Genesis 1.5:12

Enzo Ferrari commissioned an ambitious V12 engine for the first cars built under his name. And while it was a risky, even foolhardy, move, the gamble paid off.

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February 12, 2010

According to legend, Enzo Ferrari’s first V12 engine was influenced by a Packard. The Packard in question, the 4.9-liter 299, first ran in 1916, and after an active career it was bought in 1920 by the attractive Italian Baroness Maria Antonietta Avanzo.

The Baroness engaged Eugenio Silvani to race her new car in sprint and Formula Libre events. On November 14, Silvani set the fastest time in the Gallarate speed trials at 97.26 mph over the flying kilometer. The following January, he won the Vermicino-Rocca di Papa hillclimb at 42.17 mph. The Baroness, whom Ferrari recalled as “the first courageous woman driver of the postwar era,” took the wheel herself for Denmark’s speed trials on the beach at Fanoe, near Copenhagen, but had to drive the car into the sea to extinguish an engine fire.

The 299’s last known race was at Monza on a rainy October 22, 1922, where the six-year-old car finished ninth. We can be confident that, in one or more of its Italian appearances, the potent Packard was witnessed by Enzo Ferrari—and the Baroness herself was sure that her car caught Ferrari’s eye. After she swapped it to dealer-racer Antonio Ascari, she said, the Packard “went from owner to owner, and no-one managed to get any good results from it except Enzo Ferrari, who said that it had given him the inspiration for his future 12-cylinder cars.”

This was an exaggeration, albeit a delightful one. In fact, the decision to build a twelve was based on practical logic, albeit logic that seemed to ignore the privations of the struggling Italian economy in the aftermath of World War II.

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IMMEDIATELY AFTER THE END OF THE WAR in Europe, Enzo established Auto Costruzioni Ferrari, a company whose name gave clear evidence of his intentions. “I had had ambitious plans for launching out into the manufacture of high-quality cars,” he said. “I remembered that I had joined Alfa Romeo when they were endeavoring to produce one car a day, and I too had hopes of achieving this same target.”

By a stroke of luck, a collaborator was available with whom Ferrari could work on the design of an all-new car. In June 1945, at the age of 42, Gioacchino Colombo had just been laid off by Alfa Romeo, the company for which he’d worked since 1924. Colombo referred to “a temporary suspension, caused by political misunderstandings,” but reading between the lines, this meant that the engineer was being investigated to see whether his wartime career as a member of the Fascist Party counted against his continued employment.

Ferrari and Colombo knew each other well from their pre-war associations. Under the great Vittorio Jano, Colombo had designed race cars for Alfa Romeo, including the low-chassis 312 with its V12 engine and the successful 158 Voiturette. Ferrari had organized Alfa’s racing entries until his Scuderia was bought out by the automaker in 1937, and had also built cars such as the aforementioned 158 and the Alfa-powered 1935 Bimotore. With engines both front and rear, the latter was first car ever to carry the Prancing Horse above its grille.

In July 1945, Ferrari phoned Colombo and asked him to come to Modena for a discussion. Although Modena was only 100 miles southeast of Milan, where Colombo lived, this wasn’t as easy as it sounded in war-ravaged Italy. That hot summer before the bridges were rebuilt, ferries had to carry cars across the Po River. “However, it was unthinkable for me not to make the trip,” Colombo reflected on his arduous journey from Milan. “A call from Enzo Ferrari absolutely could not be ignored.”

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In Ferrari’s austere office at Maranello, near the halls where grinding machines were still being produced, the now-gray-haired protagonist met with the swarthy, balding engineer. It was, said Colombo, “as if he were just picking up a conversation where it had been left off.”

“Colombo,” said Ferrari, “I want to go back to making racing cars; I’ve had enough of these machine tools. What do you say: How would you propose to make a fifteen-hundred?”

Colombo didn’t have to ask what Ferrari meant. Before the war, the popular 1.5-liter category had already been tipped as a likely future Formula 1, so any newcomer to the sport would want a 1,500cc engine in his armory. The size could also be attractive for a sports car in a postwar world in which big engines would, at least initially, be extravagant rarities. Besides, the class for unblown 1.5-liter sports cars was already popular in Italy.

“Maserati has a first-class four-cylinder; the English have the six-cylinder ERA and Alfa Romeo has the eight-cylinder,” he replied. “In my view, you should be building a twelve cylinder.”

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Ferrari smiled. “My dear Colombo, you’ve read my thoughts,” he said. “For years I’ve been dreaming of building a twelve-cylinder. Let’s get to work straight away!”

