Rob Walker Racing Ferrari 250 GT SWB

Ferrari Colombo V12 | Legendary engines

Ferrari Colombo V12 | Legendary engines

Most brands have a defining engine – a motor that is foundational in their history, to their legacy and their reputation.

Picking one out for the likes of Ferrari, a marque defined by near-on non-stop 75+ year run of incredible engines, is easier than at first it sounds. It couldn’t be anything other than the Colombo that is at the core of why – good as its various V8s and V6s have been – Ferrari is a V12 brand.

The first Ferrari-developed engine, the Colombo, got its name from Gioacchini Colombo. The first example of the 60-degree V12 displaced just 1.5 litres, as used in the Ferrari 125, with triple carburetors and single overhead cams, but was planned from the start with capacity increases in mind. And increase it did, through 2.0 litres, 2.3 litres and 2.6 litres in the 166, 195 and 212.

Right from the off, the Colombo was a winner, too. The 166MM claimed the first post-war Le Mans victory in 1949, the first of nine for Ferrari’s Colombo-powered cars over the next 16 years.

Indeed it was when the Colombo hit 3.0 litres that it arguably hit its stride in the minds of fans. The 250 is certainly the most famous Colombo-powered family of Ferraris. In the SWB and GTO the Colombo found sports racers that were as beautiful as it sounded.

The Colombo powers what are arguably the best-loved Ferraris of all time that are now blue chip collectibles, from the aforementioned SWB and GTO of course, to the 250 TRs, 250LM, 250P and 275P. The engine underwent significant changes and grew through 3.3 litres and 4.0 litres as the ‘60s wore on, with Ferrari’s pursuit of power spurned by the burly V8-engined Ford GT40.

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This six-carb 3.0-litre variant of the engine is however widely beloved as the best iteration, combining drivability with the effervescence and low inertia of a still relatively small-capacity engine. In fact, it was in this middling capacity Colombo’s image in terms of these attributes that Gordon Murray envisioned his modern day Cosworth-developed V12.

The Colombo did however live for many decades beyond its 1960s heyday, far outliving the Lampredi that was conceived to replace it. For the 275 the Colombo got dual overhead cams for 330PS (243kW) at a heady 8,000rpm, while the 365’s 320PS (235kW) mill retained single cams to begin with and grew to 4.4 litres.

The 400 series of four-seat GTs were the last to cradle the Colombo, which had by that time gained a quad-cam setup and grown to 4.8 litres. It even got fuel injection for 1979 and eventually grew to 5.0 litres in 1986. By the time the last 340PS (250kW) 412i of 1988 was produced, the 4,943cc fuel-injected quad-cam monster that powered it was a very distant relation of the 118PS (87kW) 1.5-litre that introduced the Colombo 41 years earlier.

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An orange Dodge Charger parked in the countryside

Chrysler Hemi | Legendary engines

Chrysler Hemi | Legendary engines

The Chrysler Hemi engine is as profoundly etched in the American Automotive psyche as the Ford Flathead and Chevrolet LS small block. 

The Hemi is so called because of its half-hemispherical combustion chambers and rounded pistons, which have a smaller surface area than a flat head piston, allowing less energy to escape from the engine in the form of heat, the peak pressure is higher, and you get more power. Hemi-engine valves can also be bigger, allowing more air into the engine and the quicker release of exhaust gases, with spark plugs placed in a more efficient position – top dead centre of the cylinder, which shortens the burn distance of the air-fuel mixture.  

While the Hemi engine is as American as Budweiser and burgers, the USA wasn’t the first country to build a hemispherical engine, and who exactly did is up for debate; it’s thought the half-sphere combustion chamber originates as far back as 1901 – not long after the combustion engine itself. Belgian company Pipe is believed to have been the first to manufacture a hemispherical engine for sale in 1905. Two years later, Fiat used the technology for Grand Prix racing under the bonnet of the 130 HP.

