The 6 greatest engines of all time

Who knew a bunch of pistons and cylinders could come together to make things this epic

2y ago

When you think about it, a piston internal combustion engine is a massively complicated bit of mechanical kit. Pistons, valves, rocker arms, injectors and camshafts all have to work in unison while the whole thing spins thousands of times per minute. And yet when a manufacturer gets an engine right, all of the blood, sweat and tears suddenly becomes worth it.

Engines are almost like living and breathing organisms, possessing character and personality that no other part of a car can hope to match. And because the car industry has come up with some absolutely stunning examples over the years, picking a top six like this was painfully difficult.

I think as it stands however, I'm pretty happy with the list I've collated below, however let me know what you guys think.

BMW S70/2 V12

Yes it has a BMW badge on it but this screaming beast of natural aspiration is famed for being bolted to the legendary McLaren F1, helping it soar to its top speed of over 240mph. The engine started life in the BMW E31 850 CSi before having its heads redesigned and slotted into the McLaren.

It would go on to make the F1 the defining car of the 20th Century as well as snapping up a couple of Le Mans wins. Creating 618bhp at 7,400rpm, this BMW V12 will still be revered for decades to come.

Porsche flat-six

This may seem like a bit of a docile choice but when you lay out the breadth of where Porsche has taken its boxer six engine, the engineering behind it becomes second to none. Having stuck with flat engines since the company's birth in 1948, the six cylinder engine has gone from a 130bhp air-cooled leaf blower in the original 911 to a twin-turbocharged, 690bhp track weapon in the back of the brand new GT2 RS.

There's a deep roar that a Porsche manages to produce above a certain rpm that will always get the hairs on your neck standing to attention. And when matched with the company's manual gearbox (the preferable choice for its less-powerful cars) or an effortless PDK transmission (the best choice for anything particularly potent), Porsche becomes pretty unbeatable in the powertrain department.

McLaren M838T

Although we're back to McLaren, this engine actually took its inspiration from a Nissan of all things.

The V8 that all modern McLarens use originates from the GT1 era of endurance racing, with the Nissan R390 GT1 using a 3.5-litre twin-turbocharged engine called the VRH35L that would be used as a base for the McLaren MP4-12C's powerplant.

The engine would then go on to be developed into the 3.8-litre block used in the P1, 650S, 675LT, 570S and 540C, before being bored-out into the 4.0-litre unit you'll find in the 720S. These engines haven't been without their reliability issues but when on-song, their power makes any new McLaren feel frighteningly quick.

Tipo F130B V12

We couldn't have an engine listicle without mentioning Ferrari and it seems only right to pick a powertrain with twelve cylinders. This specific engine came from Ferrari's Formula 1 programme before making its way into the F50 road car.

4.7-litres, no turbochargers, a manual gearbox and a soundtrack that shakes you to the core – this Tipo V12 once sat in one form or another in the 641 F1 car of 1990. I guess the Mercedes-AMG One is using the same mantra as the F50, but Ferrari had it sussed back in 1995.

Jaguar XK6

I can't think of an engine that's served a longer production life than the XK – 43 years from 1949-1992. That's because this straight-six was a unbelievably versatile, being used in everything from the XJ family of luxury saloons to the Le Mans-winning D-Types of the 1950s.

Known for its ability to produce decent torque at virtually any engine speed, the XK is a true British icon that has seen action in not just Jaguars, but also Listers, Daimlers and even the FV101 Scorpion light tank.

Nissan RB26DETT

I decided that I had to pick between the Nissan RB26 and the Toyota 2JZ and, for me, the Skyline powertrain takes the win. Due to the 'gentleman's agreement' in Japan in the 1990s, the twin-turbocharged straight-six was rated at 280bhp and 293lb ft of torque, although if you actually put an R34 Skyline GT-R on a dyno, you'd be looking at something more like 330bhp.

From stock, the twin turbocharging works so well that the power delivery is almost linear from the RB26. Tune it up to the numbers it's capable of though (600bhp even on stock internals, with the block being good for 1000bhp), and it can quickly become a boosted animal that very much needs an all-wheel drive system to keep its power in check.

We'd like to know which of these engines is your favourite, so cast your vote in the poll below! Or if I've missed an engine out, drop your favourite engine in the comments!

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Comments (147)

  • Chevrolet's "Small-block" V8. It can do anything. From powering vans, plows and pickups to muscle and high performance sportscars.

    You can use it for all kinds of racing, including powerboating. It's small, light, simple, dependable and affordable. And it's been going strong for six decades.

      2 years ago
    • The SBC and its replacement, the LS series, are such good engines, they don't need to be on lists!

        2 years ago
  • Astonished you’ve left out the Alfa Busso V6 as well as the LFA V10!

      2 years ago
  • It’s Honda’s ohc single in 50, 70, and 90 forms. Not glamorous, but a great liberator.

      2 years ago
  • Euro biased list.

    Americans made some engines which were and still are world class, particularly if you consider reliability and costs.

    For example, Ford Cleveland 351, Chevy 350, Chrysler Hemi 429, Current Ford Mustang Shelby 5.2 litre 350R engine, engine that went into the Vette Z06.

    They were particularly great when you factor in cost for performance parts, and ease of installing them and maintaining. Europeans never had anything even close to them.

      2 years ago
  • Where are the rotaries at?

      2 years ago