10 Best Engines of the 20th Century

Updated September 18, 2018

The ending of a century is a noteworthy event. It takes 100 years to reach that point and so much has occurred during those years that have in some way advanced mankind. So news and trade magazines always include an article during the first year of the new century identifying the best things, the most impactful events, and the most influential people of the last century.

On the first day of 2000 the automotive trade magazine WardAuto identified what the staff thought were the 10 best engines of the 20th Century.

The article pointed out that the evolution of the internal-combustion engine in the 1900s was a work in progress that often took wrong turns. After all, the cars that those engines were to power had just started to appear in the early 1900s. So WardAuto decided to base its list of the 10 best on the technological advancement offered by the engine.

So click next to view the list of the 10 Best Engines of the 20th Century.


1) The Model T Inline from Ford Motor Company (1909). According to WardAuto, it took Henry Ford eight tries designing an engine for his 1909 Model T. He finally got it right on his ninth attempt. It was a 2.9-liter 4-cylinder engine that generated up to 20-horsepower. The reason why this was the one that helped boost the Model T car was that it was cheap, even for the time, and it could easily be serviced parked in the shade of a large tree. The innovations were the 4-cylinders and the fact that the engine and upper half of the crankshaft were forged into one casting. It followed the K.I.S.S. philosophy, which is keep it simple stupid. For example, gravity and a good splash of water lubricated the parts and a thermo siphon contraption kept it cool. The big deal, however, was its price – initially $850, but $260 by 1925. One reason why Ford was able to sell more than 16 million Model Ts.


2) Cadillac V-8 from General Motors (1915). Although General Motors did not invent the V-8 engine, it was the first to produce a lot of them. It featured an “L-head” design, was 5.1 liters, generated 70-horsepower, and debuted thermostatic control of the circulating coolant. By 1949, the engine featured an overhead-valve, it was 5.4-liters and it generated 160-horsepower. The company continued to improve the engine and it was the standard V-8.


3) The L-Head V-8 from Ford (1932). The 3.6 liter engine was able to generate 65-horsepower and featured a forged-steel crankshaft, aluminum pistons, babbited bearings, a one-piece cylinder block and rubber mounting. It would evolve into an engine with aluminum cylinder heads, better carburation and a lot of power. In fact, it became the engine of choice for the hot rodders.


4) AG Fiat-4 from Volkswagen (1945). When Adolf Hitler commissioned Ferdinand Porsche to create the “people’s car,” he turned to a 1-liter 4-cylinder air-cooled engine that generated 24-horsepower to power it. To keep the car affordable, the engine was located in the rear for efficiency and it was made using lightweight materials such as magnesium for the crankcase and aluminum for the cylinder heads.

Volkswagen AG Fiat-4


5) Chevrolet small block V-8 from General Motors (1955). WardAuto called this engine the “most efficient and durable V-8 design ever…” It was light and less bulky because of the over square bore-to-stroke ratio, short skit, and thin wall block. It was efficient, durable and inexpensive due to volumetric porting and stamped rocker arms pivoting on ball-shaped pedestals. Initially its was 4.3 liters and could generate 162-horsepower. Later it evolved into a 6.5-liter engine that generated 330-horsepower and used to power the 1996 Corvette. Millions of this engine were produced and used by every one of GM’s divisions except Saturn. It was retired in 2002 after 48 years of service.

Chevrolet Small Block V-8 (Courtesy: John Lloyd at


6) Buick V-6 from General Motors (1962). The engine started out as trouble for GM executives because they chopped up a V-8 to become an all-aluminum V-6. It was dropped. However, the first energy crisis reached our shores and so GM tried again. It was refined to include a split-throw, even-firing crankshaft in 1978 and was given a total work over for 1995.

Buick V-6 (Courtesy: Nomad55 at


7) AG Fiat-6 from Porsche (1964) Known as the “boxer” because of the opposed pistons design, the engine also became an icon for motorsports driver and fans everywhere. It replaced the 911’s 2-liter, 130-horsepower engine and generated 190-horsepower when debuted at a race in Paris in 1965. Power was boosted later due to the addition of a turbocharger and the engine was used in street and track cars into the 1970s. By 1997 the lessons that Porsche engineers learned from the racing circuit were adapted and the engine hit 400-horsepower. Later improvements included variable valve timing, intake tracts, four-valve combustion chambers, etched-silicon cylinder bores and direct ignition.

AG Fiat-6








8) AG Inline-6 from BMW (1968). This SOHC 2.5-liter 6-cylinder engine is a direct offspring of BMW’s SOHC 2-liter, 4-cylinder engine. It has been improved over and over again to be lighter, smaller, more powerful, and better running then each of the previous models.

BMW AG Inline-6


9) CVCC inline-4 from Honda Motor Company (1975). In 1980 the auto industry was rocked to its core by government mandated emission standards with which it had to comply. To satisfy the strict requirements in the United States engineers at Honda came up with a Compound Vortex Controlled Combustion (CVCC) 4-cylinder engine. While most cars of the time used a catalytic converter to clean up the exhaust, Honda relied on a three-valve combustion chamber to inhibit the formation of pollutants inside the engine.

Honda CVCC Inline-4 (Courtesy: Jack Bower at


10) Lexus V-8 from Toyota Motor Corp (1990). The 4-liter V-8 features an aluminum-block and head, dual overhead camshafts and four-valve combustion chambers. The engine was used to power the Lexus LS-400, which was promoted by an ad that showed filled champagne glasses on top of the hood. As the engine was revved up, not one drop of champagne was spilled.

Lexus V-8



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Chris Riley
About Chris Riley

I have been wrecking cars for as long as I've been driving them but I keep coming back for more. Two wheels or four, I'm all in. gives me a chance to give something back to the automobile community.

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