The 10 greatest engines of all time
The most powerful production engine resides in a Bugatti Chiron. The most fuel-efficient engine takes residence in a Volkswagen XL1. But both of the vehicles these engines are mounted to are so expensive and exclusive that their impact will never really reach us. We rounded up what we believed were the best engines – not necessarily the most powerful or advanced, but engines that made an impact on the automotive landscape. Some on this list were made for 70 years, and some were produced for less than a decade.
The Volkswagen air-cooled flat-four
Unless you’re under the age of 10, you can remember the distinct clatter of an air-cooled VW rattling along. During its daunting seventy-year production run between 1936 and 2006, VW made somewhere between 20 and 30 million of these little engines. The cars they powered sparked a small-car revolution in North America. The Volkswagen Beetle was the car that brought compacts into the mainstream buyer’s mind. Ingeniously simple, these compact and lightweight engines can be fixed with basic hand tools, and parts are available around the world.
Jaguar XK straight six
This is the engine that made Jaguar. Before the introduction of the world-beating XK 6 engine, the British marque was a middling also-ran. The generously sized engine was the brainchild of Sir William Lyons and William Heynes, who came up with the idea for the engine while sitting on a roof as part of a fire watch while German bombs fell on Coventry.
The engine propelled Jaguar to no less than five Le Mans victories between 1951 and 1957. It also powered Jaguar’s most famous sports car of all, the flowing E-Type. Considering the engine had its roots in WWII, it’s amazing that it stayed in production for 43 years, until 1992.
Chevrolet small-block V8
The small-block Chevrolet is the definitive American V8. Everyone knows someone who owns one. Maybe you own one yourself; I own two. That’s because since it was introduced in 1955, GM and its subsidiaries have made over 100 million small-block V8 engines. Let that number sink in for a second – one hundred million. The pushrod V8 was easy to work on, and easy to modify for more power. Modern drag racers have been able to squeeze more than 2,000 horsepower from GM’s design. The small-block Chevy has powered Le Mans class-winning race cars, bread vans, compacts, sedans, pickup trucks and everything in between. The small-block was eventually superseded by the LS V8, but enthusiast demand for the engine remained and you can still buy a brand-new small-block crate-motor from GM today. Is the small-block immortal? It might be.
Ford flathead V8
The Ford Model T revolutionized the way we drove, and the Ford flathead V8 changed how quickly we got there. The Ford “flatty” was not the first V8 or even the first mass-produced V8. But it was the first V8 that was easily affordable to the masses. Suddenly, the average family could afford a car that could go 60 mph! Model Ts couldn’t do much more than 40.
The Ford flathead is so named because the valves are seated in the block and the head is a perfectly flat “lid” that simply bolts onto the deck. The flathead configuration gives up a lot in terms of valve efficiency but makes up for it in its lack of complexity and cost. Introduced in 1932, it remained in production in the U.S. until 1953 and in German trucks until 1973.
Duesenberg straight eight
The Duesenberg J cannot be anything but the greatest American classic car ever made. These regal, two-tonne locomotives of chrome and lacquer paint were the pinnacle of the automotive world when new. Tragically built on the cusp of the Great Depression, the marque found itself trying hard to sell these $15,000 cars at a time when a physician made about $3,000 annually.
The 6.9L engine was made in three versions between 1928 and 1937. The naturally aspirated version made an impressive 265 horsepower. But Duesenberg also made 36 supercharged cars, and those made 320 hp each; the top speed of the supercharged ones was over 200 km/h. The ultimate version of the car was the SSJ, of which just two were made: one for Gary Cooper, and another for Clark Gable. These cars had supercharged engines that made nearly 400 hp.
Ferrari “Colombo” V12
You might have never heard one in person, but you know the sound already. A mechanical howl with the valves punctuating little staccatos on each cylinder firing – it’s the shriek of an old Ferrari V12. And remarkably, almost all the Ferrari 60-degree V12s from 1947 to 1988 can trace their lineage back to one man: Gioacchino Colombo. His design was originally intended for F1 use and displaced a tiny 1.5 liters. The pistons were barely two inches in diameter! It grew in many iterations to an ultimate size of 4.9L in the Ferrari 412, but it gained fame in the 250 GTO, 365 GTB/4, and many other lovely models.
MoPar Street Hemi
The Hemi name is derived from its hemispherical combustion chambers. Chrysler chose this design because it allowed fitting larger valves than normal while still adhering to NASCAR’s two-valve-per-cylinder mandate. These widely splayed valves created equally wide valve covers which emphasized the overall girth of the engine. The Hemi was MoPar’s largest, most expensive, most hardcore, and most powerful engine of the era. Its daunting physical size led others to call it “the elephant motor.”
The Hemi lived-in in production cars for just five short years between 1966 and 1971. You could special-order the engine if you knew the right people in 1965, but that really didn’t count. In the end, emissions regulations and unleaded gas conspired to kill off the Hemi, and it never returned in dual-quad form.
The Cummins 6BT was launched in 1984 but didn’t see the engine bay of a road-legal vehicle until 1989. That’s because the burly 6BT was originally designed for farm implements and construction equipment, with zero thought towards passenger vehicle refinement. Dodge decided that the 6BT would be the perfect engine to offer in its three-quarter and one-tonne trucks starting in 1989. The 6BT displaces 5.9L and weighs 500 kg fully assembled. Boosted by a Holset turbocharger, output ranged between 160 and 210 horsepower depending on the variant of the engine; torque was between 400 and 440 lb.-ft. Created to do the hardest work an engine can handle, 6BT’s were designed to last 560,000 km with only basic maintenance, and a few last even longer than that.
The Honda B series is essentially the engine that started the craze with modifying Hondas. With two little syllables, Honda changed the way enthusiasts saw the brand: VTEC. The B series wasn’t the first or the last DOHC I4 from the company but it was the one that popularized it in the enthusiast world. High-output versions of the Honda B could be found in the Integra and Civic Type R and the engine was the first production unit to eclipse 100 hp per liter.
The B-Series was installed in the Civic, Del Sol, Integra, and other Honda offerings. It quickly earned a reputation for impressive fuel economy, easy maintenance, and solid longevity. It also tingled the brains of anyone who revved one of these motors out past 8,000 rpm. Nothing quite sounds like a Honda B at full tilt.
Chrysler Slant Six 1959 1987
The leaning tower of power! Chrysler’s slant six was canted 30-degrees to one side to afford stylists a lower hood line. This allowed the cars to have rakish snouts but left the six looking rather odd underhood. Nonetheless, the thrifty pushrod six soon gained a following. The slant makes a distinct sound at idle because it had a solid-lifter camshaft until 1983; about 20 years after most had abandoned the technology.