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Around the turn of the 20th century, when automobiles were in their infancy, engineers were still figuring out the best method to get one to move. Some early attempts used steam, while others relied on electromagnetism to turn the wheels. Ultimately, gasoline-powered cars would win out in the 1910s (while electric cars mysteriously disappeared for about a century), and what we know as the modern car was born.
In this article, we will focus on early automobile engines that were fueled by gas, also known as internal combustion engines. These are engines that we no longer see because they were too unreliable, inefficient, or just poorly designed. These extinct engines probably won’t be used again because there are better alternatives.
Most of these extinct engines were passion projects, used by a single, determined manufacturer on a small set of vehicles. These groups stuck with their unusual engine out of plain obstinance, or because they were convinced there was one great benefit that excused all of its flaws.
First: 1919 Isotta Fraschini Tipo 8
Last: 1954 Packard Pacific
Cars: Alfa Romeo 8C 2900, Bugatti Type 57SC, American luxury cars of the 1920s-1950s
By the 1920‘s, cars had evolved from primitive, open-topped, ‘horseless carriages’ and were looking more and more like modern cars we see today. Ford was producing over one million Model T’s a year and selling them for under $400 ($5000 in today’s money). Cars were no longer a luxury attainable only for the rich and were quickly becoming a widely available necessity for American life.
But what were you supposed to do if you wanted a car and needed to show off that you weren’t affected by the Great Depression?
Introducing luxury cars!
Car manufacturers started to provide upscale, more expensive models for the rich. Following the philosophy “bigger is always better,” early luxury manufacturers began making their cars longer and heavier. To move these behemoths, they needed to use monstrous engines; like Pierce-Arrow’s 13.5L inline-six and Cadillac with their 7.4L V16.
Early luxury cars were unreasonably big. I mean, look at this thing.
Other than giving the driver the satisfaction of knowing they were better than everyone else, luxury cars required smooth power delivery. A big engine was key, but adding more cylinders eventually reaches a point of diminishing returns. Eight cylinders quickly became the standard, especially in America. Companies were split on whether they offered their eight-cylinder engines in the V-configuration (with four cylinders on each side of the block) or packaged all eight cylinders in a straight line. Cadillac, Ford, and Lincoln offered V-8s while Buick, Packard, and Chrysler used inline-eights. The inline eight-cylinder engines were termed “Straight-Eights”.
Early straight-eight’s ran more smoothly than their V8 counterparts, which made them the preferred choice for luxury vehicles of the time, but as technology became better and the customer demand for 20-foot-long vehicles waned, the straight-eight started to lose favor.
One flaw of the straight-eight was the engine’s length. As cars became “smaller” and the engine-bay became tighter, the straight-eight couldn’t fit in any reasonably sized vehicle. However, the biggest flaw, and the one that actually killed the straight-eight for good, was something called “crankshaft whip”. Due to the extreme length of a straight-eight’s crankshaft, at high engine rpm, torsional vibration could lead to physical contact between the connecting rods and the crankcase walls, which will ultimately destroy the engine. In the early years, engine speeds were low, but during WWII, developments in aviation technology resulted in a surplus of inexpensive high-octane fuel after the war. Engines could now be designed with higher compression ratios to take advantage of the high-octane gas. The high compression ratios lead to high stressed engines, which brought the flaws of a long crank shaft to light. This is eventually what killed the straight-eight, since the shorter crankshaft on a V8 does not have these issues.
The last straight-eight rolled off the line in 1954 in the Packard Pacific. By the end of the 1970s, overhead-valve V8s powered 80% of automobiles built in the US.
First: 1922 Lancia Lambda
Last: 1980 Saab 96
Cars: Saab 96, Lancia Fulvia, Saab Sonett, many other Lancia models
To be honest, I added this one on account of a personal pet peeve. The V4 is often confused with the inline-4. The inline-4, like the straight-eight, has all of its cylinders arranged inline in one-cylinder bank and is one of the most popular engines in the world. If your car has a four-cylinder engine, it’s an inline-four.
Often times, people think their car has a V4, but they’re mistaken.
Like the more popular V6 and V8, the V4 has an even number of cylinders on each bank in the shape of a “V”- two on each side in this case.
If four-cylinder engines are so popular, why don’t we see V4s made today?
One of the benefits of a V4 is that it saves space. A V4 is shorter and only slightly wider than a standard inline-four, but it doesn’t really save enough space to be worth the extra cost of materials. Since the V4 has two-cylinder banks, opposed to one in an inline-four, it needs twice the number of top-end engine components. A flat-4 (think of a V4 with 180º between cylinder banks) also has added cost compared to an inline four but makes up for it by providing a much lower center of gravity.
Lancia fixed some of the extra cost issues by using a narrow angle V4 with only 13º between cylinder banks, allowing all four cylinders to share one head. However, narrow angle V4’s can run rough at low RPMs. At the end of the day, there is no need for a complex V4 engine when an inline-four can do the job much better at lower cost and higher refinement.
The V4 was extremely rare and only used by a few manufacturers in the 1960s and 1970s. AMC, Saab, Lancia, the European branch of Ford, and the Soviet-era ZAZ were the only companies to manufacture such an engine. Lancia and Saab were main champions of the V4, but the V4 finally died on the 1976 Lancia Fulvia and 1980 Saab 96.
First: 1964 NSU Spider
Last: 2012 Mazda RX-8
Cars: Only Mazda mass-produced a Wankel rotary. Mazda RX-3, RX-7, Cosmo 110s
The Wankel rotary engine is weird and very rare.
Unless you drive only a few models of Mazdas, the engine in your car is a type of reciprocating piston engine, meaning the pistons are rapidly moving up and down while running. Attached to the pistons are many other moving parts perfectly timed together.
A Wankel rotary, on the other hand, is comprised of a triangle-shaped rotor that moves around an oval-like epitrochoid-shaped housing. The four-stage combustion cycle occurs three times per full rotation.
A Wankel has far fewer moving parts and they all move in one direction. No reciprocating parts means much smoother operation to higher RPMs and almost no vibration. Also, Wankels have a much higher power-to-weight ratio than a standard engine and are much smaller - about 33% the size of a piston engine with equivalent power output.
Why didn’t the Wankel rotary last?
Well, the Wankel had some serious drawbacks. It was very difficult to properly seal the rotor chambers, which caused high oil consumption. Also, it had very poor emissions compared to a standard engine of similar power.
Mazda was the only major champion of the rotary engine. They first used the Wankel on the 1967 Cosmo 110S, but eventually stopped selling a Wankel in 2012 once environmental regulations surpassed the engine’s efficiency.
However, Mazda hasn’t given up on its quirky engine just yet. Because of its compact size and reliability at sustained high RPMs, the Wankel rotary is perfect as a range extending generator in an electric vehicle. There’s a rumor that Mazda is bringing the Wankel back in 2020 for just this purpose. They’ve also been teasing a next generation rotary engine in their Mazda RX-9… if they ever make it.