The Godfathers of Automotive Propulsion

by James Kraus

Prototype Lamborghini V12, with chief designer Giotto Bizzarrini, Ferrucio Lamborghini and chassis designer Gian Paolo Dallara. Sant’Agata, Italy, 1963

Please join me in saluting twelve automobile engines that conquered time and defied obsolescence. Engines with staying power. All have all been offered for sale in the world’s most competitive markets for over 40 years. They represent a full range, from inline and opposed twins to V12’s in sizes ranging from 0.4 litre to 6.8 litres. Some were conceived as cost-no-object exercises; others, humble workhorse engines of the people. Still others were robust mainstream powerplants that attained immortality in the crucible of competition. A few are still available.


Over 40 and still going strong:


6.2 Litre Rolls-Royce V8

Rolls-Royce/Bentley OHV V8 Introduced in 1959. 6.2-6.8 litre. This aluminium V8 with wet iron liners and hydraulic valve tappets was designed under a group led by Rolls-Royce’s Jack Phillips. It was carefully engineered to be exceedingly quiet in operation, a feat not easily achieved with an aluminium cylinder block.

A perennial favourite of dukes, earls, Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdink, this engine originally debuted in the stately Silver Cloud II and went on to propel the royal coaches of the 1960’s; the Silver Shadow, Bentley S and T, Corniche and Phantoms V and VI. In 1982 a turbocharged version was introduced to motivate the Mulsanne Turbo. When Rolls-Royce and Bentley parted company, the engine went with Bentley and is still available in the Mulsanne, Azure and Brooklands Coupé. Each motor is currently assembled by a team of five technicians at the Bentley engine-room in Crewe, England.

3.5 litre Lamborghini V12 in engine bay of 350 GT

Lamborghini DOHC V12 Introduced in 1964. 3.5-6.5 litre. In the middle of the 1960’s, with development of futuristic rotary and gas turbine engines in full swing, few would have thought the quad-cam V12 in the new 350 GT had any chance of lasting much more than a decade. History had other ideas. The brainchild of Giotto Bizzarrini, this lusty engine has in fact powered virtually every top-range Lamborghini produced since the founding of the company.

The very first automotive product of Lamborghini S.p.A., it was designed before a chassis or body had even been conceived. It first saw the light of day in the front-engined 350 and 400 GT’s; traditional, functional and elegant Grand Touring cars in the manner of the Ferrari 275GTB. Later, it achieved star status mounted amidships in the Miura and Countach. Today, in 6.5 litre form, it continues on, powering the Murciélago.

Ford Cologne OHV V6, 1.8 litre

Ford Cologne OHV V6 Introduced in 1968. 1.8-4.0 litre. One of the earliest V6 powerplants (the first being the Lancia Aurelia engine of 1950) the Cologne engine was built with a proper 60˚ bank angle, which has unfortunately become all too rare these days. The V6 (and a companion V4) were born out of Ford’s Cardinal project that eventually became the production Taunus 12M. It later saw widespread application in Capris, Cortinas, Granadas, and Mustangs. A 2.9 litre 4-cam 4-valve version was created by Cosworth for use in the Scorpio 24V.

The engine enjoyed its finest hours in 2.6 form under the hood of the Capri RS 2600 where it captured the European Touring Car Championship for Drivers in 1971 (Dieter Glemser) and 1972 (Jochen Mass.) A 4.0 litre SOHC version is still offered in the U.S. market.


Gone but not Forgotten:


Austin/BMC A-Series Inline 4, 803 cc

Austin/BMC A-Series OHV Inline 4 1951-2000  803-1275 cc. This simple, straight-forward powerplant served the needs of a wide variety of motorists for just a few months shy of half-a-century. Making its debut in the Austin A30, it later found itself beneath the bonnet of the Austin-Healy Sprite, Morris Minor, MG Midget and others.

In 1959, it found its true calling: transversely installed at the front of the iconic BMC Mini, where it became a rally legend, culminating with overall victory in the 1964, 1965 and 1967 Rallye Monte-Carlo. In the 1980’s a turbocharged version was created for the MG Metro Turbo.

