These Are The Ten Best Vintage Four-Cylinder Engines
Last week, we asked you to name the greatest pre-1990 four-cylinder engine. Our question spawned a free-for-all debate on our website and various social media outlets, with votes coming in for everything from a late-1940s Crosley motor to the turbocharged Porsche 944 engine and plenty else in between. After reading your opinions and arguing the topic here in the Petrolicious garage, we thought it only right to distill the debate into a ranking of the ten best vintage four-bangers. We hope you agree with our rankings and rationale, but we’re fully prepared for dissent, so please let us know your thoughts. What did we get right, and what did we overlook?
#10 The Volvo B18–Retired New York schoolteacher Mr. Irv Gordon has put more than three million–yes, million–miles on his 1966 Volvo P1800, a feat for which he currently occupies real estate in The Guinness Book of World Records. Granted, this is anecdotal evidence for the greatness of the B18 engine, but even from a wider angle, this engine played no small role in cementing Volvo’s reputation for durability. The motor would eventually power not only the P1800 but also the 122S and the PV-544. And when Volvo was ready to move past the B18 in 1969, they simply bored it out and renamed it the B20.
#9 The Toyota 4A-GE–Sporting a Yamaha-developed cylinder head, the first generation 4A-GE engine was introduced in the 1983 AE86, with production lasting through 1991’s third generation. The engine made its American debut in the 1985 Corolla GT-S, but its most memorable application came in the form of the AW11 MR2.
#8 Offenhauser–Combining power and reliability, Offenhauser engines powered 27 Indianapolis 500 winners between 1934 and 1970. With some variants of the engine capable of three horsepower per cubic inch (almost 185hp/L), Offenhauser simply had no equal in the world of open-wheel racing at the time. Originally developed by Messrs. Fred Offenhauser and Harry Miller, the Offenhauser company saw its greatest success under Messrs. Louis Meyer and Dale Drake, who bought the name and designs in 1946. Not until Ford entered the picture in the early 1960s would Offenhauser finally see a serious challenge to its Indy supremacy.
#7 Cosworth BDA–Based on a Ford Kent block and combined with four valves per cylinder, this was the first Cosworth engine to use belt drive to its camshafts. From the time it was introduced in 1969, the BDA series set the standard that other manufacturers scrambled to match throughout the 1970s. Whether powering the Ford Escort RS1600, Formula Atlantic cars, or Group B rally cars, BDA engines were in a class of their own.
#6 Fiat Twin Cam–Often referred to as the Lampredi Twin in homage to its designer, Mr. Aurelio Lampredi, this inline-four powered a swath of Fiats and Lancias between 1966 and 1997, among them Lancia’s 037 and Delta Integrale rally legends. Indeed, this is the single most successful engine in the history of the World Rally Championship, winning a combined total of ten WRC manufacturer titles for Lancia and Fiat. Along the way, it also carried the Lancia Beta Montecarlo Turbo to two World Sportscar Championships in 1980 and 1981.
#5 Honda B16A–Introduced just in time for our 1990 cutoff, Honda’s B-series featured the company’s first application of its now-legendary VTEC system. If you loved your Civic SiR or your Integra XSi–and, in later years, your Integra Type R–you have this engine to thank.
#4 Ford Model T Four-Cylinder–At 177 cubic inches and twenty horsepower, the Ford Model T engine is, by today’s standards, the very definition of quaint. And yes, because of the Model T’s reliance on gravity to feed petrol from the fuel tank to the carburetor, the cars had to climb hills in reverse when fuel was low. All that being said, this is the car that finally weaned humanity from its dependence on Big Alfalfa. And those horse droppings you didn’t step in as you crossed the street today? You can thank the Model T for their absence.
#3 Alfa Romeo Twin Cam–Originally introduced in the 1290cc Giulietta in 1954, this venerable twin cam engine was ahead of its time from the outset and would go on to power forty years of Alfas. The engine, with its aluminum alloy block and a sound all its own (the sound!), would be adapted for use in Giulias, GTVs, GTA 1300 Juniors, Berlinas, and even Milanos.
#2 Volkswagen E-Motor–Germany’s version of the Model T engine, variations of the air-cooled E-Motor powered everything from early Beetles, VW buses, Porsche 912s and 914s, dune buggies galore, and a whole host of airplanes. So simple and robust was this motor that Volkswagen produced it for seventy years. Even now, it’s nearly impossible to go through a day, in any corner of the world, without hearing one these rattle past you down the street.
And finally, #1… the BMW M10–With a production run that spanned most of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, variations of the M10 powered everything from early BMW 1500s to the E30 316i. When the folks in Munich turbocharged the M10 and rechristened it the M12, they had themselves the engine that would carry Mr. Nelson Piquet to the 1983 Formula One championship and which would become the most successful BMW racing engine of all time. Unfazed at the prospect of gilding the lily, BMW eventually repurposed the M10 block when it developed the S14 engine that powered the E30 M3.
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