Truck Trend Legends: The V-8 Engine
The V-8 Engine
Throughout the United States, for most of the 20th century—and much of the new millennium so far—the way to upgrade almost anything that moves is to put in a small-block V-8. There’s probably a guy right now sitting on his lawn mower enjoying that particular mix of noise, speed, and thrills that only a V-8 can provide. A tuning company fits Chevy small-block V-8 engines into little MX-5 Miata roadsters, which sounds like one of the best ideas anyone has ever had.
So there’s an element of taking the V-8 for granted, because it’s been an intrinsic part of our motoring landscape for so long. But there was a time when the V-8 didn’t exist, before someone had the idea to combine eight cylinders and put them into a V configuration. Considering there have been so many American cars using V-8 power, it might be worth guessing that it was invented by an American. But no.
It was a Frenchman who took out the original patent: Léon Levavasseur. He was an engineer, inventor, and aircraft designer who had also studied fine arts—a Renaissance man, of sorts. He needed an engine that was powerful yet light. A V-8 needs no more space than a straight six, yet it can deliver more muscle. He patented the idea in 1902 and his engine went into boats and planes. It powered another Frenchman, Hubert Latham, to become the first person to reach an altitude of 3,600 feet.
In 1905, Rolls-Royce built a 3.5L V-8 for one of its cars, known as the “Legalimit” because Britain’s speed limit at the time was 20 mph. The engine was designed to ensure that the car could hit that legal limit regardless of how steep any slope might be.
Other makers eventually jumped on board. Cadillac had the L-Head in 1914. Three years later, Chevrolet launched its version. Ford’s Flathead came along in 1932 and stayed in production for almost 40 years. The first Chrysler Hemi fired up in 1951.
It’s the small-block Chevy V-8, though, that really stands out as something special. A sweet ratio of price to power has always made it a winning proposition. It’s also been fairly easy to work on, and plenty of people have cooked up various ways to boost output. It’s relatively efficient, too—the ability to make 1 horsepower from 1 cubic inch was quite a landmark at the time. Chevrolet has produced more than 100 million units and, in its various forms, a small-block V-8 has gone into sedans, pickups, sport-utility vehicles, vans, wagons, muscle cars, ponycars, open-wheel racers, and sports cars.
This was only Chevy’s second V-8 design. It was developed by Edward Cole and Harry Barr, both of whom also worked on the Cadillac large-block V-8. Here’s the remarkable bit: Cole and Barr did it in just 15 weeks. Fortunately, they had firm and good ideas for what the engine needed, as well as knowing what components to omit. They were so confident that they ordered the tooling for the factory before their engine had even ticked over.
The small-block V-8 has now gone through a number of incarnations with many changes, including iron blocks to all-aluminum construction, carburetors to direct fuel injection, and increases in displacement. One constant, though, is a cross-plane crankshaft. Look at one of these end-on, and it will look like a symmetrical x or a plus sign. These are most common on V-8 engines set at a 90-degree angle. The shaft is counterbalanced and provides smooth operation, along with those distinct burbling exhaust notes we’ve all come to know and love.
The downside of a cross-plane crank is that it’s heavy and therefore doesn’t like high revs, which is where the other “flavor” of V-8 comes in, the one with the flat-plane crank. No prizes for guessing the shape. This does away with the counterweights and is therefore lighter and more willing to respond to a heavy throttle pedal. That’s why it’s used in sports machines. It has more of a bark than a growl. But it needs the addition of balancer shafts if it’s going to be used on the road, and some element of civility is required.
The future of the V-8 is far from assured. Advances in forced induction and engine-management systems have resulted in big power from smaller displacements and fewer cylinders, along with bearable fuel economy. Hybrid vehicles add electric power while also cutting emissions. Some companies and countries want to phase out gasoline and diesel altogether. For one brilliant era, though, the engine that powered America, and sent tingles down the spine of anyone who heard it, was a V-8.