The roar of a powerful engine is music to the ears of many auto enthusiasts. Over the decades, certain engines have risen above the rest to be crowned as the best-of-the-best. I have compiled a list of 10 of the most significant car engines in automotive history based on their groundbreaking impact, impressive longevity, widespread popularity, and innate innovation. Let’s take a closer look at these motoring icons that left their mark on the world.
The Greatest Car Engines that Changed the World
From stirring V12 arias to the distinctive chatter of an air-cooled flat-four, iconic engines have a way of captivating our senses while transforming automotive history.
1) The Beetle’s Air-Cooled Boxer – Volkswagen Flat-Four
The distinctive rattling clatter of a Volkswagen Beetle is a sound many can still recall. During an epic 70-year production run from 1936 to 2006, VW churned out a staggering 20-30 million of these compact, no-frills engines. The affordable Beetle brought small cars into the mainstream and sparked a revolution in North America. Simple and lightweight, the horizontally opposed four-cylinder motors can be serviced with basic tools and parts are readily available globally.
- Mass produced – over 20 million units
- Sparked small-car revolution in North America
- Simple lightweight design easy to repair
- Horizontally opposed 4-cylinder
- Overhead valves
- Displacement of 1.2L to 1.6L
- Maximum power between 25 hp to 67 hp
2) Silky Smooth – The Jaguar XK6 Inline Six
Before the arrival of Jaguar’s legendary XK6 engine, the British marque was an obscure mediocrity. The generously sized XK6 transformed Jaguar’s fortunes. Designed during WWII bombing raids, it first appeared in 1949 powering the sensuous XK120. This silken inline six went on to score five Le Mans victories from 1951 to 1957, and became synonymous with the stunning E-Type sports car. An impressive 43-year production run ended in 1992.
- Catapulted Jaguar to fame in post-war era
- Designed during WWII bombing raids
- Powered 5 Le Mans wins from 1951-1957
- Inline 6-cylinder DOHC
- Displacement from 3.4L to 4.2L
- Twin carburetors or fuel injection
- Power output between 160 hp to 265 hp
- Produced from 1949 to 1992
3) Omnipresent Icon – The Chevrolet Small-Block V8
The small-block Chevy is the definitive American V8 that powered over 100 million GM vehicles since its arrival in 1955. Available in a diverse range of models, this affordable, easy to modify pushrod V8 can be found in everything from family sedans to Le Mans winning race cars. It’s still in production today satisfying enthusiasts craving for that iconic small-block sound.
- Most mass produced V8 engine ever – over 100 million made
- Available in wide range of GM vehicles
- Affordable, easy to modify
- Powers everything from sedans to race cars
- 90-degree pushrod V8
- OHV valvegear
- Displacement from 4.6L to 6.5L
- Carbureted or fuel injected
- Power output from 145 hp to over 500 hp
- Still in production today
4) The Engine that Revved America – Ford’s Flathead V8
When Ford’s affordable flathead V8 arrived in 1932, it delivered a leap in performance that allowed average families access to 60 mph speeds for the first time. The flathead architecture was less efficient than later overhead valve designs, but its simplicity kept costs down. During its dominance between 1932 to 1953, the rumble of a flathead-powered V8 became the soundtrack of a generation.
- First affordable V8, brought higher speeds to average families
- Introduced in 1932
- Allowed cars to reach 60 mph vs Model T’s 40 mph
- L-head (flathead) design
- 90-degree V8
- Displacement of 3.6L
- Maximum power between 85 hp and 100 hp
- Produced from 1932-1953 in US
5) Boundless Luxury – The Duesenberg Straight 8
The magnificent Duesenberg Model J sedans of the late 1920s and 30s were the epitome of power and luxury. Beneath their endless hoods lay an equally impressive inline 8-cylinder engine handmade with obsessive care. In naturally aspirated form it produced a strong 265 hp, but with a Roots-type supercharger output exceeded an epic 400 hp. This was auto royalty.
- Powered luxury Duesenberg models
- Naturally aspirated and supercharged versions
- 265 hp normally aspirated, 320+ hp supercharged
- SSJ models made nearly 400 hp
- Inline 8-cylinder
- Displacement of 6.9L
- Single overhead camshaft
- Produced from 1928-1937
6) Rhapsody in Red – Ferrari’s Colombo V12
The soul-stirring wail of a Ferrari V12 is automotive euphony. This legendary powerplant began life as a 1.5L V12 for Formula 1. Over the decades it gradually expanded in size and found fame in Ferrari’s most celebrated road and track creations. Designed by Gioacchino Colombo, it spawned a lineage of V12s that powered Ferraris from 1947 to 1988.