Chrysler’s first Hemis weren’t used in cars at all but instead for the military, in the M47 Patton tank and the P-47 Republic Thunderbolt fighter aircraft, before the technology trickled down into civilian life in 1951 in the first-generation 331ci (5.4-litre) 182PS (134kW) Firepower overhead-valve V8. By 1958, the technology had spread across all of Chrysler’s brands, including Imperial, Desota (where it was called the Fire Dome) and Dodge (Red Ram) in capacities ranging from 4.0 to 6.4-litre. 

The second-generation hemispherical engine, the 426, was launched in 1964 and was the first motor to carry the legendary Hemi nametag. Legend has it that the CEO of Chrysler, Lynn Townsend’s son, came back from a day watching motorsport raving about the power of Pontiac race cars, which infuriated his father, who promptly demanded Chrysler build an engine that could win on circle-track and straight-line racing.

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The result was the 6.9-litre V8 Hemi, built for the 1964 Plymouth Belvedere NASCAR, powering the car to first, second, and third place at that year’s Daytona 500. Dominating the podium was not a popular move with other teams, and the 426 was banned in 1965 because the engine gave an unfair power advantage and wasn’t available on a road car. 

A year later, the Hemi returned to NASCAR and made its first mass-market appearance in a road car when Dodge fitted a Street Hemi V8 to the Charger and Coronet. These road-ready motors had a lower compression ratio, milder cams, plus a toned-down intake and exhaust, but were still good for a healthy 431PS (317kW).

Around the same time, the Hemi earned its nickname – ‘the Elephant Engine,’ at the drag strip; it was massive and nearly indestructible, but also slower than the old 392. 

It wasn’t until 1966 when the 426’s full potential was unleashed, albeit accidently when Big Daddy Don Garlits, attempting to highlight the engine’s shortfalls, cranked the timing of his 426 dragster up to 40 degrees (the old 392 would crack its cylinder walls at 34 degrees) and went on to set a new world record crossing the finishing line at 214mph. 

Pushing the timing to 50 degrees freed up even more performance, with the car crossing the line at 219mph. As Garlits puts it, “That was it, that was the end of the 392 for me.” Dragsters running 426s have since produced more than 11,153PS (8,203kW) running the same cylinder heads and two-valve combustion chambers. 

While second-gen Hemi engines were reserved for race and high–performance road cars, the third-generation 5.7-litre Hemi was also fitted to mainstream machines like the Dodge Ram truck, Chrysler 300C saloon and Jeep Grand Cherokee offroader. The newer engine had near-perfect hemispheres and modern advances like fuel injection, variable valve timing, and cylinder deactivation.

A more potent third-gen version wasn’t introduced until 2005 – the 6.1-litre Hemi. A product of Chryslers’s Street and Racing Technology (SRT) division, the 6.1 brought power up from mid-to-late 300 horsepower to 431PS (317kW), thanks to a modified engine block, improved pistons, and a freer-flowing intake. Since then, the engine has spawned more and more powerful iterations like the 6.4-litre Apache and 6.2-litre Hellcat.

But the most powerful Hemi’s still carry the famous 426ci displacement of the Elephant Engine, and the most powerful of those is the Dodge Direct Connection 1500 Hemi crate engine, so named because it develops a cool 1,500 horsepower running on E85 ethanol.

The 1,500 is a fitting tribute to the Hemi engine, which can trace its roots back to WWII and has triumphed in NASCAR and NHRA drag racing alike. Could the dawn of the EV finally kill it? The burgeoning crate-engine market makes us think the Hemi might be harder to kill than even Big Daddy Don Garlits could ever imagine.

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Jaguar XK120

Jaguar XK | Legendary engines

Jaguar XK | Legendary engines

Powering everything from Le Mans racers, to tanks, serving for some 43 years from its debut in 1948, is one of the most significant internal combustion engine families not only of Jaguar’s history, but perhaps of all time. We of course refer to the Jaguar XK straight-six engine, the 75th anniversary of which will be celebrated at the 2024 Goodwood Revival.

