In an internal combustion engine, the cylinder head sits atop the cylinders and consists of a platform containing most part of the combustion chamber and the location of the valves and spark plugs. In a flathead engine, the mechanical parts of the valve train are all contained within the block, and the head is essentially a flat plate of metal bolted to the top of the cylinder bank; this simplicity leads to ease of manufacture and repair, and accounts for the flathead engine's early success in production automobiles and continued success in small engines, such as lawnmowers. This design, however, requires the incoming air to negotiate a convoluted path, which limits the ability of the engine to perform at higher rpm, leading to the adoption of the overhead valve head design.
In the overhead valve head, the top half of the cylinder head contains the camshaft in a overhead cam engine, or another mechanism (such as rocker arms and pushrods) to transfer rotational mechanics from the crankshaft to linear mechanics to operate the valves (pushrod engines perform this conversion at the camshaft lower in the engine and use a rod to push a rocker arm that acts on the valve). Internally the cylinder head has passages for the fuel/air mixture to travel to the inlet valves from the intake manifold, for exhaust gases to travel from the exhaust valves to the exhaust manifold, and for antifreeze (coolant) to cool the head and engine.
The number of cylinder heads in an engine is a function of the engine configuration. A straight engine has only one cylinder head. A V engine usually has two cylinder heads, one at each end of the V, although Volkswagen, for instance, has recently produced a V6 where the angle between the cylinder banks is so narrow that it utilizes a single head. A boxer engine has two heads.
The cylinder head is key to the performance of the internal combustion engine, as the shape of the combustion chamber, inlet passages and ports (and to a lesser extent the exhaust) determines a major portion of the volumetric efficiency and compression ratio of the engine.