Theme: Engines – Top Dead Centre

With engines, as with everything else, there’s a pecking order. But who rules the roost?


Anyone spending time thinking or indeed writing about cars is likely to hold a firm view on the merits or otherwise of the internal combustion engine – few auto enthusiasts choose the comfort of the fence on this. If you cleave to the view that the engine represents the heart of a car, then it should come as no surprise that any marque with pretensions to greatness has designed and produced their own. Furthermore, the truly grand marques have at least one powerplant in their back catalogue that can be viewed in, at the very least, quasi-mythological terms.  

Nowadays, nobody bats a well-manicured eyelid over your ubiquitous ZF 9-speed transmission or bought-in air conditioning system, but you don’t get to the automotive top table using someone else’s off the shelf engine. Ask JLR, who are on the verge of introducing a brand-new homespun engine family to answer that very concern. Relying on someone else for your engine supply leaves you open to multiple risks: the supply drying up, development going in a contrary direction but most damagingly, it compromises your credibility with the very people you’re trying to impress. You see despite the doom-mongers, engines continue to matter.

alfa_romeo_32_v6_gtaSo if engines matter, do engine configurations? Here it becomes more nebulous, more nuanced and decidedly more snob-riven. As engine capacities are slashed in the cause of efficiency and cost-cutting, we now face the prospect of three cylinder engines powering previously aspirational chariots like 3-Series BMW’s. While this sounds a little more interesting than the grinding ubiquity of the in-line four cylinder, it nevertheless appears a little out of keeping. Surely it can only be cost considerations that have seen horizontally opposed variants (largely) disappear – it certainly wasn’t due to any inherent superiority with their in-line brethren. Today, manufacturers who produce alternately configured engines stand out like sore thumbs. Some, like Porsche and Subaru, remain wedded to the horizontally opposed configuration as an article of faith, to do otherwise would fatally besmirch their bloodline.

The variety we took for granted only couple of decades ago has been whittled down to a torpid conformity. With so much known and quantified, no manufacturer with an eye to their balance sheet will deviate one iota from any agreed orthodoxy. Sitting outside a café yesterday, I observed the cars passing by. Unsurprisingly, almost all were diesel powered and aside from a lone TDV8 Range Rover, each and every one sounded identical – that being, indistinguishable from a Transit van. Nobody is going to convince me that a car, regardless of the badge on the nose or the amount of deceased cow inside is desirable, aspirational or remotely appealing while it has some dreadful four-cylinder diesel clanking away up front. I ask you, where is the romance in that?

aj6There was once even a distinct hierarchy in the way an engine used to sound. A flat twin had a distinctive beat, in-line fours were bland roughage and V8’s were entertaining, if uncouth. Of course, none of this holds true any more when it is possible to tune an exhaust note to sound as though mighty Thor himself is bellowing damnation and fire.

But each of the above regardless of merit must bow to the eternal magnificence of the in-line 6. A prince amongst engine configurations, the straight six used to represent everything that was noble, refined and pure. Its appeal stemmed largely from its mechanical balance – a six being as long as you’d really want a crankshaft to be without having all sorts of torsional problems. A well sorted in-line six is amongst the sweetest running of all engine configurations – this side of a V12 anyway. Its latter-day decline can only be viewed as a tragedy.

However, the current downsizing trend, bemoaned by those who believe everything with pretensions to performance should sound like an American muscle car, is having an unexpected but welcome inverse. Manufacturers appear to be reappraising the in-line six, given there is no longer a requirement to shoehorn anything with more than four cylinders into anything vaguely compact and front-driven – given modern turbocharging technology. A happy converse to the potential retreat of the V8 is the possibility of a resurgence of the six.

But if the six is a prince, the V12 must by definition be regent. Certainly in terms of mechanical balance and smooth running, a well-designed twelve is really in a class of its own. However, you pay a heavy price in complication, swept volume, sheer girth and thermal efficiency. But when it comes to snob value, again it’s virtually unmatched. Unless you’re VW, who have taken a convoluted, shockingly expensive and highly expedient route to exclusivity with narrow-angle W12 Bentley’s and 16-cylinder Bugatti’s.

You can’t get posher than sixteen cylinders can you, which I suppose makes the Bugatti unit the Emperor of power plants – or perhaps merely his new clothes, if we are to be unkind. Which I think we can agree we’re going to be. Yes my friends, the top of the power ziggurat is rarefied, prone to overheating and teeters on the very brink of hubris. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the engineers at VW are merely taking the piston…


Author: Eóin Doyle

Co-Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

9 thoughts on “Theme: Engines – Top Dead Centre”

  1. Eoin. How true. A V8 is Dwayne Johnson but the straight six is the Roger Moore of engines. No, that’s not right at all, smooth but far too arch. The George Clooney? No. The Jeremy Irons? Maybe we need to look further back. What about the Leslie Howard of engines? Anyway, the straight 6 is a mannered gent who you don’t mess with compared to the V8’s oaf who you’ll laugh at behind his back.

