The heart of the American muscle car – the V8 engine, that powerhouse of a nation, an engine enshrined in folklore – was invented by… a Frenchman.
On 2 December 1902 Léon Levavasseur patented his new engine design, a petrol-powered engine of V8 configuration. In essence, it was a pair of four-cylinder engines arranged in a vee formation and sharing a common crankshaft. One interesting fact about this first V8, called the ‘Antoinette’ after his financial backer’s daughter, was that it was not intended for use in a car at all. It was first used in speedboats and early aircraft. The pioneering engine was also fuel-injected and, in aircraft, cooled by evaporative steam with long tubes affixed to the fuselage to aid the cooling process.
After witnessing this V8 powering a speed boat on the Côte D’Azur, famed aeronaut Alberto Santos-Dumont asked Levavasseur to design a new, more powerful engine. This success led to Levavasseur’s production of his own aircraft powered by his own engines under the Antoinette name. In the classic film Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, Richard Mays (played by James Fox) flies a replica of one of these elegant monoplanes and cleans the fuel line out with a borrowed feather.
The V8 configuration was used by other French manufacturers from 1904 in aircraft, racing cars and some roadgoing vehicles. Darracq, for example, produced a Land Speed Record car with V8 power in 1905, which achieved a speed of 109mph.
Early V8s were hand-cranked but, as the engine displacement increased, so a new starting method was needed. In a four-cylinder engine, compression comes every half-turn of the crankshaft, but in a V8 that is reduced to a quarter-turn. No human could cope with that, which led to the invention of the electric starter motor.
Cadillac was the first manufacturer to offer this feature, incorporated in the world’s first V8-engined production car in 1912. And from then on, America adopted the V8 as its own.