Without an engine, a car is just a piece of art. But the addition of a mechanical masterpiece under the bonnet can transform a car into a living, breathing beast that transports and entertains. Here are Hagerty’s top six post-war classic car engines- and a few that deserve official commendations!
Sixth Place: Alfa Romeo ‘Nord’ Twin-Cam Engine
When Alfa Romeo decided to build a successor to their iron-block 1900 engine for their new Giulietta, they created something that was an engineering jewel. The all-aluminium, wet-liner, four-cylinder engine now commonly known as the ‘Nord’ was years ahead of its time when it was first unveiled in the 1954 Alfa Giulietta Sprint. With a finned-steel (later aluminium) sump helping the cooling, plus twin chain-driven overhead camshafts, the engine revved freely and proved to be extremely robust. Over the next forty years, the engine was adapted for road and race track, with twin-spark, fuel-injected, dry-sump and even turbo-charged versions being built; touring car Nord engines produced 300bhp. For a small engine, the Alfa Romeo Nord twin-cam provides everything you desire: beauty, longevity, power and a superb note. It has to be in our top six.
Fifth Place: Jaguar XK 6-Cylinder Engine
Development of what was to become the Jaguar XK engine started during World War Two. Sir William Lyons specified that it had to be ahead of the competition by some way, and had to “look good”. By 1947, after a number of prototypes, Jaguar Chief Engineer William Heynes had settled on the 3442cc straight-six, with an aluminium head sitting on a cast-iron block and driven by twin overhead camshafts. The engine was first fitted into the XK120, and in 3.4, 3.8 and 4.2 form went on to power a huge range of iconic vehicles including the Jaguar E-Type, the Jaguar Mark II, the Jaguar XJS, the Daimler Sovereign, the Panther De Ville and even the CVR(T) range of armoured vehicles that were still in service with the British Army well into the 2000s.
So why is this engine in our list? Next time you are at the Goodwood Revival or the Silverstone Classic, count how many Jaguar XK 6-cylinder engines are in the paddock. Plus, at full-tilt they sound fantastic.
Fourth Place: The Mercedes-Benz M116 Engine
Produced from 1969 until 1990, the M116 powered a huge range of iconic Mercedes-Benz cars, including the SL (R107) and SLC (C107), plus the W109, W111 and W116 model ranges. It is a 90 degree V-8, displacing 3.5, 3.8 or 4.2 litres, through a single over-head camshaft design. Originally an iron-block engine, this was changed to an aluminium design in 1978.
It’s true that the Mercedes M116 isn’t the most exciting engine here, but it deserves a place. It not only produces a prodigious power output- the 3499cc engine produces 200bhp DIN at 6500 rpm- but it is also very well designed. By the late 1960s, car manufacturers had to consider crumple-zones and emissions regulations- the M116’s vee engine design allowed it to sit between the front suspension points without affecting steering lock, and was short enough to allow a level of protection to the occupants in the event of a crash. It was also designed to run for 50,000 miles without any effect on its emissions. For its power, its legendary robustness and the cars it powered, the M116 deserves its place.
Bronze Medal: Ferrari 12-Cylinder Colombo Engine
Gioacchino Colombo had designed Alfa Romeos for Enzo Ferrari, so when the latter needed an engine for his Ferrari 125S in 1947, Colombo was tasked to create the powerplant. The engine he built- a 60 degree V-12, all- aluminium, 24-valve overhead camshaft- was destined to power the most legendary of Ferrari cars and only went out of production with the demise of the Ferrari 412i in 1989.
The engine started off as a tiny 1497cc unit and grew to a 4949cc fuel-injected monster. In the 1950s and ‘60s the 58.8mm stroke-design was used for Ferrari 250 and 275 engines, in 2953cc and 3286cc respectively. In 1963, the new Ferrari 330 adapted the Colombo design again, creating a 3967cc engine with a 71mm stroke that generated 300bhp. In 1967 it was substantially re-designed to create the Ferrari 275 GTB/4 ‘four-cam’; with six Weber carburettors it made over 330bhp.
