Right off the bat, Peter Sessler’s Ultimate American V8 Engine Data Book, 2nd Ed., contains five words I like and one contradiction in terms. I like American V8s, data, books, and if something’s the “ultimate”, then there shouldn’t be a need for a second edition (ultimate means last). The title’s mix of lots of what I like with some minor shortcomings on the details, perfectly matches the Ultimate American V8 Engine Data Book 2nd Ed..
Ultimate features a full run-down of the specs of every domestic V8 from the launch of OHV engines in the 50s through 2009. It’s even so comprehensive as to have included AMC, Packard and Studebaker in the back.
Each chapter focuses on a given engine, roughly centered around a given block. Chapters open with some context and history of the engine, then go through each iteration in order of displacement, followed by run-downs on cylinder heads, intake and exhaust manifolds. Each chapter wraps up with identification keys for each engine variant and a list of each variant’s horsepower/torque output. As could be expected, the Chevy small block chapter is rather long, given that it lists every configuration from 1955 to 2002.
I was surprised to learn to learn just how much power engines were making in the late ’50s and early ’60s. We all consider the late ’60s and early ’70s to be the zenith of muscle, but late 50s/early 60s engines like the Ford 406 FE and Chrysler 392 Hemi, both rated at over 400hp were nothing to sneeze at. Obviously one should view these early SAE gross measurements skeptically, knowing marketing had as much in their making as engineering. The point remains that between about 1963 and 1972, it’s not all that obvious what Detroit R&D was really up to, besides spec’ing larger displacements.
The biggest beef with Ultimate is the organization of the information presented. Having individual displacement-specific sections sorted by size makes for a confusing read, as you jump from a mid-60s engine to an early-80s CAFE-driven dog like the 255 Windsor or 265 Pontiac, then back to the 60s. Since each chapter already opens with a narrative about the engine family, presenting the more size-specific information in paragraph form hurts more than it helps. A big table with each year’s motors and their relevant attributes would be a better use of space, and would allow the narrative introductions to do a better job of telling the interesting histories of each engine family, leaving the data to the tables.
Speaking of data, the one stat that’s either not included or only briefly mentioned somewhere random is the weight of a given engine. Knowing the shortblock/long-block/full-dress weights of various engines is exactly the kind of obscure car knowledge we buy books like Ultimate to learn.
Obviously, one must ask themselves what a reference book like this offers over Wikipedia or other online resources. The first and biggest benefit is physicality: it’s there, on the coffee table or the toilet tank, ready for your perusal. You can open to a random page and learn something you weren’t specifically looking up. Second, it’s a legitimate reference, should you be a student in my dad’s physics class in the middle of a research paper on engine output over time.
For $29.99 from MotorBooks, it’s a great way to increase your automotive knowitallism. And really, isn’t that the point?