The History of the V8 Engine

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The History of the V8 Engine

The Antoinette

The question of who built the very first V8 engine remains, like much of motoring history, the subject of conjecture. What is irrefutable is that, in 1902, Léon Levavasseur took out a patent on a light but quite powerful gasoline injected V8 engine. He called it the 'Antoinette' after the young daughter of his financial backer. From 1904 he installed this engine in a number of competition speedboats and early aircraft. The aviation pioneer Alberto Santos-Dumont saw one of these boats in Côte d'Azur and decided to try it on his 14-bis aircraft. Its early 24 hp (18 kW) at 1400 rpm version with only 55 kg (120 lb) of weight was interesting, but proved to be underpowered.

Santos-Dumont ordered a larger and more powerful version from Levavasseur. He changed its dimensions from the original 80 mm stroke and 80 mm bore to 105 mm stroke and 110 mm bore, obtaining 50 hp (37 kW) with 86 kg (190 lb) of weight, including cooling water. Its power-to-weight ratio was not surpassed for 25 years. Levavasseur eventually produced its own line of V8 equipped aircraft, named Antoinette I to VIII. Hubert Latham piloted the V8 powered Antoinette IV and Antoinette VII in July 1909 on two failed attempts to cross the English Channel. However, in 1910, Latham used the VII with the same engine to become the first in the world to reach an altitude of 3600 feet.

The Great-Grand-Daddy Of All V8s

Voisin constructed pusher biplanes with Antoinette engines, also, notably the one first flown successfully by Henry Farman in 1908. The V8 engine configuration became popular in France from 1904 onward, and was used in a number of aircraft engines introduced by Renault, and Buchet among others. Some of these engines found their way into automobiles in small quantities. In 1905, Darracq built a special car to beat the world speed record. They came up with two racing car engines built on a common crankcase and camshaft. The result was monstrous engine with a displacement of 1,551 cu in (25,416 cc), good for 200 bhp (150 kW). Victor Hemery fixed that record on 30 December 1905 with a speed of 109.65 mph (176.46 km/h). This car still exists.

A month later it was driven even faster in the USA by Louise Chevrolet and Victor Demogeot. Then it vanished from the public eye for all time, only to be recalled by an occasional writer as the great-grand-daddy of all V8s. As for precise details about the machine and its exploits, these have been scarce, threadbare, and above all contradictory. However, Unique Cars and Parts have covered off in some detail the exploits of driver Victor Etienne Demogeot in our Race Drivers - Legends of Track and Rally features.

Rolls Royce Join The Party

Rolls-Royce built a 3,535 cc (216 cu in) V8 car from 1905 to 1906, but only 3 copies were made and Rolls-Royce reverted to a straight-6 design. De Dion-Bouton introduced a 7,773 cc (474 cubic inch) automobile V8 in 1910 and displayed it in New York in 1912. It was produced only in small quantities, but inspired a number of American manufacturers to follow suit One of the first production automobile V8s was introduced in the United States in 1914 by Cadillac, a division of General Motors which sold 13,000 of the 5.4 litre (330 cu in) L-head engines in its first year of production. Cadillac would go on to become a primarily V8 company ever since.

Oldsmobile, another division of General Motors, introduced its own 4 L (244 cu in) V8 engine in 1916. Chevrolet introduced a 288 cu in (4.7 litre) V8 engine in 1917, but after merging with General Motors in 1918, discontinued the V8 to focus on economy engines because it was problematic and expensive. In February 1915, Swiss automotive engineer Marc Birkigt designed the first example of the famous Hispano-Suiza V8 single overhead cam aviation engines, in differing displacements, using dual ignition systems and in power levels from 150 horsepower to some 300 horsepower, in both direct-drive and geared output shaft versions. Almost 50,000 "Hisso" V8 powerplants in total, as the engines became nicknamed, were built in Spain, France, the United Kingdom, Italy and even by Wright Aeronautical in the United States during World War I, and are said to have powered roughly half of all Allied aircraft of the WW I era.

By 1932, Henry Ford introduced one of his last great personal engineering triumphs: his "en block", or one piece, V8 engine. The production was the largest commercially available V8 to the masses. Offered as an option to an improved 4-cylinder Model "B" engine in a low priced car, this compact V8 power plant, with its down draft carburetor, enabled 1932 Ford to outperform all other popular competitors and was conceived as years ahead of its time. The Ford flathead V8 is still heralded today as one of the first pioneers in 'hot rod' engines.

Darracq V8 Engine
Darracq were the first automobile company to put a V8 engine into the speed-records book. A relatively advanced design for 1906, the Darracq had pushrod overhead valves, 25 litres capacity and 200 hp output. It did two miles in less than a minute at Daytona Beach.

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