The in-line eight cylinder petrol engine has receded into history. It has powered some of the great cars – the Alfa 8Cs, the Mercedes 300SLR, the Duesenberg SJ and the Bugatti Type 35, but its last appearance in a production car was in the early 1950s, in the finely named Packard Patrician.
The reasons for its disappearance are pretty obvious. It is not the greatest packaging solution and, with all those stresses and temperature variations laid out in a long line, it presents a whole series of engineering problems. Why bother when a V configuration is easier? For anything that has to be made to a budget, that is probably a reasonable attitude to take but, for some of us, the engine has a hugely exotic attraction, highlighted by its very impracticality.
You should never actually make a glass topped table from a car engine, but a great car engine should look well enough to be misused for such a purpose. An in-line eight will never be the most efficient engine out there, but then neither will a Swiss watch be the most efficient timepiece. As it finally gets through to manufacturers and customers that ultimate performance is no longer a worthwhile goal, since the ability of today’s cars long ago outstripped the goodwill of today’s roads, they will need to cater to other sensations. That might be the purr of an electric motor, taking us at a regulated 30kph to and from our workplace but, assuming that the rich will always be with us, there will still be the call for something more profligate.
As people get older, they get to appreciate things more – or so I’m told. They savour things more and appreciate the subtleties, so why can’t this be the case with cars? The Veyron’s W16 is hugely effective for what it has to do, but it is hardly a thing of nuance. A finely engineered, smooth-running straight eight and the fine, long-nosed grand tourer that could be built around it would be though. An engine that, even if you were stuck in a 30 km tailback on an Autoroute, would still give you a tingle each time you pressed the throttle and urged it to move you forward a few hundred metres. In my imagination, I hear it now.