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Dr. Gear Head: A sometimes close examination of cars,
drivers and roads

Origin of the Species

June 25, 1998

Do you drive a late-model four- or six-cylinder car? If so, the chances are very good the engine uses four valves for each of those cylinders; two for drawing in fuel-air mixture and two for expelling what's left after ignition. If you had a Honda Civic with the CVCC engine, introduced in 1973, you had three valves, two intake and one exhaust. In 1986, Honda's Acura division brought out the Integra with four valves per cylinder driven by dual camshafts. But before Honda started making use of multiple-valved engines, few street cars had them. The complexity was deemed unnecessary.

But with higher emission and fuel-efficiency standards, auto makers needed a way to get more power while meeting the stricter rules, and burn unleaded fuel.

Multiple valves turned out to be the answer. The same size engine would breathe better, run a higher compression and do a better job of burning fuel. While this all comes at the price of complexity, the design has significant advantages that enhance longevity. Having two exhaust valves means the hot gases are expelled more efficiently and transfer less heat to the adjacent parts. Better combustion means less carbon buildup and longer life for valves, pistons, rings and cylinders, and less pollution out the tailpipe.

Is this marvel of modern technology another import courtesy of Honda/Acura and Toyota?

Nope, it was born longer ago and closer to home.

A Los Angeles-based engine builder by the name of Harry Armenius Miller included the design--and other innovations--in a new motor he built in 1916-17. Miller's 289-cubic-inch, four-valve-per-cylinder four-banger propelled an odd-looking racing car dubbed the Golden Sub.

Miller's engine-building skill and the fit and finish of his motors put him on par with Bugatti, but the internal workings were considered superior to the Italian's. Miller's designs went on to influence the design of racing engines for years to come. (For more on Miller's Golden Sub and innovations, see Automobile magazine, March 1998.)

So the next time you floor it in a Civic, Integra, Camry or nearly any other typical modern car, think of Miller, hand-polishing his innovative motor at a shop that helped put L.A. on the auto industry's map of the stars.

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Do you have a question or suggestion for Dr. Gear Head? Write to Dr. Gear Head, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. Or fax us at (213) 237-7837, or e-mail us at highway1@latimes.com.

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