Opinion: How I weep for the death of the combustion engine


I can’t deny it – I am in mourning for the internal combustion engine. I know I’m far from alone. True, the factories that produce piston engines have far from clattered to silence and won’t in 2030 either, because it’s not every country that’s outlawing them. But in Britain, we’re witnessing the beginning of the end of a device that has done more to move us than any other in history – more than the horse, more than the jet, more than ships or trains.

For some, it moves us emotionally as well as physically. No, I don’t weep with joy when I hear the crescendo of an especially tuneful engine – although I was close to crying with relief when my student Renault 4’s replacement engine finally fired up – but the sonorous crescendo of an Alfa V6, a Ferrari V8’s electrifying rip or the wailing shriek of Porsche’s flat six are all a reason to feel connections to a mechanism that are more than merely pragmatic.

Perhaps that’s because a piston engine is a mildly explosive form of wind instrument. One that can turn unexpectedly orchestral should its breathing tubes, combustion chambers and pistons enable it to let harmonious rip. To that you can often add the compelling beat of the crankshaft’s pumpings, especially if it’s of the mechanical balance ordained by a flat-six, a V8 or a 60-degree V6.

Or a Ferrari flat-12, whose welling, whipped-cream cacophony was my magnificent accompaniment when I drove an F512M to the Sahara in 1995. Its music added unanticipated grandeur to Morocco’s often unworldly vistas, 4.9 litres-worth of resonant bass intensifying the unsettling sight of jagged, alien mountain ranges blackening with the setting sun.

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So I’m mourning for the varied, vocal and often characterful interior life of the car, the sound of it’s being alive and the aural celebration of its motivating mechanism, be it V8 rumble or the happy enthusiasm of a budget four banger. Yes, the soundless stealth of an EV is beguiling. But compared to the vast soundscape of internal combustion, it’s sterile.

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