- Designed by Gioacchino Colombo
- Began as 1.5L F1 engine in 1940s
- Evolved into road car engines up to 4.9L
- Powered iconic Ferrari race cars and road cars
- 60-degree aluminum V12
- DOHC 4 valves per cylinder
- Displacement from 1.5L to 4.9L
- Carburetors or fuel injection
- Power output between 130 hp to 400 hp
- Produced from 1947-1988
7) Unleashed – Chrysler’s Street Hemi V8
Chrysler tamed their fire-breathing Hemi V8 for the street between 1965 to 1971. Originally designed to dominate NASCAR with its hemispherical combustion chambers, the Street Hemi was a detuned version of the rowdy race motor. Displacing 426 ci (7L) and breathing through dual 4-barrel carburetors, it churned out an underrated 425 hp in production trim. This was American muscle personified.
- Designed for NASCAR racing
- Hemispherical combustion chambers
- Offered in street cars briefly from 1965-1971
- 90-degree pushrod V8
- OHV valvegear
- 7L displacement
- Dual 4-barrel carburetors
- Power output up to 425 hp
8) Industrial Strength – The Cummins 6BT Diesel
The Cummins 6BT began life as an agricultural engine before powering Dodge Ram trucks from 1989. Renowned for its extreme durability and reliability, the turbocharged 5.9L inline 6-cylinder diesel could chug along beyond the 560,000 km mark with basic maintenance. The 6BT achieved legendary status for its rock-solid dependability under pressure.
- Originally designed for agriculture/construction use
- Adapted for Dodge trucks starting 1989
- Legendary reliability and durability
- Inline 6-cylinder turbo diesel
- Displacement 5.9L
- Indirect injection
- Power output from 160-210 hp, 400-440 lb-ft torque
- Produced from 1984-2007
9) Honda’s High-Revving VTEC – The B-Series
Honda’s groundbreaking B-Series won legions of fans among import enthusiasts. The DOHC VTEC engines first appeared in 1989 and powered the Integra and Civic Type R. This 1.6L to 1.8L inline-4 was the first production engine to achieve 100 hp per liter, setting a new benchmark for four-cylinder performance.
- Popularized VTEC technology
- First production 100 hp/L engine
- Enthusiast favorite for Civics and Integras
- Inline 4-cylinder DOHC
- Displacement from 1.6L to 1.8L
- VTEC variable valve timing
- Power output between 125 hp to 200 hp
- Produced from 1988-2005
10) Leaning Tower of Power – Chrysler Slant Six
The visual impact of Chrysler’s 30-degree tilted Slant Six left a lasting impression. The “leaning” inline-6 design allowed more hood clearance for sleeker styling. With its distinctive idle and solid lifter camshaft, the Slant Six gained a reputation as a workhorse known for dependable service in Chrysler’s compact cars from 1959 to 1987.
- Iconic 30-degree tilted design
- Lower hoodlines in Chrysler cars
- Earned reputation for reliability
- Inline 6-cylinder OHV
- Displacement 3.7L
- Single 1-barrel carburetor
- Power output from 101 hp to 145 hp
- Produced from 1959-1987
Icons of Internal Combustion: A Brief History of the Greatest Car Engines
The rhythmic throb of a powerful engine stirs the passions of driving enthusiasts around the world. Over the past century, certain motors have risen above the rest to earn iconic status. After reviewing the attached background information, a few engines stand out for their immense impact on automotive history.
The Ford flathead V8 that debuted in 1932 may be the most influential automobile engine ever built. This simple yet effective powerplant brought V8 performance to the masses for the first time. The distinct rumble of its exhaust announced a new era of American driving excitement. During its 20-year production run, the affordable flathead V8 quite literally revved up an entire generation.
Another game-changing powerplant was the Chevrolet small-block V8 introduced in 1955. Now the most mass-produced V8 in automotive history, well over 100 million “Mouse Motors” have powered GM vehicles across all segments. Tuners treasure the compact small-block for its easy modification into a high-performance powerhouse.
Across the Atlantic, Jaguar was propelled from obscurity to fame by its buttery-smooth XK6 inline six first offered in 1949. The dual overhead cam 3.4L straight-six enabled five Le Mans victories for Jaguar and still provides silken power to vintage E-Types today.
These three engines – the Ford flathead V8, Chevy small-block V8, and Jaguar XK6 inline six – stand out as pivotal powerplants that had an immense influence on the evolution of the automobile. Their impressive output, groundbreaking technology, and widespread availability secure their places among the most important engines ever produced.
Frequently Asked Questions
What was the first V8 engine?
The first mass-produced V8 was introduced by Cadillac in 1914, however it was not affordable to the masses. Ford’s 1932 flathead V8 is considered the first affordable V8.
Which Car Company Has Produced the Most Engines?
General Motors and their various brands have produced well over 100 million small-block Chevy V8 engines since 1955, making it the most mass-produced engine in history.
What is the Best Sounding Engine?
The Ferrari Colombo V12 is considered one of the best sounding engines ever made. Its high-revving mechanical symphony stirs passion in those who love the sound of powerful motors.