If there was but one engine configuration that symbolizes the American auto industry and our love for the open road, if there was just one engine selected to stand for all the power, all the self-assurance that is the United States, it would have to be the V8. No other engine has powered so many of our favorite vehicles or served as the foundation for the building of our dream cars.
It might surprise many to find the V8 engine is not an American invention. The first such cylinder configuration for an engine is credited to Clement Adler, who built a vehicle to compete in the 1903 Paris to Madrid race, and the French manufacturer, De Dion, was the first in 1910 to offer it in a production model. However, as with so many automobile-related technologies, American manufacturers took the ball and ran with it.
One of the more memorable and earliest milestones in the long and colorful history of the American V8 engine dates to 1906, when Glenn Curtis, aviation pioneer and early builder of motorcycles, built a V8-powered cycle. In January 1907, he used the motorcycle to shatter the land speed record at Ormond Beach (now Daytona), reaching an incredible 137 miles per hour.
The lightweight, air-cooled engine was one of many, including single-cylinder, V-twin and in-line four-cylinder configurations he would design and build. The record-setting V8 had been fitted to the motorcycle to test its reliability and power for aeronautical application.
The next evolutionary step came in September of 1914 with the introduction of the Cadillac V8. Inspired by the De Dion V8, Cadillac engineers led by Henry Leland refined the concept and further advanced the Cadillac slogan of "Standard of the World."
Henry Leland initially founded Lincoln after his departure from Cadillac for the construction of aircraft engines during World War I. As an automobile manufacturer, the company under his direction would be instrumental in the next stage of development, when the Lincoln made its debut with a V8 engine that represented innovative technology. The new engine pushed the envelope of precision engineering and ensured 70 mph performance.
The expense incurred in engineering and production of the V8 engine during this period relegated the configuration to the realm of luxury cars such as Cadillac and Lincoln. Henry Ford, who had led the development of production methods that made automobiles more affordable, envisioned making the V8 engine affordable in a similar manner.
In late 1925, Ford began initial development of a replacement for the dated Model "T." After the introduction of the Model "A," this experimentation continued in two parallel directions - the development of an improved four-cylinder engine and a V8 to compete against the Chevrolet 6 introduced in 1929.
In all fairness, it should be noted that there had been a brief flirtation with the V8 engine at General Motors besides that offered in the Cadillac. Oldsmobile produced a V8 from 1916 to 1918 and again from 1919 to 1921. In 1929 and 1930, a V8 was available in the short-lived Viking series. The Model D Chevrolet of 1917 and 1918 also featured a V8.
For 1932, Ford unveiled two new models - the Model "B," with an improved four-cylinder engine that retained the dimensions offered in the Model "A" but with a 25-percent increase in horsepower, and the Model 18 with a 221 c.i.d., 65-horsepower V8 at an astounding $460 in roadster configuration. Even with an extreme failure rate in the initial production run, the cars were a resounding success, and the Ford flathead V8 would be the mainstay of Ford products for the next 21 years.
The next chapter in the V8 story debuted in 1949 in the Oldsmobile Rocket 88, a vehicle that some credit with initiating the era of the muscle car, and the "Futuramic" 98. The V8 engine that powered these cars represented a complete departure from traditional concepts - most notably higher compression, deemed impractical and not feasible just a few years previous, overhead valves, hydraulic lifters, forged crank with counterweights, aluminum pistons and a dual-plane intake manifold.
The 98 series Olds garnered a great deal of attention upon its debut, but the real news came some six months into the model year with the introduction of the lighter-bodied 88. The performance of the new Olds made it a favorite on the NASCAR circuit, and by the end of 1949, the new Rocket 88 had won six of the nine stock car races sanctioned. More publicity was garnered in 1949 when an 88 convertible was selected as the Indianapolis 500 pace car, and in 1950 when the California Highway Patrol updated its fleet with the powerful cars.
The developments were now coming in rapid succession. For 1951, Chrysler introduced its "Fire Power" hemi-head V8 in the Imperial series. The concept of a hemispherical combustion chamber for higher compression and improved performance was not new. Jules Goux in a hemi-powered 1913 Peugeot won the 1913 Indianapolis 500. Chrysler never took credit for the idea, just for "developing it and perfecting it on a production-built automobile.
Then came the era of the small block with the introduction of the 265 c.i.d. V8 made available on the 1955 model Chevrolet. Improvements to the engine made another milestone in 1957 possible - an incredible 1 horsepower for each cubic inch.
For most of the following two decades, the V8 would be the power plant of choice, and even today more than a few - the wedge, the 440, the 429, the Cobra Jet, to name but a few of these now legendary engines - is spoke of with reverence and even awe among some automotive enthusiasts. Even though it has faded from dominance in the American automotive industry, the V8 engine carries a mystique and historical association that translates into sales, as evidenced by the Cadillac Northstar system and more recently the reintroduction of the hemi-powered Chrysler products.
An engine design that just a few short years ago seemed destined to become an historical curiosity in a dusty museum has entered a new era.
Excerpted with permission from "The Big Book of Car Culture," published by MBI Publishing Company, St. Paul, MN (www.mbipublishing.com), also available at Hastings Books & Music. Copyright 2005, text Jim Hinckley/Jon Robinson.