Chevrolet Turbo-Fire V8, 4.3 litre

Chevrolet Turbo-Fire OHV V8 1955-2002  4.3-6.6 litre. Possibly the most celebrated American passenger car engine, the “small-block” Chevrolet V8, designed under the direction of chief Chevrolet engineer Ed Cole, was introduced in the all-new 1955 Chevrolet. Compact dimensions and light weight were the two hallmarks of this design. The short-stroke engine was 40 pounds lighter than the Chevrolet Six, 50 pounds less than Ford’s latest Y-Block V8 and 25 pounds lighter than the Cadillac and Oldsmobile V8’s. It would be seven years before arch-rival Ford would launch a worthy competitor.

Famed GM engineer Zora Arkus-Duntav designed performance parts for the engine such as the ‘Duntav’ camshaft while taking occasional time off for racing, winning the 1.1 litre Sports Car class at Le Mans for Porsche in 1954 and 1955. Back in the U.S., he personally set records for the V8 at Pikes Pike and Daytona Beach while successfully marketing the new engine to American aftermarket performance manufacturers and enthusiasts, who heretofore had focused their attention almost exclusively on the older Ford “Flathead” V8.

In the 1960’s, the Turbo-Fire provided the motive power for a number of Italian GT’s by Iso and Bizzarini. Between 1965 and 1967, it powered Chaparrals to overall victory in FIA Sports Car Championship races at Sebring, Bridgehampton, Brands Hatch and the Nürburgring. By the mid-1970’s it propelled every platform in the Chevrolet lineup from the Monza, Nova and Chevelle to the Caprice and Corvette.

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Fiat 100 Series mounted in Fiat 600, 633 cc

Fiat 100 Series OHV Inline 4 1955-2000  633-1050 cc. Designed by Dante Giacosa’s team at Fiat, this diminutive motor debuted in the Fiat 600 in 1955. Designed to be as inexpensive as possible, the engine featured numerous cost-saving measures including an intake manifold cast into the aluminium cylinder head. To keep the length of the rear-mounted unit at a minimum, the water pump and radiator were mounted to the side. The rugged, relatively unstressed engine was immediately modified by a variety of Italian tuning shops, most famously by ex-Austrian Carlo Abarth.

Abarth began selling his own versions of Fiat 600s with modified chassis, gearing and engines, increasing displacement to 750, 850 and finally one litre while adding larger carburettors, more aggressive camshafts, larger valves and of course Abarth exhausts. These Fiat 100-powered Abarths chalked up numerous Division One victories in European Touring Car Championships.

The engine also powered the rear-engine Fiat 850, after which it found itself providing motive power to numerous FWD Fiats, Autobianchis and Seats, appearing for the last time in the Fiat Seicento before retiring to Eastern Europe.

Rover Aluminium OHV V8, 3.5 litre

Buick/Rover Aluminium OHV V8 1961-2004  3.5-4.6 litre. Designed by the Buick division of General Motors to power the new Buick, Oldsmobile and Pontiac “compact” models, this engine was America’s first aluminium-block V8 (following earlier examples from BMW, Fiat and Rolls-Royce.) Oldsmobile created the first-ever turbocharged passenger car when they offered a turbo-boosted version of this engine in the 1962 Jetfire. In a cost-saving move, GM discontinued this nearly-new engine at the close of the 1963 model year. Luckily for the motoring public, it refused to die.

Rover agreed to purchase the drawings, rights and production tooling from GM in January of 1965 and began revising and improving the design, addressing may of the weak points and adding a new intake manifold to accept a set of traditional British SU sidedraft constant-depression carburettors. To meet UK and European market requirements, the power band was widened and the peak was raised from 4600 to 5200 rpm.

