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Road to Sky: American Car Engines that Fly

Posted in car modifications, Car Tech, Chevrolet, Chrysler, Detroit, Ford, GM, Horsepower by Alex Kierstein | May 12th, 2009 | 4 Responses |

He ain't gettin' on no Beetle-engined kit plane, fool.

He ain't gettin' on no Beetle-engined kit plane, fool.

Yesterday we covered some foreign car engines – misfits, sentenced the junkyard but commandeered for experimental aircraft service as their only hope for redemption. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire … a kit plane using a car-based aircraft engine! But that was yesterday. Today we’re covering some Detroit iron (or aluminum) that causes our patriotism (and kit planes) to soar above the clouds (or idled Chrysler factories). Our first engine comes to us from Chevrolet! Go USA!


Chevrolet Corvair

Chevy’s flat-six (another boxer motor!) was in many was highly advanced, but also derivative of VW’s ideas. In fact, it was conceived as an American competitor to, among other cars, the VW Beetle, and so it’s perhaps unsurprising that Chevy’s engineers decided on a horizontally-opposed, air-cooled engine.

<i>A proud owner of a Corvair-powered plane.</i>

A proud owner of a Corvair-powered plane.

Come on, it’s no V8 but it’s nothing to be ashamed of! Despite this guy’s headgear, we think this was a great motor. It came in two sizes, the “164” (2.7L) and the “190” (3.1L). Constructed out of a sandwich of aluminum heads, individually cast iron cylinders, and an aluminum crankcase, it was also light and simple. Ready to fly, with fluids and accessories, we’re talking 250 lbs or so. Aircooled motors weight less! Think about it – no coolant to leak out, only one belt running the fan, that was pretty much the whole motor. Now, the fan belt was a somewhat idiotic setup that had to bend 90 degrees to get from the crankshaft pulley (vertical) to the fan pulley (horizontal on top of the engine). So there were problems with that. The differing thermal expansion of the different metals and some lousy pushrod-tube o-rings meant you always had a nice puddle of oil below the motor. But problems aside, it had potential as an aircraft motor for all of the same reasons as the Type 1. Plus, in stock form with no modifications, you couldn’t really make less than 80 HP, so it clearly more powerful than any VW engine of its time. For aircraft use, 100-120 HP is not unheard of.

<i>Corvair motor installed.</i>

Corvair motor installed.

Conversion for aircraft use took care of a lot of those aforementioned issues, because if you’re building an aircraft motor you’re putting some money into the engine no matter what. Most of the Covair engine’s problems simply involved cheapness on the part of the beancounters at the General. A few idiosyncrasies remain: most interestingly, the engine runs counterclockwise, which is the opposite of almost every other engine. Despite this, it’s not much of a problem for aircraft use because left-handed propellers are readily available.

<i>Unsafe at any altitude? Hardly, Mr. Nader, hardly.</i>

Unsafe at any altitude? Hardly, Mr. Nader, hardly.

You might be asking, how can you utter the word “Corvair” and not think of that perennial nemesis, Mr. Ralph “Party’s Over” Nader? Basically, his objections to the Corvair are irrelevant when you’re flying a Corvair rather than attempting to take any corner at more than 20 MPH … maybe instead of profit-crushing safety regulation, we could have had flying cars!

With the Nader distraction out of the way, we should mention that the Corvair motor isn’t quite as prevalent as the VW or Subaru designs, but it’s unique and it’s also American, so if you’re the kind of person who’d paint their plane to resemble a huge bald eagle raining fire on the enemies of democracy, this might be your motor.

[For more info (and some photo credits thanks to): FlyCorvair.com]

Ford Model T/Model A

We just had to throw this one in. Details are very sketchy but it seems like some enterprising souls converted some old Ford engines into air-cooled aircraft motors.

<i>Looks airworthy to us!</i>

Looks airworthy to us!

By far the most common use of this somwhat dubious-looking contraption they were calling an engine in those days was the Pietenpol AirCamper, which was designed to use the Model A engine but could also use the more well-known Model T engine (and a variety of others). Despite being designed just after we reverted back to calling “liberty cabbage” coleslaw, but before Western Europe was overrun by the armies of a former Austrian painter, it wasn’t half bad looking.

<i>Build a Pietenpol in 6 easy steps!</i>

Build a Pietenpol in 6 easy steps!

In any event, the Pietenpol was most closely associated with these vintage Ford engines when the kit was introduced in 1932. Like many kit planes, and especially given the slight economic hardships the country was going through in the ’30s, Mr. Pietenpol designed his plane to be built from wood, basic steel parts, and any clothing cast off by wandering hobos.

<i>The Model T motor in, perhaps unsurprisingly, a Model T.</i>

The Model T motor in, perhaps unsurprisingly, a Model T.

By far the easiest engine to get ahold of at the time, the Model T had the secondary benefit of being cheap and simple. 177 cubic inches of FoMoCo power, churning out an astonishing (are you sitting down) 20.2 horsepower.

<i>20 HP is more than enough to crash ...</i>

20 HP is also enough to crash ...

Point taken. But 20 HP was plenty to push the T to 45 mph on the road. And it was actually more than enough to get a Pietenpol off the ground. 70 years later, these planes apparently still have a following, and since Model T (and Model A) parts are still relatively common, you could probably build one as a kit even today.

[For more, see: Pietenpols.org, cpc-world.com, and this mtfca.com discussion on this engine.]

Chrysler Hemi

If I said you could but a Hemi in your vintage plane, you’d probably think, “sweet.” What if I told you that we could install the original Hemi, a 2,500 HP monster with two rows of massive cylinders for 16 in total. An inverted-V16 Hemi? Displacing 36.4 liters? Are we out of our minds?

<i>I bet Jay Leno would put one in a plane.</i>

I bet Jay Leno would put one in a plane.

Yes, we are. But who cares? To be honest, this isn’t a kit plane motor, but it’s so cool we’d be loath to leave it out. The Chrysler IV-2220 was most decidedly NOT available to the public.

<i>Republic XP-47H, sporting a Hemi under the cowl.</i>

Republic XP-47H, sporting a Hemi under the cowl.

It was, however, available to Republic, who hot-rodded one of their P-47 Thunderbolts with this massive motor. By the time they shoehorned the damn thing in the war was over and jets were all the rage. Shame for Republic, good for fans of Mopar muscle – the Hemi was honorably discharged into hoon duty on the street!

<i>Bo and Luke want to thank the IV-2220!</i>

Bo and Luke want to thank the IV-2220!

Pioneering the Hemi head for future use in ‘Cudas and Chargers all over the land, we’re letting the IV-2220 in on a technicality here. You probably won’t ever fly behind one, but at least some folks did. Hoo-ah!

[For more, see: Wikipedia, AllPar.com]

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4 Responses

  1. randy says:

    you can use liquid cooled v8’s with a gear driven water pump and electric fan for cooling. it’s how you want to build it.

  2. Retiredscot says:

    Early aluminum Olds F-85 V8s were used too. One is in the Engine Shed at the Old Airport Museum behind the EAA Museum at OshKosh.

  3. Jim Rousch says:

    The Japanese have tried to copy it, but have never been able to steal it.


  4. Harley W. says:

    That was a great and informative information on the Hemi’s history and development. Whoever was behind it did some great historical research and is a good & interesting writer. Although I’m an aviation buff, including WW2 aircraft & pilots, I wasn’t aware of the XP-47 R&D work done at the end of WW2; or that the XP-47 superceded the P-51D’s performance/speed with its Rolls Royce Merlin V-12 with 2-stage superchargers. Thank you, Harley W.