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Design and Function from Deep Within the Engine Bay

Here at ViaRETRO, we often discuss design in terms of cars exterior, or at times even its interior. But today I’ll instead focus on another area where function is arguably more important and design is therefore sometimes forgotten as it isn’t particularly visible anyway: the engine bay.

As this season’s many classic car meets spring to life again at various harbours, town squares, well-kept lawns and remote fields, bonnets will be popped and combustion engines shown off to all interested. Few things can gather enthusiasts around a classic car as an open bonnet and it never fails to initiate passionate conversation. I would personally go as far as claiming that the engine bay is the spiritual centre of any classic car.

A picture from Retromobilé in Paris a few years back. An open engine bay will always attract a crowd and ignite deep and emotional conversations.

There’s the good old myth that Enzo Ferrari supposedly once spoke words to the effect of: ““I don’t sell cars, I sell engines. The cars I throw in for free since something has to hold the engine””. Over at their main competition in Sant’Agata, Lamborghini’s charismatic test driver, Balboni, greeted the German Head of Design as Audi took over the Italian sportscar manufacturer with the words: “So you will be designing the bonnet?”, to which the German answered that he would be responsible for the entire car’s design. Balboni replied: “Yes, the bonnet”. Only later did the German designer understand that the Italians regarded the engine as the central part of the car – the spiritual centre. All the rest was just packaging – so essentially the bonnet. At both Ferrari and Lamborghini, they have always put heart and soul into designing beautiful “bonnets”, but without the engines that lie beneath, the cars would have not become the legendary masterpieces which they are.

Ferrari 250 Testa Rossa – 1957

I strongly believe that if a car’s engine – and the entire engine bay for that matter – is beautifully sculpted, then the rest of the car will usually follow suit. The engine bay, the engine itself and the many auxiliary components encompass a wealth of opportunity for creativity, ingenuity and excellent design. Yet the sight which meets us when the bonnet of practically any modern car is opened, is nothing short of an unforgivable disgrace. Engines entirely encapsulated by cheap plastic covers and then surrounded by ugly electronic components which are both positioned and produced in a manner which is purely dictated by financial effectively. No wonder then that most people regard the modern car as soulless.

The Citroën DS’s aesthetically failed engine bay which is clearly the exception which confirms the rule that with every beautiful engine bay follows a beautiful car.

One of the few car designs which manage to defy my theory comes from the French. Despite the uninspirational engine bays of just about every Citroën, they’ve still treated us to several true design icons. I personally find the engine bay of my own DS entirely deprived of talent. It’s bad enough to lead one towards associations of a Jules Verne story, and as such there’s plenty to talk about when the bonnet is raised. It’s just rarely anything flattering which is said. Even so, despite that engine bay, the elegant Goddess never fails to delight and its status and reputation remains intact among classic car enthusiasts.

But how do our knowledgeable ViaRETRO readers feel about today’s subject? Please share your views in the comment area below. Do you agree with my theory upon beautiful engine bays and beautiful cars? And which engine bay do you regard as the best of them all?

The Porsche 911 also doesn’t have the most appealing of engine bays. It seems a shame for what is otherwise such a well-designed car. The men at Singer have here tried there hardest to make it all look a bit nicer.

Bugatti EB110 – 1991

Maybach Zeppelin DS8 Sport Cabriolet – 1932

McLaren F1 – 1992

Alfa Romeo 156 GTA – 2002

Delage Straight-eight – 1926

Lamborghini Miura – 1966

Jaguar E-Type – 1961

Chevrolet Bel Air – 1957

Bugatti Type 35 – 1925

Cadillac V-16 Convertible – 1930


One Response

  1. Tony Wawryk

    As someone who understands very little about engines and is much more interested in the exterior, even I find myself drawn to take a look when someone pops the bonnet open – it usually means they’ve gone to a lot of trouble to make their engine bay exceptional in some way, or it already was when the acquired the car. One of the coolest engine bays I’ve seen was this Alfa engine at Bicester; so cool that I can’t remember the car it was in…


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