Power Plays – how engine power has changed through the years

Power is a funny concept. We spend so much time chasing more of it but we get used to it so quickly. We find the new normal so fast it is easy to forget how far we’ve come.

When Toyota introduced the 3S-GTE turbo two-litre four-cylinder in the 1986 ST165 GT-Four Celica, it made 136kW (185hp). However, by the time Marty’s MR2 GT was built in the mid-1990s it had been tuned to produce 180kW (245hp), and it finished production in 2007 making 191kW (260hp).. all these numbers are 'at the engine' ratings by the way!

These power figures are comparable to many other Japanese turbo two-litre four-cylinder engines of the era, but dwarf what regular cars of the 1940s and ‘50s made.

Early Volkswagen air-cooled flat-four engines, like what was used in Moog’s Moon Buggy, produced just 18kW (24hp) when they first appeared in the mid-1940s, as many family cars of the time did.

By the 1960s VW motors would end up making 37kW (50hp) after two decades of development, and featured such modern luxuries as 12-volt electronics. While big-horsepower exotics and muscle cars of the era get enthusiasts’ attention - the reality is most four-cylinder family cars of the time had around that same power when they rolled off the factory floor.

Despite never being run on a dyno, it is estimated the Moon Buggy’s stroker 2045cc engine made about 95kW (130hp) thanks to plenty of aftermarket tricks and a full motor build. Compare that to Marty’s mildly modified Toyota engine which put down 175kW (234hp) at the wheels and you can see how decades of development have improved petrol engines.

While a dead standard Mk7 Golf R produces 213kW (285hp) and can do 0-100km/h in 4.8-seconds, Moog’s Revo-tuned Golf R supercar proved just how capable current-generation petrol engines are. His Golf is awesome for its ability to roll off consistent low-11-second quarter-mile passes, yet still be completely daily driver-friendly. It made 280kw at all four wheels on the Haltech dyno. The DSG gearbox and launch control help it achieve that epic time.

In America a fella by the name of Tom Bailey has a street registered Chevy Camaro known as “Sick Seconds II” that has run 5.77@260mph down the quarter-mile and was then driven to McDonalds down the street to get burgers.

Credit: Holley

This 4500hp car was doing 418km/h 400m from zero, and is legal to drive on the road in some American states. He even drove it over 1000km when he won Hot Rod Drag Week in 2019 (the same event Mechanical Stig takes the Barra Cresta to).

Credit: Benny's Custom Works

So, internal combustion engines are doing things we couldn’t have ever imagined before, but what will happen in the future? The rise of electric vehicles and increased interest in fuel cell vehicles means most manufacturers are no longer spending the bulk of their R&D on fossil-fuelled vehicles, but that doesn’t mean the aftermarket will be sitting on their hands.

The good news for tuners, tweakers and modifiers is that the millions of petrol (and diesel) cars aren’t going to be scrapped overnight so we still have years of doing mad skids ahead of us fuelled by crushed-up dinosaurs, and the likelihood is we’ll be making more power than ever.

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