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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. Enjoy.

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Additional Spinning My Tires editorials can be found on the Archives page.


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 Franklins—the air-cooled luxury cars of the 20s and early 30s that featured wooden frames in addition to the air-cooling. He couldn’t 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 father’s 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 month’s 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 don’t 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 engine—this, 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! Duesenberg’s 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. It’s 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 isn’t so much in its technological specifications (though there are many unique features), but in its longevity, durability and presence on the market. For sure, Henry’s 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 Henry’s specifications, but they made the engine reliable, as well. What hot-rodder hasn’t 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 today’s still thriving aftermarket for Flathead speed parts is testament to the engine’s place on this list. For some, there’s just nothing like a Flathead.
  • Packard Super Eight (1928-1942). Bet you thought I’d list the V-12 here, didn’t you? Nope, the straight-8 was Packard’s real gem. Torquey, smooth, durable and quiet, the Super Eight is truly the engine that made Classic Packards what they are today. Packard’s engineering was nothing remarkable—the Super Eight is a flat-head engine with simple carburetion (updraft carbs early, downdraft carbs in the mid- to late-30s). But Packard’s 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 engine’s 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 now.
  • 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, Franklin’s 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 Franklin’s 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 company’s demise in 1934. Today, however, Franklins with the Airman Six are highly valued collectibles with almost rabidly enthusiastic owners.
  • Buick Fireball Eight (1937-1952). Don’t cry foul on this one—the 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 Buick’s 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 you’ll 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-eight’s 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.

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Last modified on 02/06/2005

Thanks, Fidget!