5 of the Strangest Engines Ever Built by a Carmaker

There Are Some Strange, Weird Engines Out There!

Updated September 28, 2018

Here’s a collection of unusual engines, some designed to advance the state-of-the-art, others attempts to short-cut a solution. However all are fascinating.

In this article we’re looking only at engine produced by automakers. There is no shortage of interesting and unique engines created by entrepreneurs, but we’ll save those for another time. We also didn’t want to go back into the Brass Age when all sorts of different designs were tried. Instead our example just go back into the 1980s at the latest. If you have any suggestions for additional engines, please pass them along for version two.

First, some background.

In 1912, a 27 year old engineer named Ernest Henry, then working for Peugeot, set down what would become the basic architecture for most automobile engines in production today. It was an inline four cylinder design, with double overhead camshafts (DOHC), four valves per cylinder, and a hemispherical combustion chamber.

Weird EnginesErnest Henry’s original 1912 Peugeot engine.

The original design used shafts and bevel gears to drive the camshafts, which were replaced with gears in 1913, along with the addition of dry sump lubrication. The engine was very successful in racing, winning both the French GP in 1912 and 1913 and the Indianapolis 500 in 1913.

Since that time engineers have sought to develop new configurations of that basic design, some advancing the state-of-the-art, like Lancia, others failing miserably, like Cadillac. Here are a few of our favorites:

Bugatti Veyron W-16

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The bare block of a Veyron engine, showing the cylinder configuration

The Bugatti Veyron engine has its roots in a failed Volkswagen motor – the W8 of the 2001 – 2004 VW Passat. A mere 40,000 of these motors made it out of the factory over those four years owing to two factor: first and most likely the most significant was price. The base MSRP was $21K, the W8 almost twice that at $38K. At that price, you’re in A6 range, and which is going to impress your neighbors more? Second was customers’ fear of the unknown. But mostly the first reason.

So VW decides to put two of the these W8 motors together to create what they call a “W16” for its Bugatti brand.

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The Life F190, one of the worst Formula 1 engines ever, had a true W cylinder configuration.

First, though, a true W configuration is just like you’d imagine it: Instead of a V with the intake in the valley between the cylinder heads, you stick another row of cylinders. In VWs’ case, there are two banks with cylinders offset on each side of the V. Not exactly a W, but both have the benefit being the large number of cylinders producing a smooth power flow in a relatively small package.

The W16 is extremely compact, only 28 inches long, but heavy at 882 lbs. It features four turbochargers that help it  produce nearly 1000 hp and is truly a 16 cylinder in that each of the cylinders fire in sequence.

Lancia Delta S4

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Under the Group B rules of the 1980s, cars could be normally-aspirated or could use sometime of forced induction, with a factor used to multiply displacement of forced induction engines to establish a fair weight for all cars. Forced induction was assumed to be either supercharging or turbocharging but it didn’t you you could use both – which is exactly what Lancia did.

The reason Lancia combined supercharging and turbocharging to reduce turbo lag at low engine speeds.The supercharger would kick-in immediately, as it was engine driven, and the control system would bypass the supercharger once the turbocharger had spun up and was delivering sufficient pressure.

Officially, the car produced 480 horsepower from its 1.76 L four-cylinder engine, but was probably closer to 560 hp in competition (making it the most powerful rally car ever), clocking 0-60 in 2.2 seconds. And tested on the dyno without boost restrictions it’s reported the little motor could produce 1000 horsepower.

Cizeta V16T

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The story of the Cizeta V16T is like a soap opera and way too complicated to go into now, as it involves the founder fleeing Italy for tax reasons to Orange County, CA, a Grammy-winning partner who departed before the first car was built, a designer who brought his “bootleg” exterior for a Lamborghini with him, and the Feds who seized a car here in the US. See what I mean?

The engine itself was described as a V-16, which it most definitely was not. It was a bespoke crankcase cast and machined for Cizeta that utilized Lamborghini Urraco V8 internals to create an engine comprised of two V8s with a center drive gear transferring powering to the transmission. What’s lost with this design is the smoothness that comes with a multiple cylinder design. You might as well mount two V-8s next to each other. It sounds impressive to say your engine is a V-16 but it really offered none of the benefits that configuration offers.

Cadillac V8-6-4

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In the late 1960s and early 1970s Cadillac made the largest (500 CID) and among the most powerful engines available.  And owners expected that their Cadillac was among the most powerful on the road. But by 1981 Cadillac could no longer count on cubic inches alone. With tightening emissions and fuel economy regulations, Caddy’s massive engines’ output was reduced so far they could barely out-accelerate a compact car.

Cadillac’s answer was the one-year only V8-6-4 engine, based on its proven and popular “big block” engine. It was called a “variable displacement” engine and newly developed digital electronics permitted an on-board computer to measure engine load (demand on the engine) and then via electronic solenoids on the valve, deactivate two or four cylinders. The valves would both remain open on a deactivated cylinder, no fuel would flow to the injector, and no juice to the spark plug.

Cadillac owners didn’t care for the system, for one reason or another. One of the most common complaints was the roughness of the engine when it ran in V6 mode (which we all know now that a V6 configuration on a 90 degree V with an 8 cylinder crankshaft design will vibrate something fierce). One wire was all that needed disconnecting to disable the system and it’s been estimated that over 80% of owners of the V8-6-4 had the dealer “pull the plug”.

Ford T-Drive

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Mercedes straight eight racing engine of the 1950s with a central power take-off gears. The camshafts were driven by central gears as well.

Perhaps inspired by the Mercedes-Benz race cars of the 1950s, Ford set out to develop a straight 8 engine with the drive taken from the middle of the crankshaft rather than the end. While this architecture does mitigate “crankshaft whip” at higher engine speeds, it was also a way for Ford to pack a larger engine into a front-wheel drive car and take less space from the passenger compartment than a V8 might.

Work began on what would be called Ford’s T-Drive in the early 1990s using Australian Ford inline six cylinder engines. The Australian arm of the company had continued to develop the straight six that first appeared in the Falcon into a modern engine with SOHC crossflow cylinder heads. From that design, Ford engineers created four, six, and eight cylinder versions of the T-Drive configuration.

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A T-Drive engine installation on the left (note the brake reservoirs bolted to crossbrace to make room in the engine compartment. On the right installed in a Thunderbird with plans for an AWD drivetrain.

It was quickly discovered that the T-Drive system offered no real advantage over traditional FWD four cylinder installations, but that in six and eight cylinder modes the engines were heavy, which greatly effected handling, difficult to package, suffered from vibrations, and in general not worth pursuing. All that remains are a handful of grainy snapshots, as certainly all components of the program had long ago met the crusher.

As Henry Ford, the founder of their company once said “failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.”


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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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