Currently reading: A life well lived: Tracing 120 years of the combustion engine
Hard though it is to fathom, the internal combustion engine could soon be a thing of the past. We eulogise 120 years of engineering progress
Andrew Frankel Autocar
9 mins read
15 May 2021

We’re barely more than a year into it, but there’s already no doubt that this decade will be the most calamitous in the history of the engine.

Even if rumours of the imminent death of the internal combustion engine (and for these purposes, when I say engine, that’s what I mean) prove somewhat premature, we know that we entered the 2020s with almost all cars powered by engines but will leave it with very few. And those that do remain will be downsized shadows of their former selves, at best permanently chaperoned by electric motors to make sure they behave themselves, at worst cast in merely supporting roles to bigger, heavier and more potent electrics.

So let’s not dwell on that and cast our minds back to try to determine the decade in which the good old engine flourished more than any other. This isn’t as simple as you might think, and not simply because my view of what constitutes flourishing will necessarily be different to yours. Is it the decade in which the engine made the greatest technological advance or the one in which they started producing the most power? Is it the decade in which there was the greatest variety of configurations or simply the one in which engines reached their peak efficiency? Every question has a different answer, and the point here is that none is wrong. It’s all down to perspective and preference.

There is, for instance, an extremely strong argument supporting the view that the 1870s were by far the most important for the engine because, although it evolved over time, most would agree that this was the period in which it can be said to have come into being as a practical means of converting thermal energy into mechanical energy. And we won’t let the minor inconvenience that, back then, there was no such thing as a car into which to put one delay us. Or maybe we will.

This, after all, is Autocar. The clue is in the title. So that makes the best decade the 1880s, the one in which Nicolaus Otto’s four-stroke, compressed, charged engine concept was first used by Karl Benz in something that would only some time later become known as a car – surely?

There’s less of a case to be made for the 1890s, unless you include the patenting of the compression-ignition engine that forever after would be known by the name of its creator.

However, the first decade of the last century was definitely a great one for the engine. Such few cars as existed at the dawn of the 20th century were so slow and unreliable, they weren’t yet a remotely practical means of travelling even a reasonable distance. Indeed, it was by no means certain that petrol would win out over steam or electricity as the preferred means of powering the newfangled generation of autocars that were slowly starting to phut their way around the countryside. Petrol-powered cars were noisy, smelly, unclean and good at very little, bar perhaps catching fire. But back in the days when cars often came without air in their tyres or even a steering wheel in their cockpits, expectations weren’t high. And the fact that these cars could be refuelled so easily swung the pendulum in favour of internal combustion for what many believed to be forever – but which turned out only to be the next 120 years.


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By the end of the 1900s, the engine’s ability had transformed beyond all recognition, making this era the undisputed greatest as far as development is concerned. Consider that as soon as 1903, Mercedes produced the 9.3-litre Simplex, a car capable of 70mph – five times the UK speed limit at the time of its arrival. Or that in 1907, the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost drove 15,000 miles with just one stop to open a fuel tap that had shaken itself shut on some impossibly bumpy unpaved road. Thanks almost exclusively to engine development, this was the decade in which the car came of age.

That, of course, was absolutely fine, with the sole proviso that to enjoy such engineering miracles, you needed to be rich enough to make Croesus appear somewhat on his uppers. That problem wouldn’t be overcome until the next decade. Okay, yes, technically the first Ford Model T – the car that did more to democratise motoring than any other – went on sale in late 1908, but it was the mass production of this car (and its engine) in the 1910s that really started to put the world on wheels.

Indeed, this was the era and the US the place where some of our most significant automotive innovations were to be found. For example, the 1915 Cadillac Type 51 was the first road car with a V8, and just a year later Packard introduced a mighty 6.9-litre V12 into its Twin Six limousine.

Innovations came thick and fast thereafter. Bentley pioneered the use of aluminium pistons – hitherto presumed too fragile to withstand the infernal hell of combustion – and in the 1920s started delivering cars with four valves per cylinder, twin-spark ignition and overhead camshafts. Long-distance racing at places like Le Mans brought previously undreamt of levels of reliability to road cars, too.

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The problem was that engines were still terribly inefficient. Bentley’s masterpiece, the 8 Litre of 1931, produced only about 200bhp – just 25bhp per litre. Nor were the problems simply a lack of engineering knowledge. The metallurgy wasn’t good enough, nor was the machining process it went through. Petrol quality was a joke compared with what we take for granted today and compression ratios were kept commensurately low to cope.

Some limitations were even self-imposed: in Britain, cars were taxed on the width of their cylinder bores, forcing designers to create inefficient slow-revving, long-stroke engines that were unable to breathe properly because of the valve diameters this imposed.

The 1930s was a decade of consolidation. Supercharging grew more common and German race teams did extraordinary things with it on the track; the Mercedes-Benz W125 got 646bhp from a 5.6-litre engine in 1937, and it would be the 1980s before grand prix machinery made so much power again. On the road, though, engines got bigger and better but remained faithful to known principles.

There’s nothing like a global conflict for giving technology a boot up the backside, however, and none ever proved this point quite so well as World War II. In the air, we entered it with biplanes only to emerge six years later with jet fighters.

