not too much. The 85-hp Renault could probably allow you to overdrive the ’20s era steering, suspension, 4.50×21 tires and mechanical brakes, but you aren’t really tempted to do so. You’re happy and comfortable staying within the 60 mph top speed range and fuel economy is fantastic. It’s a swap that in many ways highlights the simple-but-stylish nature of the original car. DW