How Car Engines Work

Diagram of a cooling system showing how all the plumbing is connected

Engine Cooling, Air-intake and Starting Systems

The cooling system in most cars consists of the radiator and water pump. Water circulates through passages around the cylinders and then travels through the radiator to cool it off. In a few cars (most notably Volkswagen Beetles), as well as most motorcycles and lawn mowers, the engine is air-cooled instead (You can tell an air-cooled engine by the fins adorning the outside of each cylinder to help dissipate heat.). Air-cooling makes the engine lighter but hotter, generally decreasing engine life and overall performance. See How Car Cooling Systems Work for details.

So now you know how and why your engine stays cool. But why is air circulation so important? Most cars are normally aspirated, which means that air flows through an air filter and directly into the cylinders. High-performance engines are either turbocharged or supercharged, which means that air coming into the engine is first pressurized (so that more air/fuel mixture can be squeezed into each cylinder) to increase performance. The amount of pressurization is called boost. A turbocharger uses a small turbine attached to the exhaust pipe to spin a compressing turbine in the incoming air stream. A supercharger is attached directly to the engine to spin the compressor.

How Car Engines Work

Photo courtesy Garrett

See How Turbochargers Work for details.

Increasing your engine's performance is great, but what exactly happens when you turn the key to start it? The starting system consists of an electric starter motor and a starter solenoid. When you turn the ignition key, the starter motor spins the engine a few revolutions so that the combustion process can start. It takes a powerful motor to spin a cold engine. The starter motor must overcome:

  • All of the internal friction caused by the piston rings
  • The compression pressure of any cylinder(s) that happens to be in the compression stroke
  • The energy needed to open and close valves with the camshaft
  • All of the "other" things directly attached to the engine, like the water pump, oil pump, alternator, etc.

Because so much energy is needed and because a car uses a 12-volt electrical system, hundreds of amps of electricity must flow into the starter motor. The starter solenoid is essentially a large electronic switch that can handle that much current. When you turn the ignition key, it activates the solenoid to power the motor.

Next, we'll look at the engine subsystems that maintain what goes in (oil and fuel) and what comes out (exhaust and emissions).