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100 Years of Changing Internal Combustion Technology
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1908 Ford Model T engine

While the concept of the internal combustion (IC) engine hasn’t varied much since Henry Ford’s Model Tbegan running off the assembly line in 1908, technical improvements during the past 100 years have made engines extremely advanced.


Of course, we can’t list all of the improvements to the IC engine in this column, but the following is a short historical perspective and timeline of some of the advances made internally to modern-day engines.

It would be interesting to hear what Nicolaus Otto, credited as the father of the first functional four-stroke IC engine, would say after seeing some of the advanced powerplants dropped into vehicles today.

1908: Since most of the engine technology seen by automotive technicians comes from mass-produced vehicles, we will begin with the Model T, which operated from a 2.9L front-mounted, inline four-cylinder engine that delivered 20 hp for a top speed of about 40-45 mph.

The Model T’s simple side-valve engine design was the first in the nation with a detachable head, making service like valve jobs easier for a mechanic — or the farmer/owner.

According to Ford Motor, the vehicle had a fuel economy of 13-21 mpg, depending mostly on the road being traveled. (If you complain about the road conditions today, you can forget about building that time machine to travel back 100 years.)

Ford had the engine designed to be capable of running on gasoline, kerosene or ethanol. However, gasoline became the fuel of choice as gas prices declined and ethanol became outlawed during the Prohibition period.

1915 Cadillac V8 engine

1915: Cadillac introduces the first mass-produced water-cooled, V8 engine, 10 years after introducing its 4-cyl. engine.

1924: The Chrysler Sixengine was designed with full water jackets around each valve and cylinder, as well as a water pump to ensure that the coolest water was distributed to the rearmost cylinders and valve seats, rather than shortcutting across the front of the engine.


The engine also incorporated a carefully designed manifold system and modern combustion chamber that resulted in improved power from each cylinder. The Chrysler Six engine created 68 hp at 3,000 rpm from only 201 cubic inches of engine displacement.

1932: The Flathead was the first independently designed and built V8 engine produced by the Ford Motor Co. for mass production, and it has been hailed as one of the company’s most important developments.


1932 Ford Flathead

Prior to 1932, almost all production cars utilized straight-4 or straight-6 engines. Though various engine manufacturers were building multi-cylinder engines such as V8s and even V16s, they normally were not intended for the masses.


The Flathead Ford V8, designed with both sets of valves (intake and exhaust) located on the inside of the “Vee,” was operated using a single camshaft located above the crankshaft. However, due to cooling and efficiency issues, flathead engine development declined, and by 1954, the Flathead was being replaced by the Ford Y-block engine.

The 65-hp, 3.6L design also incorporated notable engineering advances including aluminum pistons, a forged-steel crankshaft, babbited bearings and a single-piece cylinder block.

1933: BMW begins using a straight-six engine to power its vehicle. Designed by Fritz Fiedler, the 303 engine used a chain-driven camshaft, with pushrods and rocker arms to vertical overhead valves.

Its engineers explained that the inline motor offers the optimum physical configuration for a six-cylinder and does not require balance shafts and elaborate engine mounts to overcome vibrations inherent in other designs, like the V6. It’s a standard that the automaker continues even today.

1938: Volkswagen introduced its Volkswagen Type 1 (later referred to as the Beetle) air-cooled, rear-mounted engine. Designed by engineer Ferdinand Porsche, who later went on to build his own line of rear-engined sports cars, the air-cooled engine has been touted as one of VW’s greatest engine achievements. It garnered 24 hp from its 1L design.

Chrysler Hemi

1951: Chrysler begins to produce its first Hemi engine for the consumer market. The “Early Hemi,” which it was later named, used a hemispherical-shaped combustion chamber design to allow for increased airflow and better combustion efficiency. However, Chrysler discontinued the design after 1958 due to increased complexity and cost.

1954: Felix Wankel creates the first working Wankel (rotary) engine. The rotary engine includes a cocoon-shaped housing and a triangular-shaped rotor inside of it. The space between the rotor and the housing wall provides the chamber for internal combustion and the pressure of expanding gases serves to turn the rotor. For more on Rotary Engine Technology, visit underhoodservice.com and search Wankel.

1959: The VW engine is said to have inspired GM’s air-cooled, horizontally opposed, rear-mounted aluminum six-cylinder engine used in the Corvair and introduced in 1960. The GM Flat-6engine produced 80 hp, and by the late 1960s, a 140 hp version was introduced.