Meanwhile, down in Australia, Repco built a 3-litre variant of the aluminium V8 for use in Jack Brabham’s BT19 Grand Prix car, adding their own twin-cam four-valve cylinder heads. Thus powered, Brabham won both the Formula One Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships in 1966. The following year, the new Rover-enhanced V8 made its debut in the P5B and later provided propulsion for the 3500 and numerous other BMC products from the MGB-GT V8 and Triumph TR8 to several iterations of Land Rovers. In the 1990’s, TVR built and used a 5.0 litre version for use in the Griffith.

Jaguar DOHC Inline 6, 3.4 litre

Jaguar XK  DOHC Inline 6 1949-1992  2.4-4.2 litre. This engine found its way under the hood of some of the most suave and sexy vehicles of the fifties and sixties; the XK 120, Mark II Sedan, XKSS, E-Type and XJ Sedan. It dominated the 24 Heures du Mans in the 1950’s, winning virtually half the races: 1951, 1953, and 1955-1957.

A good argument could be put forth that this was also one of the most aesthetically pleasing automotive powerplants ever built, my personal favourite being the 3.8 version as installed in the E-Type Series I with semi-polished cam covers and pale gold cylinder head.

Ford Kent Inline 4, 1.0 litre

Ford Kent Inline 4 1959-2002  1.0-1.6 litre. This unassuming powerplant debuted in the Ford Anglia. It soon found a prestigious new home under the bonnet of the Lotus Elan, fitted with an aluminium twin-cam cylinder head. In various forms it went on to power the Lotus-Cortina and Europa, the Ford Cortina, Capri, Fiesta, Escort, Pinto and Ka, as well as Caterhams, Morgans and TVRs. It became the spec engine for Formula Ford racing in 1967.

Alfa Romeo DOHC Inline 4, 1.3 litre, installed in Giulietta Sprint Normale

Alfa Romeo DOHC Inline 4 1954-1994  1.3-2.0 litre. Introduced less than a decade after World War II, this 4-cylinder gem designed by Orazio Satta Puliga still seems contemporary today with its all-aluminium construction, five main bearings and dual overhead camshafts. Introduced in the Giulietta Sprint in 1954, it  went on to power many other enthusiasts’ favourites; SS’s, SZ’s, Giulias, GTA’s and Tubolares. The engine was red-lined at 6500, but could be pushed to 7000+ without protest. In its later life, a turbocharged version was developed and dual ignition and variable valve timing were added.

Citroën OHV Flat Twin, 375 cc

Citroën OHV Flat Twin 1948-1990. 375-652 cc.  The classic Citroën air-cooled, light-alloy opposed twin with cast iron cylinder barrels was designed by Walter Becchia. Reliability, light-weight, low-cost and ease of maintenance were of the highest priority. Simplicity satisfied all these aims and the result was a very simple engine.

The cooling fan, rather than being driven by a belt, was bolted to end of crankshaft. Inside the cooling fan hub was the generator. Behind the generator were the breaker points, driven directly off the crankshaft – they fired both cylinders simultaneously. Thus, the engine had no distributor, no fan belt, and no water pump. Developed for the 2CV, it also powered the Ami, Dyane, Méhari, Bijou and certain models of the Visa.

Fiat DOHC Inline 4, 1.4 litre

Fiat 124A/AC OHV/DOHC Inline 4 1966-2006  1.2-2.0 litre. Introduced as a cam-in-block 1.2 litre in the Fiat 124 Berlina, Fiat launched a 1.4 litre version a few months later with twin belt-driven overhead-camshafts to power the 124 Sport Coupé and Sport Spider. This versatile motor went on to power several other Fiats, Autobianchis, Lancias and SEATs as well as a full range of Fiat Group competition cars including the Fiat Abarth 124 and 131, the Lancia Rally 037 and Delta HF Integrale.

Turbo and supercharged versions were later added and the engine received simultaneous compound super and turbocharging in the Lancia Delta S4. In various forms, this engine won the World Rally Constructors’ Championship no less than ten times: in 1977, 1978 and 1980 (Fiat 131 Abarth), 1983 (Lancia Rally 037), and every season from 1987-1992 (Lancia Delta Integrale). In addition to its competition victories, this Fiat motor also broke through the Iron Curtain to the Eastern Bloc, powering tens of millions of Ladas, Polskis, Pirins and Murats.