  2. Despite the latent snide remarks on this particular brand/topic, I’ll once again stress my somewhat special relationship with the blue ‘n white propeller, which’s a lot to do with the M in BMW. Even taking fake exhaust notes, disoriented M models and, yes, the X6 into account, I’ll always harbour a wee bit of love for The Ultimate Marketing Machine within the mechanical compartment of my heart. The names of Ercole Spada, Claus Luthe and Chris Bangle did also have a hand in this, but if they appealed to the eye, the sound of numerous straight sixes did the same to the ear. Having gotten to know the world of motoring from the backseats of a plethora of 1980s BMWs, I must admit feeling some warm glow whenever I come across a “proper” BMW. A friends humble E30 320i convertible is merely a case in point: somehow, it manages to emit a sound that’s as creamy in a mechanical sense. And I simply cannot get enough of it.

  3. No snide remarks against old-school BMWs from this quarter Kris. My ongoing inability or unwillingness to dispose of my S6 is becoming a millstone. Last year it stopped me from getting an A2, a far more sensible proposition for a city dweller. Back to the less practical, this year there was an honest looking and affordable E34 M5 Touring which I kept looking at … until it got snapped up. Damn!

  4. An E34 M5 Touring would be very, very appealing indeed – if only one could find them, that is. Here in Germany, it is nigh on impossible to get hold of an E34 M5 that hasn’t been “improved” in some dubious fashion. But in theory, it’s among the best of the “performance saloon” breed – neither too large nor too heavy, yet still practical and clad in superb, Spada-designed clothes (though J Mays did the kidney grille, didn’t he?). And that engine’s supposed to be a blast…

    As much as I fail to care, I actually believe there are still a few proper BMWs to be found in the current line-up: the M235i, 335i or 535i coming to mind (there may be some kind of pattern to this choice). It’s probably the Americans that are preventing BMW from losing all of its straight six expertise, so thank you, Uncle Sam! It’s heartening to know that Munich isn’t focusing solely on X6 xdrive50s and 220d Active Tourers these days.

    Oh, and Sean: thank you for mentioning a certain 5.3 litre engine the other day – knowing that an SM driver appreciates such a traditionalist machine is reassuring indeed!

  5. Kris. This one was for sale at Munich Legends and was, by UK standards, high mileage at c 110,000 miles, but not really by European standards. And it appeared un-modified whereas, as you so correctly point out, all the ones on have nasty spikey low profile fitment alloys or hoods over the headlamps, or side skirts or all three and more. Is it an unreasonable prejudice to believe that someone who has so little aesthetic respect for their car won’t have mechanical respect?

  6. From the USA, which is a place you probably snigger at, may I say that I do agree the boxer engine, particularly the H6 of a Subaru, or Porsche, appeals technically. There was a flat 8 from Porsche way back, and eventually the flat twelve, the latter being a package inefficient overkill. I accept but do not aspire to any crosswise engined car, for the assymmetry of its transmission and the abbreviated nose it permits. Designing cars from the inside out has doomed our exterior aesthetic to fat, stubby cars dominated by their greenhouses. What modern car resists this? Some small BMW sedan? Honda S2000 roadster? Not yet beauteous. My aesthetic apex remains a Ferrari SWB/GTO or an Eagle updated E-Jag. Golden proportions remaining a length of fourteen feet plus, width of exactly 5.5 feet, height not to exceed 4.5 feet. Might we sacrifice some elbow room for that lithe slimness. Oh, those side airbags mitigate against that…

    1. A word of welcome sir. Thanks for stopping in. I doubt any of us here at DTW would snigger at America or its cars. I’d suggest misconceptions run in both directions, with a sense of bewilderment at one another’s choices and tastes – certainly that’s my impression from reading commentary on US-based sites.

      There’s much to be said for narrow cars, especially in our congested cities and confined country roads on this side of the world. The original Mini was a narrow car, but one dominated by its interior – in fact Alec Issigonis could be said to have been at the forefront of that particular trend. Modern designers love width – obsessed as they are with muscularity, stance and athleticism. Who builds narrow cars now? Only the Japanese with their delicate little Kei cars.

    2. onaroll. And welcome from me too. You’ll find the occasional snigger at every country’s industry on these pages, since the motor industry has a worldwide history of daft and illogical decisions. But the country that produced the Duesenberg SJ, Loewy Studebakers, Buick Riviera, Chevrolet Corvette, Chrysler 300, etc, etc, can hold its head up as high as any as far as I can see.

  7. If anything I am probably erring on the side of indulgence when it comes to US cars, with the exception of Chrysler. Granted I don’t care for the Iron Duke, but the Buick, Cadillac and Olds V8s had some charm. I am fan of the BOF cars such as the late series Caprice and Fleetwood or the Ford Crown Vic/Mercury Marquis. The last proper Lincoln Mark car, the 8, is a gem. I could go on in this vein.
    Your remark about the proportions makes me think, yes, those are good but I do like to see how designers work with other ones. Good designers can do some clever things with unpromising dimensions.
    Speaking of narrow, I hope you have some regard for Bristol’s 400 and 600 series cars which are long of nose, narrow and V8-powered, one of Chrysler’s units as it happens.
    Thanks for dropping by! We hope you continue to visit, onaroll.

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