Currently reading: Throwback Thursday - Engine tech takes a great leap forwards, 28 September 1928
In the early 1920s, four-cylinder engines were all the rage. With an increasing demand for cars, however, came the need for more cylinders
Matt Burt
3 mins read
1 October 2015

The 1920s were dominated by in-line four-cylinder engines, from the compact Wolseley-derived 847cc unit in the Morris Minor (pictured above) to the 4398cc Bentley, the largest engine on the market at the time.

However, the end of 1928 marked a notable shift towards a higher number of cylinders, with Autocar going so far as to write: “It is probable that in very few other years has there been quite so much upheaval. The four-cylinder engine is decreasing in popularity for cars exceeding a certain price and over a certain engine capacity.”

The increasing demand for powerplants with six or in some cases even eight cylinders was more than just a fad. Autocar reported: “The four-cylinder, when it came in many years ago, was almost universally adopted because it was more flexible and smoother than the single or two-cylinder engines which up to that time had been the limit of daring in design.

“Now, the four-cylinder is being superseded by the six simply because for an engine of a given size, six small impulses in a given time afford a smoother propulsive effort than four, and approach nearer to the ideal in which the engine would develop a continuous effort the whole time the crankshaft is revolving.

“The same is true of the straight eight, and still more so of the twelve-cylinder engine; the greater the number of cylinders, the more the explosions of individual cylinders overlap and the less it is apparent that the power unit is an explosive motor.”

Fuel economy was also an important factor. “A small six-cylinder engine can be used in place of a much larger four-cylinder without reducing, to any appreciable degree, the range of performance obtainable from the car. This, in turn, means a lower top gear; though it lessens the maximum speed possible with the car in question, it greatly increases the possible range without the need for a gear change.”

At the time, hillclimbing was regarded as a great test of a car’s abilities. Autocar reported: “A car climbs hills better on a given gear ratio with a six, eight or twelve-cylinder engine than it does with a two-cylinder or a four, and climbing hills without changing gear is a most important point in the average man’s view, provided that the act of changing speed needs any skill.”

Looking beyond 1929, Autocar was minded to make a bold prediction: “Without doubt, cars will have still more cylinders in the future and it may be that a 1.5-litre machine will be built having a power unit with 16 tiny cylinders giving, for all practical purposes, a continuous turning movement to the crankshaft or crankshafts.”

Previous Throwback Thursdays

4 March 1899 - Steam, electric or combustion engine? 

26 June 1906 - The first French Grand Prix

9 July 1907 - The beginning of Brooklands

14 February 1913 - 100 miles in one hour

8 April 1916 - Making post-war predictions

25 March 1922 - Caterpillar tracks are the future

4 July 1925 - Citroën lights up the Eiffel Tower

2 February 1934 - The ethics of skidding

6 July 1934 - A tour of Cowley

1 June 1935 - Introduction of the driving test

22 June 1945 - Driving through post-WW2 Europe

21 January 1949 - Tidier tails


Find an Autocar review

Back to top

25 August 1950 - The evolution of transmissions

27 April 1951 - Frankfurt hosts its first motor show

24 April 1959 - Aston Martin enters Formula 1

16 September 1960 - The beginning of MOT tests

27 January 1961 - Ford Thunderbird road test

17 November 1961 - TVR Grantura road test

10 September 1965 - The birth of modern Audi

19 August 1966 - Four-wheel drive on test

6 May 1971 - Driving Ford's Supervan

12 June 1976 - Cars for under £100

10 July 1976 - Land's End to John O'Groats on one tank

13 May 1978 - Ferrari 512 BB road test

19 January 1980 - Talbot Horizon road test

13 February 1982 - 4x4s tested on the farm 

17 April 1985 - Secrets of a lost British supercar

4 September 1985 - Ford's electronic test bed

15 August 1990 - Giugiaro's vision of a 1990s Jaguar

28 April 1993 - BL's unseen concepts

16 March 1994 - Bentley's Concept Java

16 April 1997 - When Bugatti bit the dust

4 April 2001 - 0-260mph in 6.0 seconds

25 July 2001 - 180mph in a Chevrolet Corvette

Get the latest car news, reviews and galleries from Autocar direct to your inbox every week. Enter your email address below:

Join the debate

Add a comment…
Deputy 1 October 2015

Did it have any cheat software?

275not599 1 October 2015

Why Sep 28 1928? What

Why Sep 28 1928? What happened on that date? It wasn't even a Friday. Hispano-Suiza had been producing straight sixes since 1919 and Cadillac's first V8 was 1915. One other advantage of more cylinders per engine size is lower piston speeds at same revs, unless you are silly with the bore/stroke ratio.
March1 1 October 2015

1.5L V16

It did happen too.. BRM introduced one only 20 years later (1948). Shame that design didn't become widespread though!

Find an Autocar car review