The engine’s tenure reflects perfectly the brief set by Sir William Lyons back when development of a new engine began, as early as 1942: higher than normal output, that could stay ahead of the competition without revision for many years.

And he had the perfect team for the job, in William Heynes, Walter Hassan and Claude Bailey. As Jaguar (formerly SS) had used four- and six-cylinder Standard engines in the pre-war years, these configurations were drawn up, prototyped and tested, with both single and twin-cams investigated.

Eventually, a six with two overhead cams was found to be the best solution, thanks to the increased versatility and refinement of the configuration, as well as the added benefit of more cylinders being associated with a more premium image. For production sportscars, a longer block good for a bit of extra capacity was added to afford it more torque. And so the XK straight-six was born, debuting in 3.44-litre, 162PS (119kW) form in the 1948 XK120 and would later be seen in numerous (confusingly-named) Jaguar saloons, including the Mark VII, VIII, Mark 1 and Mark 2.

Sir Lyons might have specified ‘without revision’ but the XK’s incremental evolution was arguably underway before the 120 had made its debut at the 1948 London Motor Show.

The hunt for power was on, with power outputs leaping past 180PS. Then, using the C-type (not that C-Type) ‘red head’ for the XK120C adding higher-flow carburettors, improved porting and larger exhaust valves, for up to 213PS (157kW). As compression rose and porting improved, that rose to more than 250PS in the XK150 SE of just a few years later.

The so-called ‘short-block’ 2.4 (more like 2.5-litre thanks to being 2,483cc) powered the lower-powered Jaguar Mark 1 and Mark 2 saloons of the mid-‘50s to late-‘60s.

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It was the power and performance of the XK engine and the slippery bodies of the XK-badged sportscars that yielded the succession of top speed records, with which Sir Lyons was obsessed. That obsession culminated in Sir Norman Dewis piloting a highly modified XK120 to a 173mph speed record on 20th October 1953.

The XK engine was of course the heart of a number of legendary racing cars and powered Jaguar to some truly historic results – victories among them. Beginning with the Le Mans-bound C-Type, the XK got fruitier cams and triple carburettors for over 200PS. The C-Type took victory at Le Mans on its first go in 1951 and again in 1953, though the latter can in addition to the reliability and performance of the XK, be put down to the revolutionary disc brakes.

For 1954, Jaguar introduced the D-Type, perhaps its most famous XK-engined racing car and certainly its most successful. Using a revolutionary monocoque construction and more advanced aerodynamics, the XK was the carryover element, albeit getting improved oiling, valving, breathing and fueling, in addition to both an increased displacement to 3.8 litres for 1957 and reduced displacement (per FIA mandate) to 3.0-litres in 1958.

While the D-Type scored Jaguar its Le Mans hattrick in 1955, 1956 and 1957, it’s the 1957 result with D-Types locking out the top four, in addition to coming sixth, that’s the greatest testament to the XK engine’s sturdiness. Its wings were clipped for 1958 though, with the FIA’s 3,000cc mandate. Though racing versions of the E-Type road car of the 1960s found some success, the top-flight career of the XK ended with the D-Type. In that glorious decade of racing, the XK racked up five Le Mans wins among numerous other sportscar victories the world over.

Nevertheless, powering what Enzo Ferrari described as “the most beautiful car ever made” isn’t a bad post-racing gig, right? Yes, the XK lived on into the 1960s as the heart of Jaguar’s newer-generation sportscar, the E-Type, with 3.8-litre (as seen in the latter years of the XK150) and 4.2-litre versions in the Series 1 and Series 2. Though the V12 took over as the flagship the E-Type in the 1970s, the XK lived on in Jaguar’s saloons.

A 2.8-litre version of the short block served throughout in the late 1960s and early 1970s in the XJ6, before being replaced by the ‘new’ 3.4-litre engine, with a straight-port head and stiffer bottom end to the original.

