When is a Motor Not an Engine? Blackbourn - 403

By: Rob Blackbourn

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chevy engine chevy engine

If kipling could claim that a good cigar is a smoke, Rob reckons it's fair to say that a good motor is an engine

I always enjoy finding out what my favourite hill-climbing, dry lake racing, Vee-Dub tragic Glenn Torrens has been up to since the last issue. Contributions to Unique Cars by ‘GT’ and his workshop-scallywag mate, Morley, have special appeal. It’s entertaining and informative writing that gives the good-oil about sorting issues with their latest acquisitions, with added insights into their individual takes on life at no extra charge. Like his mate Morley, GT’s a straight shooter with definite opinions on a range of subjects. If you’re after a dose of certainty you could do worse than turn to GT’s pages. You won’t be disappointed.

I’m focusing on GT this time because of some guidance he kindly provided recently about correct word choices for English-speaking car enthusiasts. While I was going to tackle him about items like ‘lounge or couch’ and ‘lorry or truck’, I was prepared to let others like ‘bowser/pump’, ‘wagon/station sedan’ and ‘gutter/kerb’ go through to the keeper. Then, bless him, all was forgiven when the lad okayed the use of both ‘engine’ and ‘motor’ to describe those noisy lumps under the bonnets of our cars. Spot on, mate.

Sweet – well, it was until reader Ernest Litera popped up in in last month’s issue to wave the tech-lingo purity-flag, proclaiming: ‘Engine – Yes’, ‘Motor – No way’ So despite our shared automotive-engineering backgrounds, Ernie and I obviously think differently on this subject.

V 8-engine

I first struck the engine/motor thing here at UC HQ years ago when I was sub-editing for former editor, Greg Leech. "Always change motor to engine, Rob, unless it’s referring to electrical stuff."

Although I argued that motor is pretty much on a par with engine in car articles, editors always have the final say about magazine details. Fair enough. Engine it would be. If it was up for a lunch-table discussion with Leechy and other mates, I would have pointed to heaps of usage in favour of the long-standing legitimacy of the word motor in our scheme of things. For example, try replacing motor with engine in examples like these and see how it looks: Ford Motor Company; the motor industry; motorcycle; motor sport.

But wait, there’s more… A generation or so ago when cars usually outlasted their engines, you could go to reco- specialists like Repco or Reg Press Motors when yours expired. They would ask you whether you wanted a ‘long motor’ or a ‘short motor’ (with or without cylinder-head(s), respectively). But no one mentioned engines.

And if you want to get really pure about the word engine, its origins lie with mechanisms far removed from car powerplants – things like siege-engines (giant catapults for tossing giant rocks at your neighbour’s castle walls). Torture racks as well, apparently…

The degree of difficulty in sorting the engine/motor question goes off the scale when you look at hybrids, with their combinations of petrol burners and electric motors. So, let’s just park them in the too-hard basket, shall we?

Chevy -small -block -engine

Although a case is always worth arguing, you can get too serious about language. As far as The Bard was concerned it was the rose’s lovely fragrance that mattered, not what you called it. Accordingly, if your small-block Chevy is reliably producing an honest 400 horses, you can call it an engine, or a motor, or if you like you could call it Artaxerxes…

Having played that literary card, how can I avoid Lewis Carroll’s take on the subject through Humpty Dumpty? "When I use a word… it means just what I choose it to mean." So while GT and I may not be on the side of the angels it seems we’re pretty much on Humpty Dumpty’s side. Quite where that leaves Leechy and Ernie is less clear to me. 


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