The Most Significant Engines of the 20th Century

Most Significant Engines

The evolution of automobile engines from the early 1900s to today has been continuous and remarkable.  The following honor roll celebrates some of the milestone engines that defined state-of-the-art design in their day. It’s amazing how far we have come.

1909 Model T Inline-4:

After many earlier designs, Henry Ford had a hit with his 1909 Model T. Its 20-hp 2.9L 4-cyl. engine was engineered for low-cost manufacturing and shade-tree servicing. Unlike most earlier engines, the T’s engine combined four cylinders and the upper half of its crankcase in one casting.  It was a trend setting design. In 1909, Ford produced 10,666 model Ts. By 1924 he was making more than 2 million per year.

1915 Cadillac V-8:

1915 Cadillac V-8

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Cadillac didn’t invent the V-8 engine but according to Patrick Cadillac of Schaumburg, a local Cadillac dealer in Schaumburg, IL, it was the first company to put it into production. The original 1915 “L-head” design yielded 70 hp from 5.1L. The addition of a counterweighted multi-plane crankshaft yielded an unusually even firing engine that further enhanced Cadillac’s reputation for smooth, quiet running.

1932 Ford V-8:

1932 Ford V-8

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Just as the Great Depression was engulfing the country, Henry Ford rocked the motoring world with the industry’s first affordable V-8. Previous to 1932, all Ford engines were inline-4 designs. This engine was a flat head design and developed 65-hp from its 3.6L design. Not only was the V-8 a first for Ford, it also incorporated notable engineering advances such as a forged-steel crankshaft, aluminum pistons, replaceable bearings and a single-piece cylinder block. This engine became the first choice of every hot rodder from coast to coast for over two decades.

1945 Volkswagen Opposed 4-cyl:

Envious of America’s automobile-driven mobility, Adolf Hitler commissioned the renowned Ferdinand Porsche to engineer a “people’s car,” or Volkswagen. Challenged by the need for a small, simple engine Porsche designed an air-cooled, horizontally opposed 4-cyl. yielding 24-hp. Because of its flat design, he positioned it at the rear of the VWs so to optimize room in the cabin. The engine was one of the first to use a magnesium crankcase and aluminum cylinder heads which yielded one of the lightest car engines ever made.

1955 Chevrolet V-8:

1955 Chevrolet V-8

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Even though Ford had been making them for several years, in 1955 General Motors introduced one of the most efficient and durable V-8 designs to ever power an automobile. It was designed with a small bore-to-stroke ratio and thin-wall block casting to save weight. An inexpensive yet durable overhead valvetrain was used with stamped rocker arms pivoting on ball-shaped pedestals. The 1955 Chevy V-8 offered 162 hp from 4.3L. It was the basis for General Motor V8s for over 50 years.

1978 Buick V-6:

Most of the car manufacturers experimented with V-6 engines but unequal firing intervals were extremely difficult to smooth out.  Undeterred by previous V-6 prototype failures, General Motors continuously tweeked the concept and in 1978 they put a split-throw, even-firing V-6 into production. It was a big hit and the V-6 continues to be the engine of choice for many GM vehicles today.

1975 Honda CVCC:

1975 Honda CVCC

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In the early 1970s, the auto industry, scrambling to meet Federal emission standards, developed the catalytic convertor. This device was placed in-line in the exhaust pipe and was designed to further burn residual hydrocarbons in the engine exhaust. The problem with catalytic convertors is that they were expensive to manufacture and they compromised engine performance due to exhaust back-pressure. Honda had a better idea. They developed the ingenious “Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion” (CVCC) 4-cyl engine. Instead of a catalytic convertor, the CVCC engines used a three-valve combustion chamber and variable valve timing to bring emissions below Federal standards. No catalytic convertors needed.