Saturday, November 10, 2012

COTM: Straight six is better than straight sex

Taking a really quick break from CTW while I continue to organize my thoughts, so here's your car-like substance of the moment!

Tonight, I went to see Skyfall. I love Bond movies. I always have. I've stuck with them through the good (You Only Live Twice), the mediocre (A View to a Kill) and the dreadful (The World is Not Enough).  I am particularly fond of this current reboot of the franchise, starting with Casino Royale of 2006.  The movies are smarter, more stylish and deeper than previous installments, coming off as genuine spy movies rather than comic-like MI-5 impersonations.

One thing that I have always loved about James Bond is his taste in cars.  Without regard to how well done the movie is, James Bond always drives an interesting car.

The obviously most famous of James Bond's cars is his Aston Martin DB5, which made its first appearance in the iconic Goldfinger.  The DB5, now one of the most famous cars in history, isn't actually that remarkable.  It's somewhat slow, even for the era, with a 0-60mph time of 8.5 seconds.  Contemporary, similarly priced Ferraris were much faster and, many would argue, prettier and more exotic.

1964 DB5. Sourced here

But when James and M got into his secretly stashed DB5 and fired up that engine before tearing off into the Scottish countryside, all I could think was how wonderful that 4.0-liter straight six sounded, barking through its twin polished exhaust pipes.

[Disclaimer: It's about to get nerdy up in heeyah.]

What makes that particular vehicle's engine so special?

Engines are categorized by their number of cylinders and pistons and the arrangement in which those cylinders lie in the engine block.  For example, your neighbor's red Corvette has a V8 engine, which means there are eight cylinders, arranged like a "V" with four cylinders in a line on one side of the block and four on the other, with their pistons joined in a point at the middle.  The Corolla you daily-drive has an inline-four, which, as you might guess, has four cylinders arranged in a single, straight line.  Most cars have either an inline or a vee-shaped engine, with notable exception going to the Wankel rotary found in many of Mazda's sports cars and the "W"-shaped motors found in many Volkswagen, Bentley, Audi and Bugatti models.  I'm ignoring those for time reasons.

Some of these engine configurations are inherently better at some things than others. For example, an inline-four is compact, as is a V6.  These engines can fit into smaller vehicles while still allowing for space for passengers and cargo.  However, these engines are also inherently imbalanced, again for reasons I'm ignoring to spare the reader of brain aneurysm and/or boredom.

While less space-efficient (it's longer since the cylinders can't be staggered side to side), the inline-six is a better-balanced engine.  Also called a straight-six, it is one of few engine designs that is harmonically perfect, with each piston counteracting the motions of another piston to naturally quell vibrations. They are smooth and quiet, making a wonderful whirring sound under full power.  The sensation of a straight-six is more like a jet turbine than a car engine.

Jaguar E-Type and its 4.2-liter straight six
As Bond surged off in his DB5, I found these words enter my mind, not realizing what they actually sounded like to a casual listener: "I really need some more straight six in my life." After chuckling to myself, I then thought, "I could also use some straight sex." Then I thought, "Nah, the straight six will do well enough."

I've owned three straight-sixes in my life. None were as exotic as the Aston Martin DB5, but each had that sensational, locomotive-like whoosh of power and torque. Even my old Jeep, which was missing an exhaust muffler, had such a friendly and smooth, if loud, sound to it.

The engine of my old BMW's wet dreams. Sourced here
I remember one occasion when I was driving my old BMW particularly hard, a moment which likely contributed to its untimely demise.  I was driving in an abandoned neighborhood in Texas. The developers had gotten as far as paving roads around the subdivision, then construction stalled and they let the place overgrow.  With dense trees shielding the sight of our cars from the main road, it was the perfect makeshift race track for me and my roommates.

I had rounded a sweeping right-hander, all four wheels sliding as I transitioned from the apex of the corner to the straightaway down the main drag of the neighborhood. I redlined the engine, shifted up, and redlined again before slowing for the next corner. At 6500 rpm, the BMW's 3.4-liter engine sang. It was deep and throaty, yet somehow light and soft, like a well-trained baritone soloist. My heart pounded, not because of the incredibly extra-legal speeds I'd attained or the brink-of-disaster drifting I'd done around the corners, but because of the sound.  It was exotic, but precise, not unlike the sweeping movements of a fine watch. I felt like a hero just because of the sound of the engine. Contrary to what you might think, a car has never, ahem, started my engine, but the sound of a straight-six gets me close.

Aston Martin-Lagonda Rapide. Sourced here
There's good reason, then, that Aston Martin has stuck with straight-sixes throughout much of its history. The aforementioned DB5 and its predecessors, the DB6 and DB7, certain DBS models and a few luxury sedans used the vocal layout for their engines, and even today, while Aston Martin doesn't currently produce a true straight-six, it still offers equally smooth and sexy V12 engines, which as you might already have figured out, are just two straight-sixes stuck together. In that wise, the V12 makes it on my list of engines I love as well.  The zing, the balance, the sex appeal, they all add up to make the intrinsic shortcomings of their respective engine layouts completely nullified.  There are good I4s and V6s and V8s and V10s out there, but the simple fact is that no engine is more soulful than a good straight-six or V12.

Ferrari 550 Maranello V12

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