For more than 135 years, the internal combustion engine has powered the modern world, bringing momentum to personal and public transport, goods movement and, of course, motor racing.
Ever since Carl Benz patented his 0.7bhp Motorwagen in January 1886, the design of his engine has been adapted and improved to be more powerful, more economical, quieter, and more reliable.
It has been the life’s work of brilliant engineers to improve on the piston engine, working out more efficient and refined ways of harnessing the explosive power of hydrocarbons and oxygen.
But that process looks to be at an end. As car manufacturers switch their research programmes to electric vehicles, today’s engines could be as good as they are ever going to get.
Audi, Mercedes and Stellantis — owner of Fiat, Peugeot, Citroen and Vauxhall — have said that they will not be developing any new internal combustion engines. Jaguar will only sell electric cars from 2025; Rolls-Royce and Ford will follow in 2030. By 2035, it will be illegal to sell a new car with an internal combustion engine, exactly 150 years since the Benz Paten Motorwagen.
In some cases, it may still live on: F1 isn’t dropping the internal combustion engine yet, with plans for a new generation powered by carbon-neutral, synthetic fuel, but the talk is of a cheaper, simpler unit with greater electrical power.
Peugeot's pre-war engineering creativity brought huge gains. Lawrence Butcher gets into the details of how the French recipe for success came about
So now is the moment to explore how we have got to this stage: the ultimate incarnation of the internal combustion engine. In a new series, we will be exploring the most significant innovations in its development.
We’ll look at how manufacturers including Auto Union, Mercedes, Porsche, Cosworth and Toyota brought new features and technology to its design, often driven by the search for racing performance, but delivering benefits to the engines on the roads today.
We begin with Peugeot and its revolutionary pre-WWI engines that were so innovative, we’re still using many of the elements that they introduced.