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Engine compassion

Published in blog.hemmings.com

Stationary single-cylinder engine at work. Photo By Michael Lamm.

Too many people have no compassion for engines. I used to have a neighbor who’d get in his truck in the morning, shove the accelerator to the floor and turn the key. Whereupon his engine would leap out of bed screaming. And so would my teeth. They were on edge beyond screaming – they’d try to leap out of my mouth. And the neighbor would blithely sit there with his foot on the gas for what seemed like hours. It amounted to cruelty of the most egregious sort.

Engines, to me, are living, breathing beings. They’re no less alive than, say, a dog or a cat. Granted, they don’t react to humans the way pets do, but I’ve found that engines have personalities and spirits. Some are friendly, others less so. Some can be cantankerous, some are downright contrary.

When I was a teenager in Texas in the 1950s, farmers were switching to electricity and abandoning the decades-old stationary, single-cylinder engines they’d used for chores like pumping water. These very solid old engines would sit out behind barns and slowly sink into the ground. So when one of my buddies or I discovered one of these engines, we’d knock on the farmer’s door and ask whether he might want to sell it. Usually the farmer would tell us we could have it if we could get the darn thing off his property, so we figured out ways to do that. The challenge would then become getting these engines running.

Which usually wasn’t all that hard, because basically they’d been hibernating. And they were still all there. We’d clean out the carburetor, unstick a valve, sand a contact or two, spin that very substantial flywheel and chuff… chuff… chuff. The engine would very relaxedly, very sleepily come to life.

Most of them would run at just one speed. You could count the beat. I never actually did, but I’d say they turned about 100 rpm. We’d fill the water jacket with a garden hose, and as the cylinder barrel warmed up, steam would rise above the reservoir, and the engine would sit there, merrily chuffing for as long as the fuel held out. And when it ran out of gas, the engine would miss a beat, then two, then chuff… chufffff… hissssss and back to sleep.

My buddy Barney and I likewise resurrected a four-cylinder 1928 Chevy engine that a friend of my dad’s, Mr. Williams, used to pump water out of one of La Feria’s many irrigation canals. This engine stood on its sawed-off chassis frame inside a little tin shed that Mr. Williams had built around it. I knew Mr. Williams no longer used the engine, so one day I asked him the inevitable question.

As expected, Mr. Williams said we could have it if we could get it out of the shed. So Barney and I simply tore off one wall, disconnected the pump and dragged out the engine. Again, it took very little to get it running and, although it ran fine, the two of us took the engine completely apart, degreased it, painted it bright colors, bought new gaskets and put it all back together. I think Barney sold it to someone in town for $5.

Cadillac V-16. Photo courtesy RM Sotheby’s.

The most elegant engine I ever owned and worked on was the one in my 1932 Cadillac V-16. Cadillac engineers conceived the V-16 as a work of art that also happened to run. Actually the engine in my car didn’t run when I first got it, but again, a little twiddling with the carburetors and points and coils and it fired right up. But only on 14 cylinders at first, because the head gasket on the passenger’s side had blown between a couple of cylinders. I couldn’t find any V-16 head gaskets in South Texas at that time (this was around 1951), so I ordered a set from Cadillac in Detroit. The package arrived with a handwritten note inside: “This is the last pair we have in stock.”

I think Cadillac engineers must have gotten GM’s Art and Colour staff involved with the V-16, because beauty was a major factor in its design. All underhood wires were hidden, some in the hollow struts that ran from the cowl to the twin ignition coils. The coils were recessed in the radiator header tank. The sparkplug wires lived under a removable panel that spanned the valley between the rocker covers. The valley and rocker covers were cast aluminum, held down with chromed bolts and screws. The rockers were painted a semi-gloss black with silver aluminum ribs running down the middle. There were little touches of chrome everywhere, even underneath the car, where no one but a mechanic would ever see them.

Jaguar E-Type twincam Six. Photo by Mike Lamm.

The other engine that approaches the V-16 for artistic elegance is the 3.8-liter, twincam Six in my 1964 Jaguar E-Type. Again, the cam covers and carburetor bell chambers are aluminum, and with enough elbow grease and Flitz, they polish up like a mirror. The sparkplug area between the cam covers is painted gold, which I’ve always thought was one step too far, but again, someone—was it Sir William Lyons?—put a great deal of thought into the aesthetics of this engine, and I certainly appreciate it. If he’d only done something about those darned leaks….

Another engine I’ve always admired is that great lump of cast iron that became one of my early teachers in the several Model A Fords I owned as a kid. The Model A engine is an exemplar of simplicity, simplicity being a virtue Henry Ford mandated as the Model A was being developed. I later learned that the earliest prototype for the Model A carburetor had eight bolts holding the float chamber to the main body. Henry insisted that the number of bolts be reduced to one, and that’s what the production version came with—one bolt up through the middle of the float bowl.

1931 Ford Model A four-cylinder. Photo by Matthew Litwin.

And to time a Model A engine, there’s a little removable dowel that you unscrew from the front cover, invert, poke into the hole and use to feel for a depression in the cam gear as you’re turning the engine by hand. That depression, when you feel it, marks top dead center of the number one cylinder, meaning you can set the ignition rotor to number one inside the distributor. This wasn’t a perfect system, however, because you could also be off by 180 degrees, but if you got the dowel right, setting the timing was super simple because the top of the distributor came off like the lid of a coffee can.

Then, too, instead of ignition wires, Henry specified four little copper spring clips that tension themselves in place between the ears of the distributor cap and each individual spark plug—a brilliant bit of simplification and very, very inexpensive.

Nowadays, raise the hood of most any modern car and what do you see? A plastic cover. Today’s engineers don’t want you to inspect their handiwork. It’s too baffling, too befuddling, too mystifying—too many tubes, wires, ducts, solenoids, and just plain stuff sitting there to confuse the eye.

2000 Porsche Boxster S. Photo by Mike Lamm.

I currently own and have often fiddled with a 2000 Porsche Boxster S, a very nice car, enjoyable to drive but frustrating to work on. First of all, it takes half an hour to get to the engine and, once you’re finally there, you’re confronted with this ugly, dusty mass of plastic and metal that has no grace, no charm and that’s chock-full of aggravation. It looks like the afterbirth of some giant female robot. The Boxster’s engine seems miles removed from the elegance and sophistication of, say, a 16-cylinder Cadillac or a 3.8-liter Jaguar.

But here’s the irony: Modern engines tend to be infinitely better in every way than those of my fondly remembered and greatly appreciated past. Thanks to astonishingly fine tolerances plus huge improvements in metallurgy, lubricants, electronics, induction, and cooling systems, today’s engines—if you take care of them—can give you 300,000 miles of fairly troublefree service. Modern engines are more fuel efficient, more powerful, with much cleaner exhaust and, despite being considerably harder to work on, they make up in reliability what they lack in aesthetics. So my neighbor can get into his pickup on a cold morning, fire up his engine and rev it to redline, yet he’s probably not doing it anywhere near the harm I feel in my teeth.