The thing that allowed the 1951 Chrysler HEMI to produce so much more power than other engines of the day was the efficiency of the combustion chamber.
In a HEMI engine, the top of the combustion chamber is hemispherical, as seen in the image above. The combustion area in the head is shaped like half of a sphere. An engine like this is said to have "hemispherical heads." In a HEMI head, the spark plug is normally located at the top of the combustion chamber, and the valves open on opposite sides of the combustion chamber.
Most cars prior to the 1950s used what was known as a flat head, and many lawn mower engines still use the flathead design today because it is less expensive to manufacture. In a flathead engine, the valves are in the block, rather than in the head, and they open in a chamber beside the piston.
The head in a flathead engine is extremely simple -- it is a solid metal casting with a hole drilled in it to accept the spark plug. The camshaft in the block pushes directly on the valve stems to open the valves, eliminating the need for pushrods and rocker arms. Everything is simpler in the flathead design. The problem with a flathead engine is its thermal efficiency, which we'll discuss next.