In his memoirs, Ferrari confided “I had always hankered after a twelve-cylinder, recalling early photographs I had seen of a Packard that had raced at Indianapolis in 1914 and a Delage that came in second at Lyons in 1924. I had always liked the song of twelve cylinders; what is more, I must confess that the fact that there was then only one firm in the world making such engines [Lincoln] acted on me as a challenge and a spur.” (Though Ferrari’s recollection of the Delage was correct, he could have seen pictures of Packard’s 299 V12 being tested at Indianapolis in 1916 or being raced there in 1919, but not in 1914.)

“He talked to me about his passion for twelve-cylinders a thousand times,” said Ferrari engineer Mauro Forghieri about his boss. “It is a beautiful, balanced engine. He told me that he was already thinking of the twelve-cylinder as far back as 1925.”

“[The twelve-cylinder] was an idée fixe with him,” recalled racing driver Franco Cortese, “and one for which he was heavily criticized. Several forecast, ‘He’s a nut case. It will eat his money and finish him.’ In particular, the Maserati brothers were highly critical. But if he’d made a four or a six or even an eight, Ferrari wouldn’t have enjoyed the great success he’s had.”

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IT WAS ONE THING to think of making a twelve, another to design it. Ferrari didn’t want to go to the extreme of exotica that the elaborate four-cam roller-bearinged 2.0-liter Delage represented: “All we wanted to do was build a conventional engine,” he said, “but one that would be outstanding.” This turned out to be more easily said than done.

After their July 1945 meeting, in which they settled the engineer’s fee, Ferrari and Colombo lunched at the trattoria opposite the factory before the latter began his tortuous trip back to Milan. Remembered Colombo, “I was delighted, both because of the trust that Enzo Ferrari was placing in me and because I was finally getting the chance to design something really new, into which I could put all my best ideas. In effect, I began the planning of the first Ferrari twelve-cylinder on the journey back to Milan from Modena.”

Early in August, during the Ferragosto holiday, Colombo and his family went to Castellanza, northwest of Milan, to see his sister. After lunch, he left the table to sit “under a tree with a pen and a big sheet of rough paper in my hand. And it was there, all in one go, that I drew the design for the cylinder head.”

Back in Milan, he borrowed a drafting board from his cousin and set it up in the bedroom of his flat. There, he designed not only the engine but the whole of the first sports Ferrari, the 125 S. With colleagues and emissaries from Maranello, Colombo recalled “long hours spent in my bedroom, debating every detail around the big drawing board where the new twelve-cylinder was taking shape.”

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From August through November 1945—when an exonerated Colombo was recalled to Alfa Romeo—the engineer’s drawings were hand-carried to Maranello, where “Ferrari had created a small but very efficient group of designers who transformed my layouts into working drawings in their format.” Luciano Fochi, a recent graduate, was among the engineers who completed this task by the spring of 1946.

As early as that April, the first raw engine castings arrived in Maranello from the Calzoni foundry. (The foundry had the merit of being located in Bologna, in the opposite direction from Milan, where Alfa Romeo would be wondering what its former racing chief was up to.) An Alfa technician, Giuseppe Busso, joined Ferrari in June to oversee the new car’s gestation. Starting in September, he had the help of an able young engineer, Aurelio Lampredi, who stayed until March 1947, leaving then after finding the work at Maranello less interesting than he’d hoped.

Ferrari’s V12 first ran on September 26, 1946. Initially, with its single Weber carburetor, it was no power prodigy: “It gave 60 to 65 horsepower and revved up to 5,600—not even 6,000,” said Lampredi. “The problem was the ignition, which was outdated. Nobody had done anything new since 1937-38.”

Work on the engine continued after road trials of the new model began on March 12, 1947, and finally it was encouraged to produce 72 bhp at 5,400 rpm—the figure quoted in the first sales brochure for the 125 Sport. In the 125 Competizione, when fitted with triple carburetors, the engine’s output climbed to 118 bhp at 6,800 rpm. In this application, the compression ratio was raised from 7.5:1 to 9.5:1, which required special fuel; blends with high alcohol content were customary for sports-racers as well as single-seaters in the postwar years.

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In its 125 C iteration, the twelve was capable of revving to 7,000 rpm—very fast for that time. “You had to pay very close attention to the revs with this engine,” said Cortese, the first man to race it. “If you were used to normal fours and sixes, this twelve was like an electric motor. It revved so easily that you always had to be on your guard. You had to drive with your head…and with your eye on the tachometer.”

