The Most Unusual Car Engines


Gasoline, Diesel, Rotary (Wankel), Steam, Rocket, Turbine, Radial and Electric … these have all been used on production vehicles as a source of power, configurations have been single cylinder, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 16, inline, V & W but for the ‘teenies’, we really have only three choices in the mainstream; gas, diesel and electric.

The very first practical gas engine dates all the way back to 1876, it was designed and built in Germany by a man called Nikolaus August Otto (which is why we often hear the regular 4-cycle internal combustion engine called the Otto-Cycle engine).

These engines haven’t really changed much, or at least in terms of how they work; Suck, Squeeze, Bang, Blow is the 4-cycle process – Induction, Compression, Ignition and Exhaust.
Sure, we’ve gone from producing about 2 BHP for a multiple liter / cylinder engine to producing hundreds of horsepower per single liter engine, but that’s just technology and engineering – it’s still pretty much the same process.

It seems that some manufacturers like exploring the boundaries of how to engineer an engine; we started with ‘straight’ engines, otherwise known as inline, then we had the ‘V’ configuration (usually in equal pairings but that has since changed – we’ve seen V5’s for instance) and now we have ‘W’ shapes.

All of that and we haven’t even included any of the ‘one off’ type engines; a motorcycle powered by a bit of Supermarine Spitfire (aeroplane) engine for instance.

But what are some of the more unusual engines?

Let’s start with the Wankel (Rotary) engine… this is actually still in production with the Mazda RX 8, so it’s a great starting point; unusual but actually in production – Mazda proving that you don’t have to conform to fit in.

The premise is relatively simple, ish; a triangular rotor (piston) spins around at high RPM’s within a chamber, each side of the rotor is always working as part of the combustion process which makes it pretty efficient power-wise, but they are thirsty! And revvy – that’s about the best description of a Rotary engine – Thirsty & Revvy.

But the Rotary engine seems completely normal when compared to some other efforts…

Anyone remember the Chrysler Turbine?

Back in the early 60’s (we’re sure that the popularity of hallucinogenic drugs played no part whatsoever. Really), Chrysler decided that a regular old gasoline engine was pretty boring; what the public needed was a full-on Turbine Jet engine to power their cars to head to the malls, supermarkets and no doubt, early death.

One of the advantages (there weren’t many) was that it would run on pretty much any combustible liquid – gasoline, diesel, kerosene, jet fuel and moonshine. Chrysler even challenged the then President of Mexico to run one on Tequila, and he did.

However, reliability wasn’t great, and don’t even think about mileage. There’s only one running example left, and Jay Leno owns it.

Sometimes though, the manufacturer got it right, but they were too far ahead of themselves and the technology let them down.

1981 saw the release of the Cadillac V8-6-4 (L62); a V8 engine that incorporated ‘Modulated Displacement’ technology, in essence, it’s the forerunner to what we see on many production vehicles of today – the ability to shut down cylinders depending on demand or use.

A great idea, but the tech just wasn’t good enough to make it work successfully for any period of time. In the end, the dealers got so fed up with trying to fix them, that they just disconnected the tech on any car running it.

That’s just three examples of unusual engines, there’s plenty more of them.
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