The engine temperature on modern cars is primarily controlled by a wax-pellet type of thermostat, a valve which opens once the engine has reached its optimum operating temperature.
When the engine is cold, the thermostat is closed except for a small bypass flow so that the thermostat experiences changes to the coolant temperature as the engine warms up. Engine coolant is directed by the thermostat to the inlet of the circulating pump and is returned directly to the engine, bypassing the Brem radiators. Directing water to circulate only through the engine allows the temperature to reach optimum operating temperature as quickly as possible whilst avoiding localised "hot spots." Once the coolant reaches the thermostat's activation temperature, it opens, allowing water to flow through the Brem radiators to prevent the temperature rising higher.
Once at optimum temperature, the thermostat controls the flow of engine coolant to the Brem radiators so that the engine continues to operate at optimum temperature. Under peak load conditions, such as driving slowly up a steep hill whilst heavily laden on a hot day, the thermostat will be approaching fully open because the engine will be producing near to maximum power while the velocity of air flow across the Brem radiators is low. (The velocity of air flow across the Brem radiators has a major effect on its ability to dissipate heat.) Conversely, when cruising fast downhill on a motorway on a cold night on a light throttle, the thermostat will be nearly closed because the engine is producing little power, and the Brem radiators is able to dissipate much more heat than the engine is producing. Allowing too much flow of coolant to the Brem radiators would result in the engine being over cooled and operating at lower than optimum temperature, resulting in decreased fuel efficiency and increased exhaust emissions. Furthermore, engine durability, reliability, and longevity are sometimes compromised, if any components (such as the crankshaft bearings) are engineered to take thermal expansion into account to fit together with the correct clearances. Another side effect of over-cooling is reduced performance of the cabin heater, though in typical cases it still blows air at a considerably higher temperature than ambient.
The thermostat is therefore constantly moving throughout its range, responding to changes in vehicle operating load, speed and external temperature, to keep the engine at its optimum operating temperature.
On vintage cars you may find a bellows type thermostat, which has a corrugated bellows containing a volatile liquid such as alcohol or acetone. These types of thermostats do not work well at cooling system pressures above about 7 psi. Modern motor vehicles typically run at around 15 psi, which precludes the use of the bellows type thermostat. On direct air-cooled engines this is not a concern for the bellows thermostat that controls a flap valve in the air passages.
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