The twelve’s rev-readiness was a product of its short stroke and oversquare dimensions of 55 × 52.5mm (for 1,497cc). This was a daring choice by Colombo when set against the Alfa Romeo tradition that favored long-stroke engines. With its smaller bore diameter, an undersquare engine was easier to make shorter and lighter in a long configuration like a V12 or straight-eight. But Colombo’s layout, which offered the chance to exploit broader piston area and higher crankshaft revolutions, was one of the novelties he was eager to employ, drawing on “certain experiences in the world of motorcycling which interested me.”

The latter also accounted for his use of hairpin-type valve springs. Though extremely rare in car engines, such springs were used in racing motorcycles and in several Alfa Romeo engines of the 1930s. Hairpins also closed the exhaust valves of a two-stroke Alfa diesel engine, and one of Colombo’s collaborators in the Ferrari job was Giovanni Nasi, who had headed Alfa’s diesel-engine department.

To open the valves, Colombo used a single central camshaft for each head, working through rocker arms. This was a first for a V12 road-car engine, although it was common in aviation twelves, even before the days of World War I’s Liberty. The engineer chose a symmetrical valve layout with an included angle of 72 degrees. Because the camshafts blocked access to the center of the combustion chamber, Colombo inserted the spark plugs from the carburetor side.

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The V12’s cams were driven from the crank nose by a single triple-roller chain, which also drove the water pump and generator on road cars. Several 1.5-liter engines were built with gear drive to their camshafts; these are identifiable by the absence of the chain tensioner on the right side of the timing case.

The engine’s vee was a conventional 60 degrees, with the right-hand cylinder bank offset forward like that of the prewar Alfa Romeo V12 with which Colombo was familiar. He chose wet iron cylinder liners which were inserted into an aluminum crankcase, cut off at the centerline of the crankshaft with its seven main bearings. The 112mm connecting rod’s big end was split at an angle to allow it to be drawn up through the cylinder bore for servicing. The engineer secured his engine’s future by giving it generous 90mm cylinder-center spacing.

Though high crankshaft speeds were essential to the 125’s success, achieving them posed knotty problems. Colombo’s idea had been to use a conventional babbitt bearing that was completely free to rotate, both against its outer surface and against its crankshaft journal. His theory was that the respective sliding speeds would thus be halved—Lampredi recalled this as “a disaster.” The only workable solution was to use needle bearings 3mm in diameter, with every other bearing a minuscule fraction smaller to act as a separator. To take the loadings of the needles, the crankshaft journals had to be specially hardened, which gave immense problems in achieving a crankshaft that was still straight after the hardening process.

The ultimate technology came from England. Former Alfa Romeo mechanic Giulio Ramponi, who had lived there for some years, knew that Vandervell Products was making a new type of steel-backed bearing insert, based on Glacier designs that had been proven in airplane engines. He informed Ferrari of their merits.

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“For me, the visit of Mr. Vandervell was a revelation in every respect,” said Lampredi, who judged that the British bearings “saved” the engine. Enzo Ferrari too acknowledged that “we were enabled later to develop this engine fully and perfectly only by the use of special materials not then available,” such as the Vandervell bearing with its lead-indium-plated copper-lead surface on a steel backing. Nevertheless, needle bearings remained in use in Ferrari’s supercharged Grand Prix engines at least as late as 1951.

ON MAY 11, 1947, only two months after Ferrari’s new car first ran, it was raced at Piacenza, where a faulty fuel pump retired it. “We raced every Sunday to prove the car,” said Cortese. “Against the Maseratis, more than others. But we had an advantage: The Ferrari was a more modern machine, indeed exceptional for those days.” Also exceptional were the results: Ferrari entered ten races, winning six, finishing second in one and retiring from three.

That September, Colombo finally left Alfa Romeo and joined Ferrari on a part-time basis. When he arrived, he found that Giuseppe Busso had already started work on a Formula 1 version of the engine, equipping it with a single Roots-type supercharger driven from the front accessory case. Its output was delivered through a manifold down the center of the vee to six cylinders on each side, developing 225 bhp at 7,000 rpm.

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.

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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.

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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.

Also from Issue 100

  • Editors remember first 100 issues
  • 100 great Ferrari moments
  • 458 Italia tech
  • Origins of Ferrari V12
  • Concorso Italiano
  • 166 Inter
  • Scuderia Spider 16M road trip
  • Andrew Frankl on Forza and F1
  • 45 years with a 250 Testa Rossa
  • Testarossa transaxle repair
  • Market Update: The 250 GTs, Part I
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