We live in amazing times, the latest range of high power engines is sweeping in like a tidal wave of thrust, new technical developments have unleashed the piston engines true potential, so much so that 500bhp saloon cars are common, and that used to be the exclusive territory of supercars and racers. Now there is talk of 2000bhp hypercar monsters smashing the 300mph mark.
Cars like the excellent Jaguar XJ and Audi A8 dally with around 500bhp seem to be popping up all over the place. Don’t get me wrong, they are all truly fantastic cars, it is bristling with innovation and simply superb engineering. The GDi engines are nothing short of remarkable, more power and yet more economy, a very neat trick.
But these cars are also a turning point, a major historical event. You see, I am fairly certain that this will be the last decade of the big piston engine. All car companies are going through the same changes.
Oh sure there will be upgrades over the years, there will be trophies to be won as they morph into race engines with even higher outputs. But the basic engines will not be replaced.
Even in the USA, where big V8s roamed the earth for decades, customer demand has shifted to smaller and more efficient cars, the giants of American car production were staggered when the best selling car became a Japanese compact. Then the recession hit, and some of the giants fell, only kept alive with government life support, their only hope is to match the foreign efficiencies with smaller engines and hybrids. They even have a dictate from the government to meet these new challenges, so there is absolutely no way a proposal to develop a new big V8 would stand a chance. Yes folks, its the end of the American V8 too.
Ferrari have just launched their fastest road car ever, with a fantastic engine also using the latest direct injection technology, they have had a wonderful history of designing some of the best V engines in the world, but even they are not immune to the forthcoming emissions requirements, the problems the planet faces are global and effect every manufacturer in the world.
The thing is, it usually takes at least seven years to bring a new engine from an idea into full scale production, there is a hell of a lot more to it than just making a few race engines, there is durability testing in far flung places, running cars for hundred of thousands of miles and fine tuning any glitches out, building production tooling and testing it out, the list goes on. In short, its a big job.
The mighty new engines of today started life on a piece of paper when Bill Clinton was still president, they recognised that we demand more performance, but also that emissions regulations and CO2 targets would be tougher too. But what has happen since then is that the world has realised that absolutely no CO2 is acceptable, not just less. And also the oil prices have gone silly, and are likely to get worse. The world has changed, drastically since then.
So the plans for a decade into the future have to be zero carbon, not just a little bit of carbon, none.
For decades all the big car companies have had vague plans for electric cars in ‘the future’. Prototype and experimental cars have been trundled round for years, but the plan to put them into production always got pushed back.
After the huge problems of the last couple of years, all those ‘future’ plans have been pulled forwards with astonishing speed, the first step will be hybrids as the infrastructure and familiarity builds, then once customers are used to the idea everyone will go full electric across the board. And this will probably happen over the next ten years, so there is absolutely no point in anyone designing a new big piston engine.
But that doesn’t mean the end of performance cars, on the contrary, as electric drive technology finally gets some proper funding the performance will match, and then exceed that of even the fastest petrol cars. Imagine having a 1000bhp hub motor on each wheel, ultimate control over traction and stability, but with the power of four Veyrons. You see there is one thing that always drives engineering forward, and that is human desire. As car enthusiasts our basic desire is for obscenely powerful cars, no matter how that is achieved. Make no mistake, the future is bright.
If we look back into history we can see people lamenting the end of steam power, but very soon after the big corporations started putting real resources into the internal combustion engine the technology matched and then exceeded the performance of even the finest steam engines. Much the same thing is happening now with electric drives. And I think there will similar parallels to the past in the future, there will probably always be piston engine enthusiasts, just as there are steam enthusiasts today. There may well be a few niche companies still making one off piston engines in the far future, and crowds will gather as these relics of a bygone age are fired up. I suspect I will be one of those enthusiasts, there is nothing quite like the growl of a V8 or the howl of a V12 at full chat to stir the soul.
In fact that engine noise is a very emotional thing, it changes the way we act, alters our mood and effects our decisions. You can buy plug in gizmo’s that make a V8 noise that matches the speed of your real engine, plug it into a Civic and it feels like driving a NASCAR racer, and it messes with your head, you feel like keeping your foot on the accelerator that little bit longer, pushing that little bit harder. It’s a strange phenomenon.
It’s such a powerful thing that companies such as Lotus are doing serious engineering work on synthesising the sounds and integrating them as a part of new car designs. It might sound like cheating, a bit artificial, but the fact is that it works, and even electric cars could sound like your favourite Ferrari or Aston.
Going back to the high power saloons of today, if you can afford one then buy it, seriously. Not only because they are such good cars, but because it is the triumphant finally of over a century of car development involving the good old piston engine. The next ten years will see developments of these engines, special editions, race versions and hybrids in a superb closing chapter, like the final chord of the most rousing orchestral piece ever performed, it has all built up to this moment and the audience should be on their feet cheering.
Its a rare moment in time, a turning point, something that will be written into the history books. So enjoy the hec out of it.
What will you miss about piston engines, will it be the noise, or the smell, or the way the power is delivered, or even having to change gear?