Motorcycle engines work the same way that car engines do. They consist of pistons, a cylinder block and a head, which contains the valve train. The pistons move up and down in the cylinder block, driven by explosions of a fuel-air mixture that has been ignited by a spark. Valves open and close to allow the fuel-air mixture to enter the combustion chamber. As the pistons move up and down, they turn a crankshaft, which transforms the energy from the pistons into rotary motion. The rotational force of the crankshaft is transmitted, via the transmission, to the rear wheel of the motorcycle.
Motorcycle engines are generally classified by one of three characteristics: the number of cylinders they possess, the capacity of their combustion chambers or the number of strokes in their power cycles.
Photo courtesy Harley-Davidson Motor Company
Motorcycle engines can have between one and six cylinders. For years, the V-twin design was the engine of choice for motorcycle engineers in America, Europe and Japan. The V-twin gets its name from the fact that the two cylinders form a V shape, such as the classic Harley-Davidson V-twin shown below. Notice the 45-degree angle in the Harley-Davidson V-twin -- other manufacturers may vary this angle to reduce vibration.
The V-twin is just one way to accommodate two cylinders. When the cylinders are oriented so that the pistons oppose each other, the result is an opposed-twin design. Parallel-twin engines have their pistons placed side by side in an upright position.
Today, the most popular design is the four-cylinder, which runs more smoothly and at higher revolutions per minute (rpms) than a comparable twin. The four cylinders can be placed in a row, or they can be arranged in a V-shape configuration, with two cylinders on each side of the V.
What's in a name?
The term "biker" has come to be associated with members of motorcycle gangs, which is why many motorcycle enthusiasts prefer the terms "rider" or "motorcyclist." Born-again bikers are motorcycle riders in their 40s and 50s, a demographic that had not been well-represented in the general population of motorcycle owners until recently.
The size of the combustion chamber in a motorcycle engine is directly related to its power output. The upper limit is about 1500 cubic centimeters (cc), while the lower limit is about 50 cc. The latter engines are usually found on small motorcycles (mopeds) that offer 100-miles-to-the-gallon fuel economy but only reach top speeds of 30 to 35 miles per hour.
Next, we'll examine the motorcycle transmission.