The D.IVa replaced the failed Mercedes D.IVinline eight-cylinder engine. The D.IVa was primarily used to power bombers and large reconnaissance aircraft. Unlike most German designs, the D.IVa was relatively advanced, including four valves per cylinder powered by an overhead cam, also used on the earlier two-valve per cylinder D.I through D.IIIa powerplants.
Designed specifically to be installed in the fuselage, the engine featured a number of design elements intended to reduce its width. For instance, the carburetor was placed behind the engine, feeding fuel to the cylinders via a long tubular intake manifold. This had the disadvantage of poor fuel distribution. Two versions of the engine were produced in mirror copies, running in opposite directions.