One of the most surprising paradoxes in the automotive industry is that our cars become more monotonous as technology develops. Today, many car engines are almost similar in design. Yes, there are several car engine layouts to choose from, but they have a method to their madness. Before automakers got tied down with stricter emission and safety standards, they had the freedom to experiment and challenge the tried-and-tested engineering maxims that existed.
Over the years, these experiments have seen car-makers deliver incredible units like the Boxer, W12, V12, V10, V8, V6, not to mention the straight-six engine and the inline four-cylinder. Nonetheless, the industry is also not devoid of some truly disappointing car engines, not to mention the insane Frankenstein engines on the extreme ends of the innovation spectrum. Although these oddball machines ventured out of the box, they set the ball rolling and inspired modern automakers to innovate and dare produce some of the greatest car engines we currently have in production.
The Eisenhuth Compound
John W. Eisenhuth was an ambitious engine builder and founder of the Eisenhuth Horseless Vehicle Company. As automobile popularity began to rise in the early 1900s, Eisenhuth moved to the Greater New York area and made the acquaintance of D.F. Graham, inventor of the then Graham-Fox compound engine. The intriguing compound engine operated an inner 12-inch cylinder from the force generated by exhaust gases from its two explosive 7.5-inch bore outer cylinders.
After production of the Compound car began in 1905, it performed well in the New York Club’s National Economy Test, thanks to its noise reduction and power-saving capabilities. In their publications, professors from Stevens Institute and MIT performed independent studies on the engine’s horsepower and fuel efficiency, lauding its advantages and technology. However, the Compound engine only existed from 1904 to 1908; the Compound car was the most expensive automobile, and John Eisenhuth’s grand theft and blackmail controversies crippled the company.
The Adams-Farwell Rotary Engine
The Adams-Farwell unit is an insane air-cooled, piston-driven, rotary engine. Defined by the slogan ‘It spins like a top,’ the engine features radially arranged cylinders and operates without a radiator or a flywheel. The radial engine is horizontally mounted, designed to rotate like flywheels upon a vertical frame-mounted crankshaft. Two discs sandwich the engine cylinders; the upper disc incorporates the intake pipe, while the bottom disc functions as the mount for the car’s beveled gear.
The 50hp rated Adams-Farwell engine fires every other rotation, similar to a traditional four-stroke unit. The engine’s rotation is essential in cooling the cylinder cast fins, with each of the five cylinders housing an exhaust pipe mounted to the side. Although the engine’s simple design makes it relatively small, light, and easy to work on, the centrifugal force in the crankcase makes it challenging to lubricate or drain oil from the motor units.
The Lanchester Twin-Crank
The Lanchester Twin-Crank engine was an ingenious accomplishment made by the Lanchester Motor Company Limited, a car company owned by Frederick, George, and Frank Lanchester. The genius Lanchester, Frederick, designed the air-cooled, twin-crankshaft, 4.0-liter flat-twin engine that remained a trademark of most Lanchester cars. The engine featured two crankshafts, one mounted above the other and carrying plates that united the engine’s horizontally opposed cylinders.
Each piston had three connecting rods coupled to the crankpins; one heavy in the center and two light externals. The engine was perfectly balanced since two power strokes occurred in one revolution and none the next, creating a torque effect similar to a cross between a single and regular two-cylinder engine. The engine’s most outstanding achievement was the astonishing lack of vibration, a symbol of engineering elegance that remains memorable over 120 years later.
The Knight Sleeve Valve Engine
When Charles Yale Knight discovered that the more common poppet valve engine constructions were too complex and inefficient, he developed and patented an engine with sleeve valves in 1908. The design featured two cast-iron or bronze sleeves in each cylinder; one sleeve slid inside the other, with the piston inside the engine’s inner sleeve.
Although the precision grinding required for every sleeve surface made construction expensive, the sleeve valve engine had low noise, increased volumetric efficiency, and offered no risk of valve float. Derivatives of Knight’s engine appeared in Panhard, Peugeot, and Mercedes-Benz. Unfortunately, the engine fell out of favor in the 1930s due to its high oil consumption and further perfection of the poppet valves.
