Sunday, August 12, 2012

Who Built the First V-8 Engine?

The V-8 is so ubiquitous an engine design that we sometimes don't fully appreciate its long history and tides of favour and obscurity. The '55-'57 Chevrolet crowd act as if the first V-8 emerged, fully formed, in the 1955 Chevrolet. That was and still is an excellent engine design, but it's by far not the first V-8, nor even the first overhead valve V-8.

Chevrolet itself first came out with an overhead-valve V-8 model in 1917, but it was not commercially successful in its price range and disappeared from the market after 1918.

Lincoln has used V-8s throughout its long history, right from 1920 and Henry Leland's high-precision, high quality, 60° bent eight. It's true that Lincoln dropped the V-8 from 1933 to 1948, but this was in favour of a series of V-12s!

Cadillac introduced the first commercially successful V-8 engine in 1913, in a one-two punch following the introduction of the first, modern, electric self-starter in 1912. These moves certainly boosted Cadillac's fortunes and prompted a raft of other V-8 powered American cars - some with proprietary units offered by engine makers, others designing their very own. In fact, every General Motors make except Buick tried out at least one V-8 model in the 1917-1918 period, in an effusive but brief embrace of this engine type.

Still, Cadillac was not the first to market with a V-8 engined model. Consider the pioneering French automaker DeDion Bouton, which brought out their first V-8 for 1910. So long wedded to the twin cylinder engine type, the factory had to move with the times to four-cylinder engines, then a sort of twin-four. The DeDion V-8 was less efficient than a four-cylinder engine of the same cubic displacement, so it was obvious that more engineering was required. This never happened, as DeDion Bouton was unable to finance this much-needed research. Therefore, the French company pulled its unsuccessful V-8 models from the market, and so passed the baton to Cadillac.

And yet, was DeDion Bouton the first auto manufacturer to sell a V-8 model? No indeed. We have to paddle further upstream in the river of automobile history.

In 1909-10 there was the Coyote Eight, built in Redondo Beach, California of all places. It was said to have a 50 hp eight - but was it a Vee or straight eight? Probably a Vee, but few would have been made.

It was 1906 when the British car maker Adams announced a V-8 model, to add to its line of twins and fours. These touring cars could be recognised by the radiator outline spelling out a big capital 'A' in polished brass.

The 35/40hp V-8 engine was based on the Antoinette aero engine, for which Adams were the British agents. This French unit was designed for service equally in automobiles and aeroplanes and could be found in fairly successful monoplanes of the same name. Antoinette monoplanes competed in the Rheims, France aero meeting in 1909 - the first such international event.

The Adams V-8 was raised to 60 bhp and was offered from 1906 through 1909. Crankshaft breakages plagued the model and it was withdrawn.

Henry Royce had come out with three-cylinder and four-cylinder models in his early experimental phase, but realised that the future lay in multiple cylinder engines. This was particularly after his teaming up with The Hon. C.S. Rolls, who knew what the wealthy English buyer wanted in cars, Rolls being an enthusiast and car dealer himself. Royce's next creation was the Rolls-Royce Legalimit V-8 of 1905, a low-slung roadster with its engine governed to the prevailing speed limit in Great Britain of 20 mph, hence the name. Then as now, no one wanted a car that was hobbled to miserable and arbitrary speed limits, and thus not more than three examples were built. None survive.

Another British car maker introduced a V-8 car in 1905 - Leader. This now obscure Nottingham-based company fielded a range of 4-cylinder models from 1 ½ to 7 ½ litres capacity. As if they wished to lead in all markets, Leader also made not one but two V-8 models - the 60hp with 9.428 Litres capacity and the 90hp with a giant 15.934 litres size. The 90hp may well have been the largest V-8 ever produced for a passenger car - and it may have been the earliest! Since in those days, you were lucky to get 10 actual horsepower from every litre of engine volume, 90 from 15 litres seems about right.

Leader re-organised itself and from 1906 all its cars were named New Leader. It continued a slew of 4-cylinder models over its final two years, adding a tiny 3-cylinder car for good measure. A last 8-cylinder car was produced for 1906 as the 70/90hp, with a similar 15.511 litre swept volume, but it is unclear whether this was in a Vee or a straight configuration.

Going back further in time, America's Marmon tried to market an air-cooled V-8 in 1904, though this may only have remained at one prototype. Marmon meanwhile continued selling V-4 engined cars, still air-cooled. Perhaps Howard Marmon felt confident enough to return to the V-8 in 1906, when a special 60 hp model was announced, priced at a cool $5,000. It was a lot of money for what must have looked like an experimental model, so sales were minuscule and it was withdrawn in 1908.

Without considering the Ader racing car of 1904, can we find any earlier road cars with V-8 engines? No - that's it. The crown goes to Howard Marmon and his 1904 prototype or limited production offering, which may have originated from two of his V-4s being adapted into a single engine unit.

Just out of interest, can we answer the question of whether anyone built any eight-cylinder road car before this? To coin a phrase, yes we can.

Charron, Girardot & Voight (C.G.V.) of France built a straight-8 prototype in 1902 or 1903! It was actually gearless and billed as such, having been assumed that there was so much torque at all speeds, there was no need for a gearbox. This in-line eight would probably have been built up of two four-cylinder engines. Many manufacturers at this time still assembled their engines from separately cast cylinders, so building up an engine in this way was not out of the question. The long, unbalanced crankshaft must have whipped around like a skipping rope, more even than the new six-cylinder Napier with its infamous 'power rattle'. It is not known if any copies of the C.G.V. eight were built. Considering the engineering problems to be overcome and the state of the automotive art at the time, a straight-eight in 1903 was well before its time.

So our journey back in time ends here, as so many ideas from the automotive world do, with the pioneering French at the very dawn of the motor car.

Igor Spajic writes on antique, vintage and classic cars and other subjects. He contributes to a website ( ) which is dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of antique and vintage cars. This article is reproduced there with photos and additional material.

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