There’s a pretty straightforward hierarchy to engines: four cylinders are for economy cars, six cylinders are for mid-level luxury cars, eight cylinders are for muscle cars are trucks and 12 cylinders lord over the rest. But there are exceptions, and there’s a rung above the 12: the mythical and unbelievably rare 16-cylinder engine.
Sixteen-cylinder engines aren’t necessarily good engines. They are part of a philosophy of a bygone era, when just adding more cylinders was the most rational way of making more power. Their heyday was in the heady interwar years, when we weren’t particularly good at making efficient engines, but we had enough money flowing into high-end automobile road and race cars that people would try to make sixteen cylinders work.
But they do sound particularly glorious, as you can tell in this little compilation video:
Best of all is the last great V16, BRM’s 1950s 1.5 liter F1 engine that sounds like aliens have snuck up on planet earth and are tearing the globe in half. Actually, just listen to more of the BRM V16:
The engine at the top of this article is not featured in the video, and there’s a good reason for it.
It is the Porsche flat-16, just about as rare as 16-cylinder motors come. It was going to be the motor that powered Porsche’s 917s that would compete in the no-restrictions Can Am series. Power was big back in those late ‘60s/early ‘70s days, and Porsche’s first thought at making more power than their naturally-aspirated flat 12 was to build up to a 16.
But Porsche quickly figured out that turbocharging their existing 12 was not only easier to get to work, but also lighter and more powerful. That’s sort of the whole story of the 16-cylinder engine—for decades it has been easier and more efficient to get the same power you might out of a 16 as you would with a more highly-strung engine with fewer cylinders.
I was very lucky enough to see this thing on an unplanned trip to Volkswagen’s Autostadt, their original factory home in Wolfsburg, Germany. Porsche, I believe, is in the process of restoring the motor. I certainly hope so. When I saw it a few years ago, the engine didn’t even have all of its spark plug leads.
Of course, today there is still Bugatti and their incredible W16, applying the philosophy of turbocharging and boosted efficiency to a massive eight-liter W16, like two banks of narrow VR8s. It was not an easy project to complete, if you remember the days before the Veyron debuted. When, though, will we see that thing running all the way flat out?