GM also equipped some 1962 models with a turbocharger, one of the first American production vehicles to receive a factory-equipped turbo, providing 150 hp. Prior to its discontinuation in the late 1960s, the turbo version had grown to an output of 180 hp.

The rotary engine’s unique design.

1964: Chrysler reintroduces the “Hemi” to consumers — a 426 cu. in. V8 hemispherical head-designed engine.

1967: The U.S. Congress passes the Clean Air Act, which authorizes planning grants to state air
pollution control agencies and begins to impact IC engine emission standards.


1975: Catalytic converters are introduced in many automobiles to meet emissions standards established by the U.S. government.

1978: The U.S. government begins limiting the amount of lead permitted in gasoline. The purpose of this regulation is to prevent deterioration of the platinum catalysts in catalytic converters. By June 1979, nearly half of all U.S. gasoline is unleaded.

Cadillac introduces cylinder deactivation on its ill-fated L62 “V8-6-4” engine. Read more on variable displacement technology in this tech feature.  

Catalytic converters aid in reducing IC engine emissions.


1986: The primary phase-out of leaded gasoline for passenger cars and trucks in the United States is

1997: Mitsubishi Motors America Inc. details its In-Cylinder Direct Injection Gasoline (GDI) engine. The four-cylinder engine, which earned several international awards for its ability to deliver significant improvements in fuel economy and emissions without sacrificing power, utilizes high-pressure, electromagnetic swirl injectors that spray atomized fuel directly into the cylinder into the airflow just before ignition.

Before the atomized fuel spray disperses, it vaporizes above the curved-top piston heads and is carried toward the spark plugs in an optimally stratified form. It offered 10% more output and torque, faster acceleration, and 35-40% better fuel efficiency during idling and varying speed conditions, compared to conventional multi-port injection engines.

2000: The Saab Variable Compression (SVC) engine was a development project of Saab Automobile, for which it won an award in both 2000 and 2001.

The (Saab) SVC engine.


The engine used a technique that dynamically altered the volume of the combustion chamber, thus changing the compression ratio. To alter the combustion chamber volume, the SVC “lowered” the cylinder head closer to the crankshaft while running.

It did this by replacing the typical one-part engine block with a two-part block, with the crankshaft in the lower block and the cylinders in the upper portion. The two blocks are hinged together at one side.

By pivoting the upper block around the hinge point, the volume of the combustion chamber can be modified. In practice, the SVC adjusts the upper block through a small range of motion, using a hydraulic actuator.

However, General Motors shelved the SVC project, when it took over Saab Automobile, due to cost.

Duouble Dipping
The design of double (dual) overhead camshaft (DOHC) engines (below) may be older than you think.

While DOHC was used in few limited production and sports cars in the early 1920s, Alfa Romeo began using the design extensively in its vehicles by 1928.

DOHC engine designs were used in few limited production and sports cars in the early 1920s.

The dual camshafts allows for twice as many valves per cylinder, maximizing the engine’s output without increasing its overall volume, and has become a popular design for engines today.





Courtesy of the Computer
Of all of the changes to the IC engine, perhaps none has been credited as having the biggest impact than the engine control module (ECM). And, at times, the ECM could be credited as the component most likely to give technicians a headache.

While the main benefit from the development of the ECM was to improve performance and lower emissions for the environment, a side benefit is increased gas mileage for the driver. Of course, there are those who may not care about the environment, however, it’s doubtful that they would complain about the improved gas mileage and savings at the pump.


Vortec engine ECM

ECM’s Impact on the Future
The ECM will continue to evolve in its importance and its ability to improve emissions levels. In fact, as of this writing, the Obama administration was calling for first-ever mileage and emissions standards for big rigs and work trucks. On May 21, President Obama signed an order seeking to limit pollution from the large


According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, large trucks represent only 4% of all vehicles on U.S. highways, but use more than 20% of on-road transportation fuels. Obama said he wants new fuel/emission standards developed for these vehicles beginning in the 2014 model year, and lasting through 2018.

In April, the Obama administration rolled out improved standards for cars and light trucks for the 2012-’16 model years with a goal of reaching a fleet average of 35.5 mpg by 2016, nearly 10 miles per gallon more than the current average. New, additional standards will be developed further into the future. It would appear that the ECM will really have its work cut out for it in the next decade.


I cannot think to leave you now . For that alone I still fight on .

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