Having already powered the Mark 2, S-Type, Mark IX and Mark X in 3.8-litre form, the 4.2 carried on in Daimlers and Jaguar XJs for the next two-and-a-bit decades, gaining in some cases modernities like Bosch fuel injection, until being replaced in the early 1990s. The last Jaguar to use the XK6 was the 1987 Jaguar XJ6, surviving in the Daimler DS420 until 1992.

Speaking of non-Jaguar applications, the XK was popular in everything from the Lister and Tojeiro racers of the late 1950s, to the FV101 Scorpion Tank. It was also used in Panther’s cars, alongside the V12.

Even the XJ6 that largely replaced the XJ began life as an XK, though revisions to the block and internals technically informed its new designation. The bottom end of the XK engine went largely unrevised, all the way from its 1948 introduction, to its final outing in 1992.

Due to demand Jaguar itself even began remanufacturing the cast-iron 3.8-litre block – as seen in the original E-Type – in 2020, with the engine supplied with no less than a 12-month warranty. Mission accomplished eh, Sir William?

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Toyota Supra A80 front exterior

Toyota 2JZ | Legendary engines

Toyota 2JZ | Legendary engines

Few engines of the modern era, or even throughout motoring history as a whole, have as much name cache with all from die-hard enthusiasts to casuals, as Toyota’s 2JZ GTE.

The versatility, the tunability, the sturdiness of this 3.0-litre twin-turbocharged straight-six has made it a darling of the tuning world and of course, a bit of a movie star.

Serving between 1991 and 2002, primarily as the flagship engine for the A80 Supra, Toyota’s flagship sports GT, the 2JZ GTE is the ultimate development in the Japanese marque’s line of JZ straight-six engines.

For the early 1990s, the stock 2JZ GTE was an incredibly sophisticated and innovative thing, using sequential twin turbocharging for a balanced power delivery and matched the 964 Porsche 911 Turbo of the time for power with some 300CC less capacity. No wonder the 1995 993 got a bump to 3.6 litres and over 400PS.

Toyota didn’t sleep on the 2JZ GTE either, adding Variable Valve Timing for 1995. The naturally-aspirated version even got direct injection towards the end of its life, in a bid to improve efficiency and reduce emissions.

But it wasn’t this engine’s out-of-the-box 280-320PS form that defined it. It was what was possible when you opened the taps on it, because it’s perhaps one of the most overengineered, under-stressed engines ever sold.

Obviously there are inherent benefits of an inline-six – superior balance, incredible smoothness – but the 2J goes further. It’s shot through with go-harder engineering, with a bombproof iron block, great coolant and oil flow and even a forged crank.

This engine, using the stock bottom end, is a high-flow head, lumpy cams, a single turbo and some ancillary supporting mods away from near-on tripling its factory output, reliably so. And the sky is very nearly the limit the more money and mods you throw at it.

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It’s something tuners realised quickly and throughout almost all of the 2J’s three and a bit decades, drag racers, drifters and all enthusiasts hungry for power have been shooting them through with steroids and beating on them from dawn til’ dusk, with relatively few issues.

Such was the fame of the 2J (and JZ family) in tuning car culture that it was the obvious candidate to be the hero engine (in the hero car) of a low-budget street racing movie. You may have heard of it – The Fast & The Furious.

A silly film though it and its many sequels are, there were no falsehoods or fictions perpetuated about the 2JZ. It’s every bit the athlete that the film portrayed. The result today is that the mk4 Supra is a lauded modern classic and the engine a living legend.

It’s still a top-shelf choice for those who want to modify and tune for big power today, with multiple drift champion James Deane just one of its many proponents, using one as he does in his crazy ‘Eurofighter’ E92 BMW 3 Series drift car. Some are also now on the hunt for ever-rarer unmodified examples of the Supra and other 2JZ GTE-engined Toyotas. Either way, this is a hero engine that many millennial enthusiasts grew up to meet, and happily, it almost always lived up to the hype.

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