Spinning My Tires
is one man's view of the world of cars. Random thoughts, ideas and comments pop up here,
all of them related to owning, driving and restoring cars. I've been doing this car thing
as long as I can remember, and have enjoyed a great many car-related experiences, some of
which I hope to share with you here. And I always have an opinion one way or another.
E-mails are welcomed--if you have thoughts of
your own to share, please send them.
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Some Great Engines
Prior to the dawn of what many automotive
historians call the Modern Era which, basically, means the day of the OHV
high-compression V8, automotive engineers designed and built some of the most ingenious
motors. It was a time when there were no set rules, no emissions standards, no buying
public concerned with fuel mileage. Being different was often a sign of being better, at
least to the auto-buying consumer. "Traditional" engine technology didn't exist
back then--they were inventing it as they went along.
The other day, I met a gentleman who is an
enthusiast of Franklinsthe air-cooled luxury cars of the 20s and early 30s that
featured wooden frames in addition to the air-cooling. He couldnt stop expounding on
the virtues of air-cooling and the genius of the design. With no first-hand experience
with Franklins other than a friend of my fathers who owned one when I was a kid, I
could not disagree. So I did a little research, and came up with the idea for this
months column: The greatest American engines of the pre-Modern era (1900-1950 or
so). This is my list, and it isn't official by any means. But these are some engines that
I believe had a significant impact on design and/or engineering, or have built themselves
a lasting place in automotive history. Feel free to E-mail me if you have your own
opinions--I'd love to discuss it with you!
Here they are in no particular order:
- Early Cadillac "452" V-16 (1930-37). Probably the
greatest monument to the excessive lifestyle of pre-Depression America. Unfortunately, it
arrived after the Crash, and found its buyers somewhat limited. But what an engine!
A 45-degree OHV design with dual downdraft carburetors and dual ignition systems running
essentially as two straight-eights. Displacement was 452 cubic inches and horsepower
approached 185 in later models. The V-16 was inherently balanced, and probably provided
smoothness that we can only imagine today. Externally, the engines were like artwork with
polished stainless, aluminum and porcelain coatings. It is said that a nickel can be
balanced on the radiator of a running Cadillac V-16. I dont doubt it.
- Duesenberg J and SJ (1928-1940). Fred Duesenberg was a
brilliant engineer, ahead of his time and with uncompromising standards. Long before
racing was the organized commercial it has become today, Duesenbergs were built for only
one thing: to go fast. Duesenberg was one of the first domestic automakers to recognize
the concept of performance as we know it today. Imagine the reaction in 1928 when
Duesenberg announced an all-new 265 horsepower enginethis, at a time when other
prestige manufacturers were struggling to exceed 120. Then imagine the reaction in 1932
when the engine was supercharged to the tune of 320 horsepower and could cruise at 120
MPH! Duesenbergs 420-inch straight-eight was thoroughly modern in its construction:
chain-driven dual overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder, a centrifugal supercharger
and oil life monitoring on the dashboard. Its no secret why these were the preferred
cars of movie stars then and collectors today.
- Ford V-8 (1932-1953). The Ford V-8 was a simple flathead
design that was almost archaic in its execution. But its importance isnt so much in
its technological specifications (though there are many unique features), but in its
longevity, durability and presence on the market. For sure, Henrys absolute
insistence that the exhaust be routed to the outside of the V, that the distributor be
driven by the camshaft and that the water pumps be located in the cylinder heads made it
needlessly complex. But the simple truth is that Ford employed brilliant engineers, and
they not only met Henrys specifications, but they made the engine reliable, as well.
What hot-rodder hasnt dreamed of a hot flathead Ford in their Deuce Coupe? How many
people over the age of 50 have their earliest memories of cars entwined with the Ford V-8?
And todays still thriving aftermarket for Flathead speed parts is testament to the
engines place on this list. For some, theres just nothing like a Flathead.
- Packard Super Eight (1928-1942). Bet you thought Id list
the V-12 here, didnt you? Nope, the straight-8 was Packards real gem. Torquey,
smooth, durable and quiet, the Super Eight is truly the engine that made Classic Packards
what they are today. Packards engineering was nothing remarkablethe Super
Eight is a flat-head engine with simple carburetion (updraft carbs early, downdraft carbs
in the mid- to late-30s). But Packards precision is absolutely a remarkable thing.
By using high-quality alloys and machining them to standards that many considered
unnecessary, Packard made exceptional motors. Even with their modest specifications (385
cubic inches, 5.5:1 compression, 125-160 horsepower), these mammoth engines could propel
equally mammoth cars with the most creamy-smooth thrust this side of a locomotive. The
long-stroke engines mountainous torque made them impressively easy to drive. There
are tales of salesmen telling their customers to Just put it in high [gear] and
leave it alone. So big was the torque, even the heaviest bodies could launch from a
dead stop in high gear. Few other makes could match that kind of pulling power, then or
- Chevrolet Stove-Bolt Six. This is one tough little engine.
