A life well lived: Tracing 120 years of the combustion engine

We’re barely more than a year into it, but there’s already no doubt that this decade will be the most calamitous in the history of the engine.

Even if rumours of the imminent death of the internal combustion engine (and for these purposes, when I say engine, that’s what I mean) prove somewhat premature, we know that we entered the 2020s with almost all cars powered by engines but will leave it with very few. And those that do remain will be downsized shadows of their former selves, at best permanently chaperoned by electric motors to make sure they behave themselves, at worst cast in merely supporting roles to bigger, heavier and more potent electrics.

So let’s not dwell on that and cast our minds back to try to determine the decade in which the good old engine flourished more than any other. This isn’t as simple as you might think, and not simply because my view of what constitutes flourishing will necessarily be different to yours. Is it the decade in which the engine made the greatest technological advance or the one in which they started producing the most power? Is it the decade in which there was the greatest variety of configurations or simply the one in which engines reached their peak efficiency? Every question has a different answer, and the point here is that none is wrong. It’s all down to perspective and preference.

There is, for instance, an extremely strong argument supporting the view that the 1870s were by far the most important for the engine because, although it evolved over time, most would agree that this was the period in which it can be said to have come into being as a practical means of converting thermal energy into mechanical energy. And we won’t let the minor inconvenience that, back then, there was no such thing as a car into which to put one delay us. Or maybe we will.

This, after all, is Autocar. The clue is in the title. So that makes the best decade the 1880s, the one in which Nicolaus Otto’s four-stroke, compressed, charged engine concept was first used by Karl Benz in something that would only some time later become known as a car – surely?

There’s less of a case to be made for the 1890s, unless you include the patenting of the compression-ignition engine that forever after would be known by the name of its creator.

However, the first decade of the last century was definitely a great one for the engine. Such few cars as existed at the dawn of the 20th century were so slow and unreliable, they weren’t yet a remotely practical means of travelling even a reasonable distance. Indeed, it was by no means certain that petrol would win out over steam or electricity as the preferred means of powering the newfangled generation of autocars that were slowly starting to phut their way around the countryside. Petrol-powered cars were noisy, smelly, unclean and good at very little, bar perhaps catching fire. But back in the days when cars often came without air in their tyres or even a steering wheel in their cockpits, expectations weren’t high. And the fact that these cars could be refuelled so easily swung the pendulum in favour of internal combustion for what many believed to be forever – but which turned out only to be the next 120 years.

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1970s Lamborghini Countach: Lamborghini’s V12 just pipped Ferrari’s contemporary flat 12 for sheer sense of occasion as well as specific output. An awesome powerhouse of an engine.

1980s Ferrari F40: Yes, it was turbocharged, but it was intended to win Le Mans and gave insane response, noise, power and flames. Still the most characterful turbo motor ever.

1990s McLaren F1: Paul Rosche’s BMW V12 masterpiece turned the F1 into not just into the world’s most powerful supercar but the most sonically thrilling, too.

2000s Lexus LFA: Unveiled in production form in 2009, the Lexus supercar’s Yamaha-designed V10 might just be not simply the best engine of the decade but of all time.

2010s Porsche 911 GT3 RS 4.0: The 997.2-era GT3 RS had the ultimate iteration of the famed Mezger racing engine, with 4.0 litres and 500bhp of pure, unadulterated automotive theatre.