Thursday, January 8, 2015

A Shout Out To 4-Cylinders I Have Known (One Distantly)

Until he was in his 50's, my Dad bought 6-cylinder cars.  He wanted the family cars to impact the family budget as little as possible.  He didn't cave until 1971, when he had an executive job.  Maybe he finally felt he needed air-conditioning for taking important people to lunch. He bought a Chrysler Newport with a 318 V-8, possibly the worst car he owned (in my estimation).

I learned to drive in 1961, in my Dad's light green Plymouth Valiant with a 101 h.p. (claimed) slant-6 (The best thing about that car was its 3-speed floor shift.)  The Valiant, and Chevy's Corvair, and Ford's Falcon--all 6's--were Detroit's first cut at import fighters.  They were called "compact cars" then. Today they would be considered mid-sized.

Aside from the Valiant, most of my youthful experience was with 4-cylinder cars at the imported car store where I worked summers.  My young adult experience, with (new) cars I bought myself, was mostly with 4's too: a VW Beetle and a Datsun 510.  I took a pass on Detroit's second generation of import fighters, the Chevy Vega and the Ford Pinto.

In my mature years (ahem) I've gone back to 4's: a Ford Escort that "put my kids through college" and my current Honda Civic Si, which I wanted.  I like a 4.  It's cheap to run.  In the pre-computer age, it was cheap and easy to maintain.  A 4 is often short-geared, both in the box and the final drive, which makes you feel like you're going like the hammers of hell, even if you're just keeping up with traffic.  In a hot 4 like the Si, you can leave traffic behind at will.  Modern 4's are engineered to operate as smoothy as a 6 or an 8.  And of course they're Interstate-capable.

When I was young, 4's were exotic, in the sense that you didn't see them often.  Now they're in maybe 30-40% of the cars on the road.  You (I) don't really need more than a 4.  More isn't better--although it can be more fun.

The first 4 I had much experience with was the BMC B-Series 1600 in the MGA.  If in good tune, it was relatively smooth.
If slightly out of tune... not so much...  The ports and manifolds involved some tortuous routing, even with twin carbs.
And the engineering was hardly state-of-the-art: all cast iron, only 3 main bearings, and siamesed exhaust ports for
the 2 center cylinders.  Nevertheless, the MGA and MGB were fun cars for runs in the twisties.

The BMC A-Series, seen here in a Mini, was smaller but almost identical to the B-Series.  Before becoming a minor
(ahem) legend in the Mini-Cooper S as a 1.3 liter, it had done service in the Morris Minor as a 1.0 liter and the Mini
itself as a 0.85 liter.  My own Mini 850, on its 10-inch wheels, was pretty much all-in at 60 m.p.h.  When I drove it
back and forth to college, I avoided Interstates.  Which was fine: the trip was short and the roads were fun.  It died
of a burned exhaust valve (and thus no compression), a not-uncommon problem.

The 2 liter Triumph TR-3 engine was much more torquey, with a rorty exhaust note too, than the BMC B-Series.  But it
was also rougher-running, with a tendency to rock on its mounts.  The dealership I worked for didn't sell Triumphs, but
we took them in trade.  My occasion to drive them was when detailing them before delivery as a used car.   When BMC
dropped the B-Series into the unit-body chassis of the MGB (with roll-up windows!), it was a quantum leap forward in
refinement over the TR-3 (and the MGA, for that matter).

The Alfa Romeo all-aluminum d.o.h.c. 1.3, 1.6, and 1.75 liter, with its lovely cylinder head
(replete with acorn nuts) and two twin-choke Weber carbs.  You could buy this for the
street in the 50's and '60's.  Regular readers of this blog know how in-the-tank I am
for this engine.  Nothing reminds me more of the engine in my modern Honda
Civic Si, although Honda takes the small 4 to a whole new level in power and

Above and below: the VW Beetle's flat-4.  It went from 1.1 liters to 1.7.  A high-school buddy and I had some great times
in his Dad's 36 h.p. Beetle.  In 1970, I bought my own which had a whopping 40 h.p.--and a heater/defroster that even
kinda sorta worked.  Like all European 4's of the day (except for the Italians's) the Beetle's engine was strangled by
its intake and exhaust porting and manifolds.  But the boxer design made it smoother than most.  The widely
spaced gear ratios didn't support fun driving (3rd was direct drive and 4th was overdrive).  But they made
for more relaxed high-speed cruising, which, along with its build quality, explained the Beetle's wide
acceptance among non-enthusiast Americans.

In spite of its overhead cam, decent porting and manifolds, and 96 h.p., the engine in my Datusn 510 was a bit of a
disappointment.  It ran out of revs too quickly (possibly because the head was not crossflow) and was rather rough
at high revs.  Torque was OK and the gearbox was fine, so it was still fun to drive.  "The revolution" in 4's was
yet to come.

The most powerful 4: the BMW 1.5 turbo that powered some Formula 1 cars in the 1980's.  It made (as I recall) 800+ h.p.
in race trim, and 1100+ h.p. in qualifying trim.

The 1.8 liter Ford... er... Mazda engine in my 1993 Ford Escort GT... er... Mazda 3.  I don't remember this engine as a
16-valve: that is, lively.  But the automatic transmission I wanted in the car for urban traffic might have had something
to do with that.  The engine was still running strong and trouble-free when I got rid of the car 10 years it was new.

The revolution has arrived: the 197 h.p. engine of my Honda Civic Si, coupled to a close-ratio 6-speed box and a Torsen
limited-slip differential.  Yes, the car is front wheel drive--and so what?  Huge grin factor.  All-aluminum, crossflow
head with 16 valves, 8000 revs, plenty of power if you're near the VTEC kicking in (at 6200), butter smooth.

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