By the time the car world was back on its feet in the 1950s, great things had started to happen. Think of some of the greatest and most enduring engines: Ferrari’s Colombo V12, Jaguar’s twin-cam straight six, Chevrolet’s small-block V8 and even Porsche’s flat six: all were designed between the end of the war and the end of the 1950s. This was a truly epic era for engine production.

The best, though? When I think of the engines that mean the most to me, it’s actually those from the 1960s and 1970s, even though there were comparatively few radical innovations in that time. Supercharging had all but died out, while even by the end of the 1970s, turbocharging was very much in its infancy. What we had instead were free-revving, large-capacity, multi-cylinder, carburettor-fed, naturally aspirated engines that howled, screamed, shrieked and seared their uncorked way into our souls. Just look at Lamborghini’s V12 in the Miura and Countach, Ferrari’s equivalent in the Daytona and its flattened successor in the Boxer.

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Then, in the 1980s, things began to change. Turbocharging became a cheap and easy route to more power: why design an all-new engine when you could just blast mixture at better-than-atmospheric pressure into one that you already have? Well, it kills the sound and throttle response, trading quality for quantity, but who would want to let the facts get in the way of a good BHP figure?

Next came the removal of lead from our petrol and the introduction of catalytic converters – welcome moves both in the main, of course, but moves that also signed the death warrant of the carburettor and, with it, some of the more aural qualities that once stirred us so much.

Things actually improved again in the 1990s, as the use of four and even five valves per cylinder became more prevalent, along with the wider use of variable valve timing and variable-length inlet manifolds. Indeed, some of the world’s finest engines, from little four-pot Honda VTEC units to the mighty 6.1-litre V12 of the McLaren F1 were born. But it was also at the end of this era that the first hybrid arrived. Little did we know the effect that it and ever more stringent emissions rules would have on the motors that we loved so much.

So far in the 21st century, we’ve seen the near extinction of atmo V8s and V10s and clear signs that the V12 will follow onto the endangered list. We’ve seen Aston Martin and McLaren trade V8s for hybridised V6s and AMG replace the thumping V8 in its fiery C-Class with a 2.0-litre straight four. Yes, power outputs have climbed ever northward, but at what price? The very sound and feel that made us fall in love with engines in the first place.

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Is there any hope for the engine? If there is, it comes from the possibility of synthetic fuels providing a stay of execution. Even so, I expect that its role will be to prolong the life of old engines, not to facilitate the design of new ones. I hate to sound like the grumpy old man that I’m increasingly inclined to become but, in this case alone, the best really does seem to be behind us.

Cars with the best engine from each decade

1900s Mercedes Simplex 60HP: Stuttgart created an engine that was streets ahead of any comparable unit, being all-alloy with four cylinders and a 9.3-litre displacement for a near 60bhp output.

1910s Bentley 3 Litre: This Bentley sports car had an engine that combined a highly advanced specification with bombproof reliability in a way that hadn’t been done before.

1920s Bugatti Type 35: Bugatti’s straight eight was used in everything from road cars to grand prix racers, with and without superchargers. To hear it is to hear heaven.

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1930s Duesenberg SJ: This American roadster had an engine with 6.9 litres, twin overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and a supercharger for an unbeaten (in 1932) 320bhp.

1940s Ferrari 166 Inter: The 166 Inter was the first road car to use the peerless Colombo V12, which would go on to power the Testa Rossa, GTO, 250 LM, 275 GTB and so on and on.

1950s Chevrolet Corvette: This was the car that introduced the world to Chevy’s small-block V8, of which more than 100 million were made. An absolute landmark motor in every way.

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1960s Porsche 911: The 911 had a flat six so good that the configuration continues to this day, nearly 60 years after its launch. It’s one of the world’s best, most enduring motors.

1970s Lamborghini Countach: Lamborghini’s V12 just pipped Ferrari’s contemporary flat 12 for sheer sense of occasion as well as specific output. An awesome powerhouse of an engine.

1980s Ferrari F40: Yes, it was turbocharged, but it was intended to win Le Mans and gave insane response, noise, power and flames. Still the most characterful turbo motor ever.

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1990s McLaren F1: Paul Rosche’s BMW V12 masterpiece turned the F1 into not just into the world’s most powerful supercar but the most sonically thrilling, too.

2000s Lexus LFA: Unveiled in production form in 2009, the Lexus supercar’s Yamaha-designed V10 might just be not simply the best engine of the decade but of all time.

2010s Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0: The 997.2-era GT3 RS had the ultimate iteration of the famed Mezger racing engine, with 4.0 litres and 500bhp of pure, unadulterated automotive theatre.


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Brades 15 May 2021

I was wondering where overhead valves would fit into this.  It turns out Buick got the credit in 1903 although the Mercedes Simplex engine mentioned above also seems to have them about the same time...

Peter Cavellini 15 May 2021

Well Stockholm, i doubt there'll be any pre 1905 still going by then, I merely, just for some future pre2021 would still be going a hundred years hence?

Stockholm Calling 15 May 2021

Well Peter if they keep the same rules there won't be any - the London - Brighton run is for pre 1905 cars!

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