Today we see a lot of cars using a V6 design, in particular many great front wheel drive cars built by Mitsubishi, Acura, Honda, to name a few. There was a time when a six cylinder engine meant an in-line six and there were a few really interesting ones out there.
Jaguar had an exstreemly strong version in the sixties. In the XKE it powered the two seater with such alacrity that it could hold its own with many of the muscle cars of the era and then out corner them. It did suffer from the curse of Lucas. The almost exclusive vendor of British car electrics was a company called Lucas. Most owners referred to Lucas as “the Prince of Darkness”. Whether it was the heater, the coil, or the light switch, Lucas electrics would be certain to let you down and sometimes in spectacular ways. In the days of carbon spark plug wires Jaguar’s six cylinder ran them down between the cam covers where, as they aged, they could arc to one another providing misfires and frustration.
Those were the days of points and condenser ignition. It was odd to find cars designed for the British Isles would have a problem in damp and foggy environments, but they consistently frustrated their owners with “morning sickness” on this side of the pond. There was a great story of a local mechanic, Al, who was called out one foggy Cape Cod morning to cure such a problem. The owner was a wealthy man that lived in one of the more exclusive areas. He had a multi-car garage and had several classic British cars in his stable. The one he wanted to drive that day was an XJ-6 that refused to start. All sowed up at the man’s house while the owner was still in his robe and slippers. The man had planned to crank up the Jag and let it warm up while he had his morning coffee, usually a good idea. So Al had him open the bonnet (hood) and then took a peek inside. The owner, naturally curious stood near by to see what Al would do. Al removed the distributor cap and pulled off the rotor. “Ah ha”, said Al. “Do you have a $100 bill?” A bit flustered the owner of the Jaguar fussed about in his robe. Al said,”never mind I have one,” and pulled one out of his wallet. Then he took the bill and ran it between the points in the distributor. He put the rotor back in, attached the distributor cap, and told the man to start it up. He did and the engine immediately came to life. The owner was monetarily grateful and would later recount Al’s magical genius to his friends and contemporaries. The reality was that any piece of paper would have done the trick in wiping the moisture from the morning’s dew off the points, but Al’s showmanship was brilliant.
There have been a couple of notable six cylinder engines in the US as well. Plymouth had the slant six. It was a long stroke engine that designed so that the cylinders were at an angle, much like a bank of cylinders on a V8 engine. This provided clearance for more conpact body designs and was offered in cast iron as well as aluminum blocks. It was a strong dependable engine that could be had in as large as 255 cubic inches of displacement.
Another six cylinder engine from America that never achieved the recognition that it deserved was Pontiac’s Overhead Cam (OHC) Six. This was designed in an era when cams in American engines drove push-rods which acted on rocker arms in order to open and shut the valves. The OHC 6 was revolutionary in that aspect in particular. This offered it the ability to breath much better than the traditional six cylinder designs. It came in a 250 cubic inch displacement and was offered with a four barrel carburetor in its “Sprint” configuration. A friend had a 1957 Pontiac that came with a V8 engine that had a carburetor fire. he repainted the scorched hood and replaced the bulky V8 with an OHC 6. This took a lot of weight off the front end and allowed him to put in a transmission with over drive. He ended up with a classic looking car that had great gas mileage and excellent power.
The straight six is not seen much any more. It takes up too much space with its length and has a much tougher time passing emission requirements than the V6. They were some great engines though.