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James May

James on: the greatest engine ever

Published: 21 Aug 2013

I’ll be brutally honest with you here: I didn’t realise there was an International Engine of the Year award.

But there is, and news reaches me that the winner of the Best Green Engine of the Year 2013 award is Fiat, for its methane-powered TwinAir turbo. Hoorah. Fart-powered two-pot trumps bigger lumps in trophy ceremony.

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This got me thinking. Is it not time for a  greatest engine of all time award? Maybe there has been one, but since I obviously don’t follow these things very carefully, I don’t know of it. So I thought we’d have one right here.

And already there is a problem. This is a massive subject. We’d have to include Thomas Newcomen’s original atmospheric pumping engine, the inspiration for James Watt’s work, and subsequent beam jobs from Boulton and Watt themselves. Where would industry be without these things, if anywhere at all?

Given that, I suppose we’d have to include Sir Charles Parsons’s steam turbine, the motive power behind much of the electricity we’ve consumed, plus railway locomotives by the likes of Gresley, Stanier, the Stephensons and Bulleid. Already this is becoming unwieldy, and we haven’t even left Britain or the subject of steam, and we haven’t included ships.

Dozens of aero engines beg inclusion. “Merlin!” comes the cry of misty-eyed veterans. But what of Blériot’s Anzani three-cylinder radial, hauling him across the channel, or Alcock and Brown’s Eagle VIIs, bringing them home from America by air? What, also, of the engines made by Junkers and Daimler-Benz in Thirties Germany, which did so much to advance the cause of fuel injection? And so on.

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Jet engines? They have to be considered deeply relevant for their role in shrinking the world for everyday folk. How many people have been sustained aloft by Rolls-Royce and General Electric en route to a smashing holiday in Ibiza or Florida? Thousands every day. And once we’re into gas turbines, we’d once again have to consider ships, more railway locomotives, and that thing Richard Hammond pranged.

And now I’m going to introduce rockets, because only the rocket has allowed humankind truly to break the bonds of Earth. Robert Goddard’s original experimental liquid-fuelled jobs are therefore worthy of a nomination, as is the awesome Rocketdyne F-1, five of which propelled the Saturn V for the first two-and-a-half minutes of its journey to the Moon.

Tricky, see? ‘Engine’ is a word we use so casually, but engines of one form or another have been, quite emphatically, the engines of world change, for good or bad. Before mechanical motive power, we were limited to a few horses’ worth, and that held us back in every way. It’s too difficult even as the subject for a PhD thesis.

So, since this is, let’s at least narrow it down to engines for road-going machines. This is good. It’s like acknowledging that a murder suspect isn’t Chinese. It immediately eliminates 1.4 billion people from your enquiries.

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But even now I have a problem. Greatness in an engine could be regarded as a matter of technical analysis, but I’m not so sure. I think it’s something to do with the visceral relationship a human has with a machine. And there’s a lot of undoubtedly important stuff I’ve never experienced, such as WO Bentley’s V12 for Lagonda back in the Thirties, or the Chrysler turbine car, or any Mercedes Silver Arrow.

Let’s be ruthless about this. Let’s rule out anything before my time, experimental, purely for racing, two-stroke or diesel. Welcome, finally, to the International Award for the Greatest Engine of All Time with the caveat that it’s had some significance in the life of me.

Easy! Or is it? I’m lucky enough to have a Ferrari, and the engine is the heart of one. It used to be said that the Ferrari owner paid for the engine and that everything else was thrown in for free. This may still be true, because the iPod connector is crap.

I’ve also owned a V6 Alfa, and that surely is one of the most charismatic motors ever fitted to a vaguely accessible car. There was also a straight-six Triumph job, and the 1275cc A-series in my Mini. I thrilled to the thrum of all these and more.

But we’re not there yet. I think the greatest engine in my life is the 50cc single fitted in my ancient Honda Super Cub motorcycle. In fact, this may truly be the greatest engine of all time. Tens of millions of them have been made, and the bikes they powered transported many times that number of people. I said that identifying the greatest engine of all time was an emotional matter, and that’s why the humble Honda wins.

Quite simply, it’s moved more people.

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