Engines as God intended them

My new Road & Track magazine included Jack Baruth‘s paean to the best non-nuclear power source man ever invented, which requires multimedia additions:

It starts with the sound. You can’t mistake a V8 at wide-open throttle for anything else, and once that sound gets into you, nothing else will satisfy. The internal-combustion engine offers a veritable symphony of exhaust notes, from the boxer blat of a flat-six to what is often called the “ripping canvas” sound of a V12, but the bent-eight is the violin of the orchestra, the concertmaster’s choice. It is simultaneously exotic and democratic, appearing in quarter-million-dollar supercars and everyday work trucks. You hear its song in the Lotus 49 and the Ford Crown Victoria. The V8 logo has proudly adorned the fenders of Ford Mustangs and AMG-powered Mercedes-Benzes. It is the archetypal American performance engine, but it was also the logical choice for the first Lexus LS 400. Some people say it is the only engine that matters. …

Henry Ford didn’t invent the V8, but he made it available and accessible. In 1932, Ford put a “flathead” V8 in his Model 18 after a short, troubled, and somewhat incomplete design and development process. The flathead design, which placed the exhaust and intake valves in the block next to the cylinder instead of above it, was already old tech at the time. At 65 hp, the flathead’s output was more than 50 percent higher than the four-cylinder in the Model A but wasn’t significantly more powerful than Chevrolet’s inline-six.

Ford’s advantage was curb weight. The Model 18 was a couple hundred pounds lighter than the competition, making it perhaps the first American muscle car. The price was right, too: $460 for the roadster. The flathead wasn’t without teething problems in early production, but nobody seemed to care. Production barely kept up with demand. And just like that, the V8 established itself—in the United States, anyway.

Strictly speaking, the notion of connecting two inline-four engines to make an eight-cylinder wasn’t even an American idea; French engineer Léon Levavasseur filed the first patent for a V8 in 1902, and in 1905, Henry Royce designed one for the Legalimit, a model so named because its engine—powerful enough to go 26 mph—was governed not to exceed the 20-mph British restriction of the time. As with pizza and swiss cheese, however, the new world lost little time in adopting the idea for its own purposes. In 1914, Cadillac became the first automaker to put the V8 into volume production, capturing the imagination of the American public and setting the stage for Ford to democratize the concept 18 short years later. …

American V8s sound different from European V8s …

After the war, a new generation of overhead-valve V8s appeared from the likes of Oldsmobile, Buick, Studebaker, and Cadillac, but those marques all carried a significant price premium. Chevrolet, Ford’s most frequent antagonist for the annual-sales crown, didn’t offer a modern V8 until 1955. To put it mildly, it was worth the wait.

Ed Cole, Chevrolet’s newly promoted chief engineer on the project, had ambitious goals for what came to be known as the “Mighty Mouse” engine. His personal motto was “Kick the hell out of the status quo,” and the Chevrolet small-block did just that. It weighed less than the Blue Flame inline-six that preceded it but made considerably more power. Just as important, it was designed to be capable of growing from its original displacement of 265 cubic inches (4.3 liters) all the way to 428 cubic inches (7.0 liters) in the 2000s. It was an overhead-valve design, with two valves per cylinder operated by a single cam nestled in the vee of its cast-iron block, and it benefited from every innovation, and every lesson, that General Motors had learned during the design and production of its upscale siblings.

Cole’s small-block V8 should be considered one of mankind’s greatest inventions in any area given that the basic design — with aluminum replacing iron, fuel injection replacing carburetors, computer controls and pollution-reduction equipment — is still being used today, even in non-GM cars. (For instance, a ’30s Ford I saw at a car show last weekend.)

Ford had actually beaten Chevrolet to market with its Y-block overhead-valve V8, but it was quickly apparent that it couldn’t cut the mustard against Cole’s brilliant effort. The Y-block’s replacement, the 1961 Windsor V8, made a much better case for itself, particularly in the new Mustang that appeared three years later. In the decades to come, the small-block Ford V8 would become synonymous with the Mustang brand, from the original Shelby GT350 to the Boss 302 all the way to the infamous “five-point-oh” Mustangs of the Eighties and Nineties.

By 1963, every major American manufacturer had at least one modern V8 design, with some fielding both a small-block for general-purpose use and a big-block for full-size cars and trucks. Most of these engines, like the small-block Chevrolet, were designed with considerable room between the cylinder bores to accommodate increases in displacement. When John Z. DeLorean found a way to circumvent an internal GM policy limiting cars to 10 pounds per cubic inch, the result was the 389-cubic-inch 1964 Pontiac GTO and the beginning of the muscle-car era. …

Perhaps the most interesting overseas V8, however, was one with American origins. In 1960, Buick released a small, light, all-aluminum V8 engine for use in compact and mid-size cars. It wasn’t a big hit, so the company decided to cancel the program. A few enterprising fellows at U.K. automaker Rover convinced GM to sell them the tooling. In 1967, the Rover V8 made its debut in the P5B luxury sedan; three years later, it was used as the power unit in a brand-new off-road vehicle called, simply, Range Rover. The Rover V8 became the engine of choice for a variety of English small-batch sports-car manufacturers, including Morgan, TVR, and even MG, in its MGB GT V8 coupe from 1973 to 1976.

