Car Engine Image Gallery
Car Engine Image Gallery

During World War I, it was discovered that adding a chemical called tetraethyl lead (TEL) to gasoline significantly improved the gasoline's octane rating. See car engine pictures.

Ed Endicott/Dreamstime.com

If you've read How Car Engines Work, you know that almost all cars use four-stroke gasoline engines. One of the strokes is the compression stroke, where the engine compresses a cylinder-full of air and gas into a much smaller volume before igniting it with a spark plug. The amount of compression is called the compression ratio of the engine. A typical engine might have a compression ratio of 8-to-1.

Car Engine Image Gallery

The octane rating of gasoline tells you how much the fuel can be compressed before it spontaneously ignites. When gas ignites by compression rather than because of the spark from the spark plug, it causes knocking in the engine. Knocking can damage an engine, so it is not something you want to have happening. Lower-octane gas (like "regular" 87-octane gasoline) can handle the least amount of compression before igniting.

The compression ratio of your engine determines the octane rating of the gas you must use in the car. One way to increase the horsepower of an engine of a given displacement is to increase its compression ratio. So a "high-performance engine" has a higher compression ratio and requires higher-octane fuel. The advantage of a high compression ratio is that it gives your engine a higher horsepower rating for a given engine weight -- that is what makes the engine "high performance." The disadvantage is that the gasoline for your engine costs more.