When Ford was building 4-cylinder Model As, GM put a thoroughly modern overhead-valve six
in their value-priced Chevrolets. Even after the arrival of the Ford V8, many loyalists
stuck with their little Chevy sixes for performance and reliability. Before the advent of
the small-block Chevy in 1955, the Stove-Bolt (and its bigger brother, the GMC) was a
genuine alternative for the performance-minded enthusiast. Stove-Bolts set hundreds of
land-speed records, ran head-to-head with the Flatheads in early drag racing in southern
California. With the right combinations of speed parts, the little motor could be pumped
up to a whopping 302 cubic inches and nearly 300 horsepower. Those are some impressive
numbers for a basic transportation appliance with humble beginnings.
- Franklin Airman Six (1925-1934). It was the favorite make of
Charles Lindburgh and Amelia Earhart. Cannonball Baker (yes, that Cannonball) used
one to beat a locomotive in a cross-country race. The brainchild of John Wilkinson,
Franklins VP, the Airman Six was directly air-cooled, and did not require a radiator
or other liquid cooling system components. Franklin often engaged in publicity stunts
designed to prove the value of air cooling: having a car locked in second gear and driving
across Death Valley in the heat of the summer, as well as driving coast-to-coast
backwards, a feat that would have boiled the radiators of virtually every water-cooled car
of the period. Hidden behind a traditional-looking faux radiator, the Airman Six
was every bit the luxury motor that the Franklins price tag suggested. Smooth,
powerful and reliable, the six could compete on equal footing with much bigger and heavier
motors, and featured modern engineering and aluminum construction. Still, Franklin was
never able to persuade the buying public that air-cooling was truly effective, even after
building a short run of air-cooled V-12s just before the companys demise in 1934.
Today, however, Franklins with the Airman Six are highly valued collectibles with almost
rabidly enthusiastic owners.
- Buick Fireball Eight (1937-1952). Dont cry foul
on this onethe big Buick deserves its place on this list, despite my apparent bias.
How could you not include a motor that was the most powerful engine in America from 1941
until 1953? The 320 cubic inch Buick Fireball (later DynaFlash when equipped with a
DynaFlow automatic transmission) Eight was the mainstay of the senior series Buicks
between 1937 and 1952, superceded only by Buicks first V-8 in 1953. It went from 120
horsepower in 1937 to 165 by 1941, a 37.5% increase in only 4 years! In addition, the 320
was as modern as any OHV motor youll buy today, with stainless steel valves, dual
valve springs, shaft-mounted adjustable rocker arms, Turbolator pistons to
improve fuel atomization and charge swirl, and a dual carburetor setup that was the
precursor of the modern 4-barrel. Few other engines of the period could match the Buick
straight-eights acceleration, top speed, durability and smoothness. At a time when
engines were routinely overhauled at 40,000 miles, the big Buick often lasted three times
that long before requiring major service.
- Willys-Knight Sleeve-Valve Six
(1925-1933). In 1903, Charles Knight invented the sleeve-valve engine based on
recollections of repairing his father's steam-driven sawmill. But it wasn't until he met
up with J.N. Willys in 1914 that the Knight sleeve-valve engine really became a viable
alternative for the automobile. By eliminating poppet valves (like those in use today),
Knight's sleeve-valve engine was able to run almost silently, have a perfectly
hemispherical combustion chamber with a centrally-located sparkplug, and had less than
half the servicing requirements of other engines. By the mid-20s, the Willys-Knight
six-cylinder engine had been fully developed, and had a reputation as the "Silent
Knight." There were no valvetrain parts to service, and the hemispherical combustion
chamber gave the smallish six the power of a larger engine. Best of all, unlike poppet
valve engines, carbon deposits in the cylinders tended to improve valve sealing,
increasing horsepower and efficiency. Unfortunately, the Achilles' Heel of the
sleeve-valve design was its production cost, some three times as much as a regular engine.
This, combined with the Great Depression and increasingly durable and quiet poppet valves
spelled the end for Willys-Knight and the sleeve-valve engine.
- Cadillac OHV V-8 (1949-1956): Many historians credit
this engine (and its sister, the Oldsmobile Rocket V-8) as the official start of the
internal combustion engine's Modern Era. The 1949 Cadillac V-8 was officially the first
high-compression (7.5:1) V-8 in an American passenger car. It also set the mold for almost
every pushrod V-8 General Motors has built since, and was essentially the blueprint for
the most successful V-8 in history: the small-block Chevrolet. In its first year, the
Cadillac made 160 horsepower, was 200 pounds lighter than the engine it replaced, got
better fuel mileage and delivered sparkling (for the time) performance in the relatively
heavy Cadillacs. Eventually, the 331 cubic inch engine packed 285 horsepower (a 78%
improvement over 1949!) using 10:1 compression and dual four-barrel carburetors in the
1956 Eldorado, making it the most powerful engine in America.
See you next month.
E-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org
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