The V8, then, is a global superstar. But what makes it so good, so desirable, so widely adopted for both street and competition cars? There are several answers to that question. The first is that the V8, in its traditional overhead-valve, 90-degree bank-angle form, tends to be light, compact, simple, and smooth. It’s light because the block is considerably smaller than the block of an equivalent inline engine. It’s compact because it is the same length as an inline-four of half the displacement, without being twice as wide. It’s simple because it has a single short camshaft to serve eight cylinders and 16 valves. And it’s smooth because most V8s have a 90-degree crankshaft that balances the firing order, reduces vibration, and spaces out the power pulses.

The 90-degree crankshaft also gives the V8 the unique burble that has threaded its way into the popular consciousness over the past 80 years. It’s the stock soundtrack for every action movie and television show, so much so that Back to the Future used a Porsche 928’s engine noise instead of the actual sound of the DeLorean’s V6. But the V8’s cultural impact goes deeper than an exhaust note. The Beach Boys’ “little deuce coupe with a flathead mill” was “stroked and bored,” and their “409” was, of course, the big-block Chevy engine. Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene” is about a race between two V8s—an early Coupe de Ville and a V8 Ford, most likely a flathead since it appears to have that design’s tendency to overheat at high speed.

Nor can you even begin to consider the automobile’s relationship to the silver screen without seeing the outsize star power of the bent-eight. The list includes everything from Mad Max to Vanishing Point to The Blues Brothers. The Bandit’s Trans Am? V8, of course—but you might not know that the Firebirds used in The Rockford Files also had the Pontiac 400 under the hood. Starsky and Hutch had a V8; so did Bo and Luke Duke. Two-Lane Blacktop is the story of a battle between a big-block Chevy-powered ’55 and a 455 Pontiac GTO. Last but not least, there’s that Mustang GT 390 driven by Frank Bullitt, evading a 440 R/T Charger on the hills of San Francisco. It’s about as basic as a Mustang can get, except for the motor—but did you think that Steve McQueen would have been caught dead driving the Thriftpower inline-six that came standard?

As for “Bullitt,” this is what his Mustang actually sounded like …

… and this is when the 390 V-8 was magically replaced by the V-8 from the Ford GT-40 at Le Mans, along with a more-than-four-speed transmission  …

… in the greatest movie car chase scene of all time.

When the fuel crisis of the Seventies hit, the V8 acquired a new name and a new reputation: gas-guzzler. It didn’t help that newly mandated emissions equipment and the unleaded fuel required by the catalytic converter stole a lot of its power and prestige. But even in the darkest days of the energy crisis, when the speed limit was a dismal double-nickel and Jimmy Carter was on television telling us to turn our thermostats down to an equally depressing 55 degrees at night, the romance of the V8 continued. Mad Max drove a V8 Interceptor in 1979’s idea of the future, while the 1982 Corvette still had a 350 small-block. All the V8 needed was some good news on fuel price and maybe a bit of technology to help it reach the next millennium.

Both were forthcoming, leading to a veritable supernova of new V8 designs and new homes for those designs. Lexus, Infiniti, BMW, Audi, Mercedes, Cadillac, and Lincoln all introduced new 32-valve, overhead-cam V8s. Ford modernized its V8 with the Modular overhead-cam engine, while Chevrolet reengineered the traditional small-block into the LS series. You could get a V8 in everything from the Yamaha-engined, third-gen Ford Taurus SHO to the outrageous BMW Z8. The horsepower wars returned in earnest, and the V8 led the charge. …

The good news is, there are still plenty of brilliant V8s on the market. On the exotic side, there’s the Ferrari 488 GTB and every new McLaren supercar. Affordable V8 choices exist in the form of both pickup trucks and pony cars from Ford, GM, and Chrysler.

Somewhere in the middle, you have the stunning 8250-rpm flat-crank 5.2-liter mill in the Shelby GT350 Mustang; the Corvette Stingray’s stout-hearted, naturally aspirated LT1; and the almighty supercharged 707-horse Hemi from the Dodge Charger and Challenger SRT Hellcats. The latter engine is a testament to what can happen when modern technology is applied to a traditional formula. From its iron block to the single camshaft nestled in the bank between its cylinders, very little about the Hellcat’s basic design would shock the men who designed the 135-hp Oldsmobile Rocket V8 for the 1949 model year, but every aspect of that design has been painstakingly massaged and computer-engineered to a space-age level. …

So although the future might be filled with snail-stuffed small-displacement engines thrashing tunelessly through a CVT or assisted by an electric motor, you can consider us unconvinced. A boosted V6 or inline-four might turn impressive numbers on the dyno or the drag strip, but the bent-eight remains the gold standard of internal-combustion engines. It sounds right. It feels right. And it looks stunning beneath the lifted hood of a Mustang or the glass engine cover of a Ferrari. We’ll continue to cheer, and choose, the V8 as long as we can. Even after the last small-block Chevy or flathead Ford or flat-crank Shelby GT350 is silenced forever. As long as that sound exists, even in our memories, the V8 will continue to be the only engine that matters.


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