Simpler were the times when the purpose of passenger cars was merely to take people from one point to another; but since then passenger cars have travelled a long distance. Today’s definition of a passenger car has become a lot more complex as it consists a lot more than a cushion seat and an engine. Like the story of every other invention; automobiles have also risen simply from “Human Needs”.
Necessity, demand, market competition, laws, awareness and the simple thrive for something better, are factors that have driven the progress of passenger cars from the era of Karl Benz and Ford Henry to that of today. Today’s passenger cars are much faster, more comfortable, more reliable, safer, and better in every way definable. From a piece of luxury they have now become a necessity for transport.
From 1873 to 1883, a series of steam-powered passenger vehicles were built, being able to carry 6 to 12 people, they were able to achieve speeds up to 60 km/h (37 mph), such as the Rapide and the L’Obéissante. In them, a boiler was mounted behind the passenger compartment with the engine at the front, driving the differential through a shaft via chain drive to the rear wheels. The driver sat behind the engine and steered the vehicle using a wheel mounted on a vertical shaft. The layout more closely resembled late motor cars unlike others in the time. History states that Karl Benz was the first person to make passenger cars commercially in the 19th century, they were only owned by the rich and royal back then. The first ever I.C engine (Internal combustion engine) used by Benz in his car, produced a mere 35 horses and had a maximum speed of not more than 25mph (40kmph); the engine was huge and heavy. Engines from the 18th and 19th centuries had a very short life, they just blew up mainly due to lack of proper cooling systems which when overheated, caused engine seizure. Also the material used to make these engines was very heavy causing huge frictional loses. Plus, the heavy design caused the need of more man-power during manufacturing.
But soon radiators were installed with engines. This was also one of the reasons that engines eventually shifted to the front of the car from the rear. But, this front engine layout also added a problem. Power was to be transferred to the rear wheels. This was overcome by a propeller shaft which went beneath the passenger compartment, adding both cost and weight to the car. Soon, proper front wheel drive cars were developed. The 19th century marked the starting of motor-sport racing, lot of research was done on engines to make them compact and efficient. By the mid-20th century, all the research and technology developed and used for motor-sport racing was then implemented to passenger car engines. That’s how we got the first passenger cars with a turbo chargers (the Chevrolet Corvair Monza and the Oldsmobile Jetfire were the first turbo-powered passenger cars, and made their debut in the US market in 1962-63). Proper cooling systems with coolants mixed with water were also passed to the passenger car engines by their elder brothers. With proper cooling systems, the thermal efficiency of engines shot up, which meant in simpler language that more power could be produced from the same sized engine than earlier (next paragraph). During this time, engines were made from new alloys containing aluminium, which not only made them lighter, but also provided better cooling. With the introduction of fuel injectors in the 20th century, which are widely used today, we are able to achieve better combustion by spraying highly accurate quantities of fuel to prepare the desired A/F mixture which was earlier done by carburetors but were incapable of quick responses (carburetors could perform well only up to some engine-speeds). The awe-stricken performance delivered by the engines in the 19th century is not only normal today but we surpassed their abilities by miles. The most exciting part is that passenger cars today go from 0-100 km/h in less than 7 seconds which is fast, these are the things that have redefined passenger car engines.
Today, not only do we have bigger and faster engines, but they are more efficient and clean too. Today’s 1200cc engines can produce up to 3 times more power than the 1200cc engines of the 80’s or in other words, the last era’s 1200cc engines are still less efficient than today’s 1200cc engines. How? With the help of turbo-chargers, super-chargers, stratified piston heads, improved firing order, improved compression ratios, optimum bore and stroke lengths, improved air-fuel ratios and more. We have lot of variety in engines today. One can choose from as little as an 800cc engine to a monstrous 6500cc engine (there are exceptions which offer engines upwards of 6500cc) producing more than 500 brake horse power, which is insane. To deliver such power at just the push of a pedal, mechanical linkages aren’t good enough; engineers came up with the ECU (Electronic control unit), which, with help of sensors and actuators, controls the engine functioning, giving better response to change in speed. An ECU collects and processes numerous data every second and corrects the input of fuel and A/F mixture constantly to give better power with lower emissions. Without this technology, efficient engines might not have existed. Today, the whole engine is controlled by sensors and actuators right from air suction, to its mixture with the fuel, to its combustion, till it is exhausted out and all the data is sent to the ECU which constantly processes everything. Every manufacturer programs the ECU differently according to the make and model of the car as per requirement (this technology has also been brought to us from F1 cars where mapping is done for every race according to the race track). Also, with the invention automatic transmission, the tedious job of constantly changing gears in heavy traffic has come to an end. According to the engine speed (rpm), gears shift up or down automatically, which also makes driving easy for old-age people and learners who cannot operate the clutch properly without practice.
The biggest and most important leap that cars have taken is the life and reliability of engines, this is the very reason that today we have millions of passenger cars in every corner of the world. Today, a car can travel a million kilometers (so to say) before its engine becomes non-functional. It would not have been the same scenario if engines kept on breaking down like earlier. Earlier, one even couldn’t travel for a 1000kms without a breakdown. Today, we make stops because we are tired but the heart of our cars is still pumping strong and roaring to go on. Except for vehicles lacking regular check-ups, we hardly see blown engines and major break-downs. And this, is a true engineering achievement. The same engine running on flat roads of cities is capable of facing the abuse offered by mountain terrains and off-roads with ease.
Amidst super-powerful engines, hybrid technology, ECU and all sorts of electronic advancements which make our ride fun and fast, are we at the summit?
Well this is just the tip of the ice-berg, engines that are not only powerful but give mileage over 80kmpl are being tested successfully around the world, a whole new chapter of passenger cars has just started; and it has a copious amount to offer yet!! Cars with engines doing things beyond our imagination will be running on roads.
For now, hybrid technology that blends the power of both conventional fuels and an electrical motor seems to be promising for the near future. Also, solar powered vehicles can’t be taken out of the equation. With research going on all over the planet for better alternatives of fuel and more refined engines, anything can come true. The journey travelled by us in last the decade or two, is far more happening compared to all of the last century combined, that is what keeps things interesting.
More powerful and intelligent engines with more reliability; which will constantly correct human errors, will be seen driven by people. There can be a tomorrow, where we won’t have to do anything except for telling the car where to go, leaving no room for human errors. Engines may run on something that we refer to as “witch-craft” today. Who knows in what way engines will astonish mankind, but one thing is sure, they will.