Thinking outside the box does not always constitute a brilliant design. While engineers may try to change the face of automobile industry as we know it by redesigning or inventing a powertrain, not everything goes according to plan out there in the real world. Mazda’s rotary engines are a prime example of a bizarre engineering feat that actually panned out, all the way up until it came crashing to a halt and got discontinued entirely. It was an incredibly clever creation, but it was also horribly inefficient and few people knew how to work on them when things like apex seals began to wear.
Half a decade back, Car and Driver did this fun little piece on unique powertrains, where they included everything from tank engines to late 1800s oddities. Novelties aside, we typically remain focused on production cars over here at the Cheat Sheet; so we said forget all of the really bizarre stuff, and focused on creating a list of cars that could have been purchasable at one point or another.
Probably the wildest aspect of this article is that this cheat sheet just scratches the surface — there have been countless other cars throughout history that have packed some seriously strange horsepower. But for us, these next ten engines were a cut above the rest, and even though they worked (to an extent), it remains unclear as to whether any of their influence lives on in the cars we see today.
Although supercars and strange Frankensteins from the past century are to blame for a lot of the motors you will see today, note that ordinary automobiles are also quite susceptible to receiving bizarre powertrains. While the majority of the vehicles seen on the road over the years have been powered by run-of-the-mill machinery, the oddball engine has made an appearance on quite a few ordinary looking vehicles as well, starting with a Jelly Bean shaped minivan.
1. Toyota Previa
In 1994, Toyota did an odd thing and began slapping superchargers on its 2.4-liter equipped minivans. Since nobody supercharges a minivan, we had to include this one on the list, as this engine was not only odd because it had a blower (something Toyota is not widely known for), but in that it featured a unique mid-engine layout directly beneath the front seats. While the motor was sound in design, its positioning was not, and changing spark plugs typically involved removing a passenger seat, carpet, and an access panel just to get to the damn thing.
2. Cizeta V16T
Oh what a mess this car was, and it had so much potential too! Originally teased in 1988, this Italian sports car offered a 560 horsepower, 6.0-liter motor that was not a V16 at all, but two V8 engines that shared a single block and were joined at the hip by a timing case. To say that these things were complicated would be quite the understatement, and we don’t even want to think about what it would be like to track down a vacuum leak in one of these behemoths.
3. Mazda/NSU Wankel Rotary
The Mazda/NSU Wankel motor is perhaps the most famous engine on today’s cheat sheet. First conceived in the early 1960s by German engineer Felix Wankel. While the thought of a giant camshaft flopping around inside an engine willy-nilly may have sounded like a poor design at first, it proved to be quite a hit for Mazda, as it took the design and put it into full production for several decades. Although these lightweight engines were prone to premature seal failure, excessive heat soak, and guzzled gas, they packed one hell of a punch once equipped with a turbocharger like in certain versions of the iconic Mazda RX-7.
4. Cadillac V8-6-4 (L62)
In 1981, Cadillac and the Eaton Corporation designed a cylinder deactivation system called “Modulated Displacement,” and based on the amount of vehicles using this kind of design today, one can safely say that it was way ahead of its time. This “engine of the future” ran real-time diagnostic scans while driving, and deactivated cylinders based upon throttle response and speed.
Cadillac was so certain that its L62 would be a game-changer, that it installed this system on every model it was making at the time. But General Motors was relying upon technology from the early 1980s, so the computer could not effectively manage cylinder-deactivation all of the time. When the system failed to work properly, dealers would most times deactivate the system entirely instead of trying to track down any electrical bugs.
5. Honda G-Series
The slant five-cylinder engine was found in both the Acura Vigor and the first generation TL, and on paper it looks like it would be more at home in something like a Volvo or an Audi. Honda claimed that being mounted further back, it gave the car a 60/40 weight distribution, and argued that the inline-five offered more power than a four-cylinder but was smoother than a V6. While this engine was indeed quite well made, the cars it came in were not a hit with potential car buyers, thus dooming this oddity to a nine-year production run.
6. Bugatti W16
Bugatti’s W16 is arguably the most powerful and complex production engines ever made, and features an equally odd configuration to go with all that oomph. It’s a mid-engine, 64-valved, quad-turbocharged, 1,500 horsepower freakshow, and while the $2.6 million Chiron remains unobtainable to damn near everyone, most people tend to agree on one thing. The supercar’s W-shaped, 16-cylinder powerplant does indeed still look like a bunch of Volkswagen engines all melted together.
7. Saab 96
While it was undeniably adorable to look upon, the longitudinally mounted, 57 horsepower, triple carbed, three-cylinder oddball that was afixed beneath the 96’s bonnet was an anomaly like no other. Efficient when working, this piece of prehistoric power was also one hell of a headache to tune when something went awry. Within a few years after its release, Saab replaced the three-cylinder anomaly with a V4 that brought with it considerable power gains, reliability, and a slew of rally cars.
8. Oldsmobile Jetfire
In the early 1960s, Oldsmobile built a car called the Jetfire, which came equipped with a turbo and a boost gauge to monitor spool speeds. While it may not have been a beast in the powerband department when compared to modern day turbocharged hot hatches, the vehicle did pioneer a lot of engine firsts for the auto industry. GM used what it called “Turbo-Rocket Fluid,” which was a blend of distilled water and methanol alcohol injection in the intake manifold to cool the air going to the turbo, an engineering notion that proved to be way ahead of its time. But mechanical issues with the turbocharger system and people forgetting to refill their “Turbo-Rocket Fluid” reservoirs plagued GM dealerships, and the Jetfire was retired in short fashion for traditional, naturally aspirated V8 designs.
9. Tucker 48
Part airplane engine, part water cooled mid-engine marketing, the Tucker 48 really had the potential to be great. The repurposed flat-six motor that came in the triple headlamp-equipped sedan put down 166 horsepower, was sired from retired military planes in order to be both serviceable and reliable, and each one was tested at full throttle for over 150 hours! But after several public scandals involving the company’s owner hit the headlines, Tucker Motor Company folded, leaving many to speculate how different the automotive landscape would have been if Tucker’s jet engine cars had taken off.
10. Chrysler Turbine
Unlike the Tucker 48, which utilized old prop plane engines, Chrysler’s Turbine Car had a turbine jet engine for a powerplant and would run on almost any combustible fluid — including diesel, gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, moonshine, and vegetable oil. In one of the more interesting publicity stunts in history, Chrysler challenged the President of Mexico at the time to run the car entirely on tequila, which he promptly did to great fanfare.
But according to some consumer focus groups, the car sounded like a giant vacuum cleaner, and many lamented the fact that the option for rear bench seats were impossible to obtain due to the massive turbine housing that ran down the center of the vehicle. The car also didn’t like to start when at higher altitudes, and many found the start-up procedure to be tedious. Even though the engine produced an insane amount of torque, it tended to fall flat on its face at higher speeds, and since Americans tend to ignore low end grunt on anything that isn’t a truck, the Turbine Car never made it into the mainstream.