Ford museum pops the hoods on classic cars this month

For a limited time The Henry Ford in Dearborn has lifted the hoods on 40 cars  from its classic collection to give visitors a chance to check out the engines.

Engines with two, four, six or eight cylinders in a wide variety of block sizes and horsepower ratings have museum visitors talking about the progress of propulsion over 100 years of automotive history.

Browse a photo gallery of the exhibit

One of the earliest examples available for inspection is a replica of the 1896 chain-driven Quadricycle.

The builder of the 1896 Ford Quadricycle was, of course, Henry Ford. But it had not been a one-man project. He was working with a team that included David Bell, James Bishop, George Cato and Edward Huff.  They produced a tiller-steered two-seater powered by a 59-cubic-inch two-cylinder engine that generated an estimated 4 horsepower at 500 RPM.

Only six years later Ford put an ungainly-but-effective 1,156-cubic-inch in-line four-cylinder engine behind the radiator of his single-seat open-wheel 1902 999 race car.  It made history by winning a race along Michigan’s Lake St. Clair against renowned Cleveland auto maker and enthusiast Alexander Winton.

Visitors with all levels of interest appear fascinated by display descriptions, noting the modest horsepower ratings of early large-displacement engines – and to some extent several recent engines — as well as the numbers of gears in transmissions and how long an average person would have to work to earn enough to buy a new car.

Automakers were constantly looking for practical ways to increase power and speed. A top-secret Ford experiment dating from 1920 resulted in the X-8. Its interesting design featured two banks of four cylinders around a central crankshaft. A 1925 model of the unsuccessful project is in the collection at the museum. Display information said Ford tried both air and water cooling for this program but could not make the engine run reliably.

1932 Ford Cabrio V-8

New car sales were dramatically reduced by the Great Depression, though of the quarter-million Fords sold that year, 70 percent were powered by the new V-8, like this 1932 Ford Cabrio V-8. (Jenny King / Special to The Detroit News)

A big breakthrough for the company came a few years later when Ford Motor Co. produced its 221-inch 65-horsepower 1932 V-8 with L-head valves at its Dearborn engine plant. The ’32 Ford was touted as “the only car under $2,395 with a V-8 engine.”

Early race cars, experimental vehicles and regular-production luxury cars had V-8s years earlier. Ford’s marketing edge was that its V-8 provided sought-after power in a small, affordable car. The museum describes Ford’s single-block 65-horsepower V-8 as “the world’s first low-priced, cast-in-one-piece V-8 engine . . . It heralded the era of the American dream car: large, powerful, and soft-sprung.”

Engines with overhead valves, engines with overhead camshafts, transverse-mounted engines, rear-mounted engines, gasoline-electric hybrid systems, regular production engines bored and tuned for various kinds of motor sports, oversized straight-eights for super luxury cars, air-cooled engines and an engine without a transmission — all are part of the collection at the museum.

The display specific to engines runs only through the end of February, but the vehicles and their information are continuously on display.