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Is It Possible for Modern Engines to Have “Soul?”

March 15, 2012 by Matt

Lexus 1UR-FSE Engine Bay Motor

An interview with a philosophically-inclined Ferrari master mechanic in the April issue of Car and Driver provoked this question. In the midst of waxing philosophical about the “passion” and “artistry” designed into every Ferrari V12, the mechanic contrasted older, hand-designed, carbureted engines with modern, computer-controlled ones in the sense that the driver feels a connection with the older mills absent the newer powerplants.

Car buffs will discuss an older engine’s “character” from a number of different angles. On the one hand, they’ll talk about its operating quirks—flat spots in the power curve, awkward throttle tip-in behavior, vapor lock problems, tuning difficulties and the like. Conversely, they’ll praise its organic feel and the fact that its very unevenness in operation makes it feel more “alive.”

Engines developed beginning ten years or so after fuel injection became commonplace offer a much more polished experience. Gone are the days of hard winter starts, valve adjustments, points replacements and spark plug gapping. Most modern engines are completely linear and predictable in operation, from idle to redline, stone cold to normal temperature. And along with the engines’ refinement, chassis have come a long way as well, with better-designed suspensions and lighter materials allowing for more sound insulation. The upshot is that even the most raucously potent modern powerplant feels too polished, too inert, too—dare I say it—machine-like compared to its more “flawed” predecessors.

Nissan Datsun L28 L26 L24 Engine Motor Triple Mikuni Carb Carburetor Carburettor

In light of all that, I’m going to go out on a limb here and postulate that modern engines have evolved to a point of relative perfection such that they can have character and even personality, but not soul. Soul requires more humanity than modern, vice-free, computer designed and controlled engines are capable of showing. And even in the midst of attempts to “program in” some of that quality, as in the case of the recent hubbub over BMW and Porsche’s decision to simulate engine noise in the cabins of some of their vehicles, it’s an inauthentic and transparent as the artificial “personality” engineered into a robot. No, in order to have soul, to forge a real connection with its owner, an engine has to be imperfect in design or operation. Perhaps we have to feel that the engine, like us, has aspirations, would like to be more than it is, but is held back by its inherent shortcomings. And maybe we like the feeling of “coming to its rescue,” of nurturing it by tuning and tinkering, and thus helping it to fulfill its potential. It’s difficult to pin down the reasons we feel the connection we do to obsolete tech.

What say you? Is it possible for a modern engine to possess soul in the sense older engines had it? Or at least offer a convincing facsimile of it?

Filed under: Miscellaneous

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