Colombo engines not only power some of the world’s most beautiful and collectable cars, but they were also a key part of Ferrari’s racing dominance in the 1950s and 60s. No list like this would be complete without the Ferrari Colombo V-12.
Silver Medal: The BMW M10 Engine
The BMW M10 is a straight- four cylinder, single over-head camshaft engine built between 1962 and 1988, with over 3.5 million units produced. With sizes ranging from 1499cc to 1990cc, the engine (designed by the fantastically-named Baron Alex von Falkenhausen) powered a huge range of cars in the 1970s and 1980s, including the legendary BMW 2002.
But it was in two motorsport applications where the M10 really sets itself apart. In the late 1970s, this road-car engine, already nearly twenty years old, was modified into the BMW M12, a turbo-charged engine that powered Benetton, Arrows and Brabham F1 cars, and took Nelson Piquet to championship success with the latter in 1983. Later, a development using the M10 block- designated the S14- powered the BMW E30 M3- a car that not only dominated touring car racing , but also set the standard for performance saloon cars. In both the DTM and F1 guises, the engine produced over 350bhp- a stunning amount from such a small engine. That’s why it’s in second place.
Gold Medal: Ferdinand Porsche’s Air-cooled Engine
Some may think we’re cheating by combining the VW flat-four that Ferdinand ‘Ferry’ Porsche first designed for the ‘People’s Car’ in 1934 and his later Porsche 911 flat-six masterpiece, but they share so much DNA that we think it’s fair. What other engine can you think of that has been developed from a 25hp 995cc flat-four design that by 1990 had evolved into a 3.6 litre beast that in Porsche 911 Carrera 4 RS Lightweight form generated a normally-aspirated 300hp? Yet the standard design remained the same: rear-mounted, air-cooled, with flat, horizontally-opposed pistons. It was designed to be easy to work on, reliable and powerful for its size- all this it achieved, and more.
Porsche’s engine powered more cars than any other- it was fitted to more than 21.5 million Beetles alone. In WW2 it powered the Kubelwagen, then in the VW Type 2 Transporter, it drove ambulances, cranes, and the ubiquitous camper. Then in the Porsche 356 and 912 it powered the first generation of Porsche sports cars, before being adapted into the 911 six-cylinder design that lasted from 1963 (in the original Porsche ‘901’) to the last of the air-cooled 911s, the 993 in 1999.
But why does the VW/ Porsche air-cooled engine deserve top spot? Because if you’ve ever driven down the road in an old VW camper, you’ll know that people instinctively react to that buzzing little engine. They turn, and they smile. Nothing else does that.
There were so many superb engines to choose from that we had to leave some out, but these deserve a mention:
Small-Block Chevy: The all-American hero, in production for over 50 years, and fitted to a massive range of cars. Noisy, massive, powerful. And the engine’s not bad either.
Lotus Twin-Cam: Fitted to some awesome cars Colin Chapman’s former employees Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin developed this engine for motorsport, using a combination of their surnames: Cosworth. A legend was born.
Aston Martin Tadek Marek DOHC Straight-Six: Designed for the DBR2 racing car, it was adapted for use in the Aston Martin DB4, DB5, DB6 and DBS. Superb engine noise, looks the part, powerful.
Ford Pinto (EAO, OHC) Engine: At one stage, it seemed that every other driveway had a car powered by one of these engines. The Ford Cortina, Capri, Escort, Sierra and Granada used it in various sizes, as did that workhorse of the road: the Ford Transit.
Mazda Rotary Wankel 12A: In 1974, this engine became the first built outside of western Europe or the USA to finish the Le Mans 24 Hours. Small and powerful, this was the engine fitted to the first series of the Mazda RX-7.
What is your favourite post-war classic car engine? Let us know what you think, and why.