Engine Types

There are several engine types which are identified by the number of cylinders and the way the cylinders are laid out. Motor vehicles will have from 3 to 12 cylinders which are arranged in the engine block in several configurations. The most popular of them are shown on the left. In-line engines have their cylinders arranged in a row. 3, 4, 5 and 6 cylinder engines commonly use this arrangement. The "V" arrangement uses two banks of cylinders side-by-side and is commonly used in V-6, V-8, V-10 and V-12 configurations. Flat engines use two opposing banks of cylinders and are less common than the other two designs. They are used in Subaru's and Porsches in 4 and 6 cylinder arrangements as well as in the old VW beetles with 4 cylinders. Flat engines are also used in some Ferrari's with 12 cylinders.

Each cylinder contains a piston that travels up and down inside the cylinder bore. All the pistons in the engine are connected through individual connecting rods to a common crankshaft. 

The crankshaft is located below the cylinders on an in-line engine, at the base of the V on a V-type engine and between the cylinder banks on a flat engine. As the pistons move up and down, they turn the crankshaft just like your legs pump up and down to turn the crank that is connected to the pedals of a bicycle.

A cylinder head is bolted to the top of each bank of cylinders to seal the individual cylinders and contain the combustion process that takes place inside the cylinder. The cylinder head contains at least one intake valve and one exhaust valve for each cylinder. This allows the air-fuel mixture to enter the cylinder and the burned exhaust gas to exit the cylinder. Most engines have two valves per cylinder, one intake valve and one exhaust valve. Some newer engines are using multiple intake and exhaust valves per cylinder for increased engine power and efficiency. These engines are sometimes named for the number of valves that they have such as "24 Valve V6" which indicates a V-6 engine with four valves per cylinder. Modern engine designs can use anywhere from 2 to 5 valves per cylinder.

The valves are opened and closed by means of a camshaft. A camshaft is a rotating shaft that has individual lobes for each valve. The lobe is a "bump" on one side of the shaft that pushes against a valve lifter moving it up and down. When the lobe pushes against the lifter, the lifter in turn pushes the valve open. When the lobe rotates away from the lifter, the valve is closed by a spring that is attached to the valve. A very common configuration is to have one camshaft located in the engine block with the lifters connecting to the valves through a series of linkages. The camshaft must be synchronized with the crankshaft so that it makes one revolution for every two revolutions of the crankshaft. In most engines, this is done by a "Timing Chain" (similar to a bicycle chain) that connect the camshaft with the crankshaft. Newer engines have the camshaft located in the cylinder head directly over the valves. This design is more efficient but it is more costly to manufacture and requires multiple camshafts on Flat and V-type engines. It also requires much longer timing chains or timing belts which are prone to wear. Some engines have two camshafts on each head, one for the intake valves and one for the exhaust valves. These engines are called Double Overhead Camshaft (D.O.H.C.) Engines while the other type is called Single Overhead Camshaft (S.O.H.C.) Engines. Engines with the camshaft in the block are called Overhead Valve (O.H.V) Engines.

How Engine Works
Since the same process occurs in each cylinder, we will take a look at one cylinder to see how the four stroke process works. The four strokes are IntakeCompression,Power and Exhaust. The piston travels down on the Intake stroke, up on the Compression stroke, down on the Power stroke and up on the Exhaust stroke.

As the piston starts down on the Intake stroke, the intake valve opens and the fuel-air mixture is drawn into the cylinder (similar to drawing back the plunger on a hypodermic needle to allow fluid to be drawn into the chamber.) When the piston reaches the bottom of the intake stroke, the intake valve closes, trapping the air-fuel mixture in the cylinder.


The piston moves up and compresses the trapped air fuel mixture that was brought in by the intake stroke. The amount that the mixture is compressed is determined by the compression ratio of the engine. The compression ratio on the average engine is in the range of 8:1 to 10:1. This means that when the piston reaches the top of the cylinder, the air-fuel mixture is squeezed to about one tenth of its original volume. 


The spark plug fires, igniting the compressed air-fuel mixture which produces a powerful expansion of the vapor. The combustion process pushes the piston down the cylinder with great force turning the crankshaft to provide the power to propel the vehicle. Each piston fires at a different time, determined by the engine firing order. By the time the crankshaft completes two revolutions, each cylinder in the engine will have gone through one power stroke.


With the piston at the bottom of the cylinder, the exhaust valve opens to allow the burned exhaust gas to be expelled to the exhaust system. Since the cylinder contains so much pressure, when the valve opens, the gas is expelled with a violent force (that is why a vehicle without a muffler sounds so loud.) The piston travels up to the top of the cylinder pushing all the exhaust out before closing the exhaust valve in preparation for starting the four stroke process over again. 

Oiling System

Oil is the life-blood of the engine. An engine running without oil will last about as long as a human without blood. Oil is pumped under pressure to all the moving parts of the engine by an oil pump. The oil pump is mounted at the bottom of the engine in the oil pan and is connected by a gear to either the crankshaft or the camshaft. This way, when the engine is turning, the oil pump is pumping. There is an oil pressure sensor near the oil pump that monitors pressure and sends this information to a warning light or a gauge on the dashboard. When you turn the ignition key on, but before you start the car, the oil light should light, indicating that there is no oil pressure yet, but also letting you know that the warning system is working. As soon as you start cranking the engine to start it, the light should go out indicating that there is oil pressure.

Engine Cooling

Internal combustion engines must maintain a stable operating temperature, not too hot and not too cold. With the massive amounts of heat that is generated from the combustion process, if the engine did not have a method for cooling itself, it would quickly self-destruct. Major engine parts can warp causing oil and water leaks and the oil will boil and become useless.
While some engines are air-cooled, the vast majority of engines are liquid cooled. The water pump circulates coolant throughout the engine, hitting the hot areas around the cylinders and heads and then sends the hot coolant to the radiator to be cooled off.
Engine Balance

Flywheel: A 4 cylinder engine produces a power stroke every half crankshaft revolution, an 8 cylinder, every quarter revolution. This means that a V8 will be smother running than a 4. To keep the combustion pulses from generating a vibration, a flywheel is attached to the back of the crankshaft. The flywheel is a disk that is about 12 to 15 inches in diameter. On a standard transmission car, the flywheel is a heavy iron disk that doubles as part of the clutch system. On automatic equipped vehicles, the flywheel is a stamped steel plate that mounts the heavy torque converter. The flywheel uses inertia to smooth out the normal engine pulses.
Balance Shaft: Some engines have an inherent rocking motion that produces an annoying vibration while running. To combat this, engineers employ one or more balance shafts. A balance shaft is a heavy shaft that runs through the engine parallel to the crankshaft. This shaft has large weights that, while spinning, offset the rocking motion of the engine by creating an opposite rocking motion of their own.