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What is an Overhead Valve Engine?

By Jeremy Laukkonen
Updated May 17, 2024
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Overhead valve (OHV) engines can typically be identified by the location of the camshaft and valves: the camshaft is located within the block and the valves are above the block, inside the cylinder head. Pushrods typically run from the camshaft into the head and are moved up and down by the eccentric lobes of the cam. As the pushrods move, they can activate rocker arms that in turn push the valves open. The first overhead valve engines offered some benefits over previous side valve engines in the matter of efficiency, while later overhead cam (OHC) designs can often operate at higher revolutions per minute (RPMs).

Early internal combustion engines used a variety of designs, such as sleeve or side valves. These designs located the valve train inside the cylinder block with the pistons. The first overhead valve engine was designed around 1902, and offered benefits such as better top end performance and greater efficiency. In 1928, the first US patent was issued for an OHV engine design, which included plans for converting older side valve engines to the newer specification. As later OHC valvetrain configurations technically use overhead valves, nearly all modern automobiles with internal combustion engines use some type of OHV design.

These engines can offer benefits over both older side valve and newer OHC configurations. The main benefits offered over side valve engines are related to efficiency and performance, with an OHV engine taking in a mixture of air and fuel and then expelling exhaust gases more efficiently, and also rotating more quickly in some cases. When compared to an OHC design, this engine tends to be simpler, with a less complex mechanism for driving the camshaft. An overhead valve engine can also typically be smaller in size than an OHC design of similar displacement.

Despite the advantages it can offer, the design has been largely replaced by overhead cams. Overhead cam engines can typically operate better at higher engine speeds and may also work more efficiently. This may be partially due to the greater number of components involved in the valvetrain of an OHV design, particularly the pushrods. OHV engines are typically limited to around 10,000 RPMs even in racing applications, but OHC designs may achieve nearly double that. Overhead cam engines may also use multiple exhaust and intake valves per cylinder, which can further increase their efficiency.

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Discussion Comments
By anon965858 — On Aug 14, 2014

Meanwhile, American car manufacturers are still fixated with two valves per cylinder and OHV.

Chrysler: The 6.4 L V8 Hemi (485 bhp and 475 lb·ft).

Ford: The 6.7 L V8 Scorpion* diesel (440 bhp and 860 lb·ft). This has 4 valves per cylinder.

GM: The all-new 6.2 L V8 used in the Chevrolet Corvette (460 bhp and 465 lb·ft).

Imagine the weight savings (from smaller displacement), greater efficiency, and/or higher performance, with four valves per cylinder and DOHC (Ford 5.0 L V8 Coyote).

By Logicfest — On Jun 21, 2014

@Markerrag -- don't forget about fuel injection. When you combine the accuracy and precision of fuel injection with an overhead cam design, you suddenly find you are able to pull around 300 horsepower out of a six-cylinder engine through computer timing, high compression ratios and other such tricks.

Fuel economy can be improved, too, leading to vehicles with somewhat small engines that can produce as much as or more power than a muscle car from the 1960s while still being affordable to operate. More power without the "gass guzzler" problem. That's a winner.

By Markerrag — On Jun 21, 2014

You hit the nail on the head about overhead cam engines largely replacing overhead valve engines. The multiple valve engines that have become common have led to increased efficiency and radically more power out of smaller engines than once thought possible.

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