Note: The dates used represent sales for automotive use in G10 countries.

21 thoughts on “The Godfathers of Automotive Propulsion

  1. The Rolls-Royce V8 was overdesigned from the start for extreme long-term durability. One of the early development prototypes ran on the dynamometer for over 450 hours at full throttle, which was unprecedented at the time. This strength made it very well suited for the later turbocharged versions.

  2. Great post.

    I thought of one you left off. The Ford Kent engine – started production in 1959 for the Ford Anglia, to final redesign Endura-E in 1995 stopped for automotive use in 2002. It’s still produced for industrial uses. It famously was used as a basis for the Lotus 1600 twin-cam engine, and is “the” Ford engine in Formula Fords.

    • If you need one more, how about the Aurelia V6? I would consider some of the narrow V-4’s, but perhaps they are a bit too limited in their impact to be considered. But the Aurelia motor (as you note above) really did spawn a whole range of now more common profiles.

      • The Aurelia/Flaminia V6 was a fine powerplant, but the key criteria for inclusion in this post was that an engine had to be manufactured for automotive use for at least forty years. Despite inspiring other manufacturers to develop six-cylinder engines in a vee-configuration, the Lancia V6 itself was available for only twenty years, 1950-1970.

        • true, but the unique logic of its solution (in the crankshaft design) fathered all the current 60º V6s, which still use the same answer. While a bit esoteric, you don’t get all the current V6s without this one.

          • Let us also then tip our hats to the 1923 Cadillac Compensated Crankshaft V8 which cast the die for all road-going V8s to follow with the exception of Ferrari, Lotus and Ford’s 5.2 Litre engines.

  3. Interesting that the Fiat 124AC engine’s domination of rallying virtually book-ended the Group B era. The 131 Abarth was King of the Hill prior to their arrival, and after their banishment, the Delta Integrale began its six-year run.

  4. The Ventoux unit developed in 1947 may also qualify. Officially produced until 1985, it misses the 40 year threshhold by a couple of years. But it was fitted on the Renault 5 produced in Iran at least until 1995 in its original guise, probably later, which means that the Ventoux had a lifespan of presumably nearly, even over 50 years. Its relacement, the Cléon6fonte or Sierra engine lasted 42 years

    So these two leads are perhaps worth investigating?

    • Good candidates indeed. If it were not for my criteria of the engine being utilized in automobiles sold in G-10 markets (where engine designs must compete with the latest and greatest), both these power plants would definitely be included, as would the second-generation VW Beetle engine (1961-2003).

  5. How about the Solex engine? Mounted first on the prototype of the VeloSolex in 1940, pre-series in December of the same year or 1941, first commercial vehicles in 1946, last produced in France in 1988 (maily for export), but production resumes in France in 2005 then goes to the US in 2011.

    • The Solex motor certainly qualifies as a “Godfather of Motorbike Propulsion” but alas, not of Automotive Propulsion.

      Another Solex to consider for Honourable Mention however is the Solex Agitator, which James Bond has been tracking down now for over 50 year!s>

    • A good video; but I left out a few of his selections for not meeting my 40-year requirement. The MoPar Slant Six disappeared from Chrysler’s home market by the mid-eighties, The Ferrari V12 underwent a change in bore spacing in 1963, that to me made it a different engine. The AMC Six was only used in passenger cars through 1988 (14 years), The Lancia V4 was really several engines, all with varying bank angles. The VW engine was completely redesigned for 1961, and the 2-litre version that he mentions being used in the Porsche 914 and 912E was yet another completely different engine, the larger VW Type IV, developed for the VW 411.

  6. Does the Ferrari V12 Colombo qualify? I read it lasted 1950-1994.

    • I considered including the Colombo, but it was extensively revised in 1963 with a new block casting, and so I decided to leave it out. A difficult call though!

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