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How Sleeve-valve Engines Work

Sleeve Valves by Land -- Use in Automobile Engines

Indiana-born Charles Yale Knight purchased a three-wheeled Knox automobile around 1901 so that he could report and publish his farm journal in the U.S. Midwest. But he found the clatter created by the car's valves to be a serious pain in the ears. So he did what any self-respecting entrepreneur with a background in industrial machinery would do: He set out to build a better engine himself.

With a wealthy backer's support, he developed and extensively tested prototypes. By 1906, he had made enough progress to reveal his 4-cylinder, 40-horsepower "Silent Knight" car at the Chicago Auto Show.

The Knight engine featured not one, but two sleeves per cylinder, with the inner sleeve sliding within the outer. The piston, in turn, slid inside the inner sleeve. The Knight, true to its moniker, was impressively quiet. Even though the Knight engine proved superior to the loud and fragile poppet valves of its day, U.S. automakers gave it the cold shoulder, initially.

Knight and his financial benefactor L.B. Kilbourne fared considerably better overseas. After some refinements to the design, the Knight engine found its way onto Daimler cars in England (not to be confused with Daimler-Benz).

The Silent Knight was a hit, and soon other manufacturers wanted in on the sleeve valve action -- including automakers in the United States. Willys cars and light trucks, Daimler, and Mercedes-Benz, among others, employed the Knight sleeve-valve engine [source: Wells].

However, by the 1920s, sleeve valve design had advanced beyond Knight's sleeve-within-a-sleeve configuration. Single-sleeve designs, including the Burt-McCollum, were lighter, less complex and less costly to build, and therefore preferable to manufacturers. With further modification from engine manufacturers such as Bristol and Rolls-Royce, they would even take to the sky.