By the following month, Colombo had laid out a design for the light, agile car that became known as the 125 F1. Also joining Ferrari to assist Colombo were three men who had worked together during the war at aircraft-engine maker Officine Reggiane-Caproni. One was Aurelio Lampredi, who upon returning to Maranello found an atmosphere that was more to his liking. The other two were Franco Rocchi and Walter Salvarani, and all of them would be vital to Ferrari’s future.
However, the supercharged 1.5-liter V12 never allowed Ferrari to challenge the eights of Alfa Romeo. After tests by Nino Farina, three of the new cars first competed at Turin on September 5, 1948, a race that showed they were not on the pace of the Alfas. With Alfa taking the 1949 season off, Alberto Ascari was able to give Ferrari its first victory in a major Formula 1 race, the Swiss Grand Prix in July. But Maranello wouldn’t truly be able to take the fight to Turin until it adopted a Lampredi-designed unblown 4.5-liter engine at the end of 1950.
In the meantime, Busso had been tasked in 1947 with enlarging the Colombo V12 to 2 liters. This was another category which was popular in Europe, both for sports cars and for the new Formula 2. “We approached it in stages,” Busso said, “first with the 159, whose engine was fired up at the end of July, and later with the 166, which gave its first sneezes at the end of November.”
From the original proportions of 55 × 52.5mm, Busso initially increased both bore and stroke to 59 × 58mm to bring capacity to 1,903 cc—and with each cylinder displacing 159cc, this provided the engine’s “159” designation. At first, the larger-engined car struggled. Inspecting Busso’s 159 SC on his return to Maranello in September 1947, Colombo threw up his hands, saying, “It’s all wrong. Now I’ll deal with it myself.” Not surprisingly this alienated Busso, who later that year returned to Alfa.
Intensive work on the 1.9-liter V12, including rigorous testing by Frenchman Raymond Sommer, preceded the Grand Prix of Turin on October 12. Over 313 miles in Turin’s Valentino Park, Sommer drove a cycle-fendered 159 SC to a convincing victory against strong international opposition that included the latest Maseratis—the first major win for the engine’s larger version. Colombo’s take-charge demeanor appealed to Enzo Ferrari, who put him on his permanent staff from the start of 1948.
Over the 1947-48 winter, all of Ferrari’s engines were rebuilt to new bigger bores of 60mm, bringing displacement up to 1,968cc. Soon enough, the stroke was lengthened to 58.8mm to create the 166’s final displacement of 1,995cc. With a compression ratio of 8.0:1 and triple 32mm Weber twin-throat carburetors, the 166 SC version produced 130 bhp at 7,000 rpm.
In 1948, a coupe-bodied 166 SC won the all-important Mille Miglia. The following year, wearing new “Barchetta” coachwork, the 166 MM (so designated in honor of that victory) cut a swathe through all the major contests, winning the Giro di Sicilia, the Mille Miglia and the 24-hour races at Le Mans and Spa.
With 1948 the first season of the new Formula 2 for 2.0-liter cars, many Ferrari 166 owners took part, stripping their sports cars for lightness. “At this point, we began to think about a single-seater Formula 2 using our existing engine,” recalled Colombo. “At first we thought of designing a new chassis for this car, but both time and money were lacking for such a project.”
Enzo Ferrari then stepped in with a solution he described, not without pride, as “immoral.” Mused Enzo, “Why not put the 2-liter V12 in our Grand Prix chassis?” Since the engines had identical exterior dimensions, this was easy, and as a result, said Colombo, “We had in the workshop, ready and waiting, a first-class Formula 2 vehicle.”
This 166 F2 scored its first victory at Florence in September 1948 and went on to dominate Formula 2 through the 1951 season. Ultimately, its V12 produced 160 bhp at 7,200 rpm, running on alcohol with a compression ratio of 11.0:1.
These were the first steps along the road that saw the “Colombo” V12 grow in size. In 1953, it reached 3 liters with the 250 MM, foundation of the immortal range of 250 GT models. In 1960, it expanded to four liters—still with the original bore-center distances—for the 400 Superamerica. We don’t know how much Enzo Ferrari paid Gioacchino Colombo to create his original V12, but whatever it was he certainly got his money’s worth! This first V12 engine helped establish the company as a force to be reckoned with in racing, and launched the Ferrari legend.