The Panhard Flat Twin Engine
The Panhard Company was among the first car manufacturers globally and the first company to employ a steering wheel. Considering the company experimented with numerous motor vehicle ideas, it’s no surprise that they developed one of the most curious engines ever made. The two-cylinder Panhard flat engine featured two horizontal cylinders located on opposite sides of the crankshaft.
The Panhard flat-twin was among the first iterations of the current boxer engine. However, the French engineers added unique ideas such as hollow aluminum pushrods, roller-bearing cranks, and exhaust pipes that doubled as engine mounts. The Panhard engine variants boasted displacements from 610cc to 850cc, delivering outputs between 42hp and 60hp. The Panhard boxer twin stands out as arguably one of the weirdest engines to ever clinch a win at the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire
By the early 1960s, Oldsmobile, like other muscle car companies, faced the challenge of smaller, lighter, and more efficient European vehicles. Since the company was adamant about the V8, Oldsmobile collaborated with Garrett Corporation to make a T5 turbocharger for a special version of the F85 Cutlass.
The Jetfire’s engine, dubbed the ‘Turbo-Rocket,’ was a revelation in performance ahead of its time. The 215hp engine relied on a blend of methanol alcohol and distilled water to cool the intake air stream directed to the turbo. Unfortunately, the idea was short-lived since the injection system proved erratic, and filling up the rocket fluid tank was too much of a hassle.
The Cizeta V16T Engine
The Cizeta V16T is an ultra-rare vehicle with presumably 20 units built between 1991 and 1995, but its fascinating V-16 engine is rarer. Well, the engine is not exactly a V-16 since the Cizeta’s 6-liter unit is actually two V8s connected into one unit with a common intake manifold.
This Oliviero Pedrazzi engineered unit features 64 valves, two fuel-injection systems, eight camshafts, twin timing chains, and four-cylinder heads. Due to the transversely mounted configuration, the central shaft in this 560hp engine feeds power to the car’s rear-mounted five-speed ZF transaxle.
The Chrysler Turbine
After the Bureau of Aeronautics of the US Navy terminated a contract with Chrysler for a turboprop aircraft in the 1940s, the company engineers took the opportunity to develop and test an automotive gas turbine engine. A few years later, Chrysler built the first car on the planet powered by a gas turbine engine, a 1954 Plymouth sport coupe. However, it wasn’t until 1963 that Chrysler made the first consumer delivery of a 130hp Turbine car.
Forty-five units were sent into service as loaners to a few selected customers between 1963 and 1966. But as luck would have it, turbine optimism went limp when the energy crunch hit, and they never made it into production. Understandably, the crisis spooked many buyers into opting for imports with better fuel economy. Still, high production costs, underwhelming performance, and strict emission standards were reasonable grounds to put down these guzzlers.
The Wankel Rotary Engine
It must have been highly unusual when Felix Wankel first presented the Wankel Rotary engine design to the German NSU in the 1960s. At the time, no one could have imagined that an engine without a reciprocating piston would evolve into one of the most famous engines in history. The Wankel design distinctively features a triangular-shaped rotor with convex faces and three apexes. As it spins within its oval housing, the rotor creates three chambers that facilitate intake, compression, power, and exhaust.
Mazda is closely tied to the Wankel rotary design, acquiring the technology in 1961 and installing it in its capable sports car lineup. Despite its compact proportions, the Wankel packed a mean punch, required few moving parts, and was incredibly balanced. However, according to CarThrottle, the love that everyone had for the rotary engine was not enough to keep it alive. The engine wear, emissions, and fuel consumption were too severe to keep up with the strict fuel economy and emission standards.
The Bugatti W-16
The complicated maze of technology in the W-16 engine might be overwhelming for anyone who isn’t familiar with how the packaging works. Bugatti’s 1,000-plus-hp, 8.0-liter, W-16 is a complex and powerful production engine consisting of narrow-angle Volkswagen VR engines.
Bugatti was ambitious to build the fastest car known to man. However, to achieve the Veyron’s tremendous power, the company had to fit 16 bores into a compact package; all 16 cylinders had to be staggered to ensure they didn’t sit on the same centerline. The W-16 is a once-in-a-lifetime engineering masterclass that employs 64 valves, ten different radiators, and four turbochargers.
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