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A tribute to the German internal combustion engine as the country moves to ban it

It’s fitting, somehow, that a jet fighter should show which way the wind is blowing. The Canadair CT-133 Silver Star sitting atop a post just north of the small town of Princeton is mounted on bearings, allowing it to act as a an enormous weather vane. Below it, a mighty piston-powered Audi R8 sits at rest. Its days are numbered.

Brendan McAleer

At the beginning of October, the German parliament voted in a multipart resolution that includes recommendations for ending the internal combustion engine. The document, which is admittedly non-binding, sets a target of 2050 for full zero-emissions mobility, and outlines tax strategies and incentives to make every newly registered car in Germany zero emissions by 2030.

While the strength of the vote has given rise to much shouting about Germany banning the internal combustion engine (it hasn’t – at least not yet), the Bundesrat’s decision does act like our fighter-plane weather vane. It’s telling, for instance, that the vote passed with strong support from both sides of the political spectrum, including from states that have an interest in Volkswagen.

Further, for those who’ve been paying attention, the decision doesn’t come as a surprise. This R8, with its glorious 5.2-litre V-10, is fast becoming an anachronism.

Brendan McAleer

It’s a wonderful engine, but it is among the last naturally aspirated engines made by German marques. Almost every other performance application from Audi, BMW, Porsche and Mercedes is turbocharged. Most of the new luxury crossovers will soon offer plug-in hybrid technology. VW’s major concept reveal at the Paris auto show, the I.D., was a full EV with up to 600 kilometres of range.

With an all-electric path to mobility thus sketched out, perhaps it’s time to pay tribute to Germany’s contributions to the internal combustion engine. For more than a century, Germany’s engineers have created some of the most iconic, charismatic devices ever produced. We’ll both welcome a cleaner future, but still miss the firepower of the past.

A German wasn’t the first to invent a car powered by internal combustion engine, but was the first to patent the idea. On Jan. 29, 1886, Karl Benz received the patent for his Motorcar. A three-wheeled, tiller-steered contraption with a single-cylinder engine making less than a single horsepower, it would nonetheless change the face of the world.

German Traffic Minister Matthias Wissmann (L) points while driving Karl Benz's first gasoline-powered car, built in 1886. Wissmann was on his way to the opening of a Benz exhibition at the technical"Deutsches Museum" in Bonn, accompanied by Janis Lazdans, a driver from the Mercedes-Benz museum. (Reuters)

No mention of Karl’s genius would be complete without mentioning his wife, the intrepid Bertha Benz. It was her money, after all, that allowed Karl the tinkering time to come up with his invention. Moreover, it was her 106-kilometre drive – the world’s first road trip – to visit her mother in the Black Forest that proved Karl’s idea really worked. Incidentally, along the way, she had a shoemaker repair the brakes with leather strips, inventing the idea of brake-lining.

Despite the patent, the German automotive industry took many years to develop. Mercedes-Benz began selling large and luxurious motor vehicles, eventually equipping them with powerful straight-eight engines. But as far as lasting character goes, the next chapter belongs to BMW.

The straight-six engine is inherently perfectly balanced, as close to an aristocratic V-12 as most of us can afford. Each of its six cylinders has a twin, meaning that the four-cycle pattern of intake stroke, compression, power stroke, and exhaust are all balanced by an equal opposite.

BMW

BMW introduced the straight-six powered 303 saloon in 1933. While the company then had to suffer through the after-effects of the great depression and the Second World War, the inline-six is as central to the company’s heritage as the blue-and-white roundel.

As such, it’s disappointing that the base models of the 3-series now come with an unremarkable turbocharged four-cylinder, but at least the M2 and M3 make all the right noises. A last-of-breed naturally-aspirated inline-six E46-chassis M3 will only continue to be a collector’s item.

If the Second World War was to be endured by BMW, it would be the conception of the next great German contribution to the internal combustion engine: the air-cooled flat-four. Starting out powering a propaganda tool for the Nazis, the flat-four would end up powering everything from the thrifty simplicity of the Beetle to the counter-culture mainstay of the VW Westfalia, to the early racing Porsches.

Expanding the ideals of the air-cooled boxer from four to six cylinders created a lasting legend. While the Porsche of the future is bound to look something like the Mission-E concept, a classic 911 will remain far more desirable for many. Durable, powerful and filled with charisma, the blat of an air-cooled flat-six careening down a leaf-strewn back road is an experience some appear willing to pay any price for.

As the years passed, innovation after innovation arrived: the screaming inline four of the first BMW M3, the thundering bellow of the early AMG V8s, the ripping sheet-steel of massively turbocharged racing Porsches. For Audi, unique character arrived with turbocharged inline five-cylinder engines ripping up the rally stages, then progressed to high-revving V-8s.

The V-10 of this R8 could be considered to combine the best attributes of the last two. It doubles the fives, then adds in a scarcely credible redline. Despite the large 5.2-litre displacement, it can rev from idle to 8,500 rpm in a little more than six-tenths of a second.

Brendan McAleer

As a last hurrah, it’s a masterpiece. Over a loop that circled up through the high desert, coursed along the Fraser canyon and stormed down the mountains towards the coast, the R8’s mighty heart proved itself again and again.

There’s something Promethean about the internal combustion engine, the primeval and the technological mix. It’s in the sound, the force, the fury. The greatest engines truly are harnessed fire, and while the electric future makes sense, there isn’t the same emotional connection.

To steal a line or two from a friend, no one remembers the early jets, but everyone pines for the last of the piston-engined fighter craft, the P-51 Mustangs and the Spitfires and the Focke-Wulfs.

They were replaced, of course; the winds changed and the times with them. For a while though, cresting and soaring, they captured the imagination. So, too, will we fondly remember Germany’s best.

Brendan McAleer
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