Journal: The Top Ten Classic Six-Cylinders Ever

The Top Ten Classic Six-Cylinders Ever

By Yoav Gilad
August 1, 2014
79 comments

Photography by Josh Clason, Rémi Dargegen, and Yoav Gilad for Petrolicious

On Monday, we asked you to name the greatest pre-1990 six-cylinder engine. The responses were a bit more uniform than our four-cylinder question (too bad) but we still got answers that ran the gamut from Formula One engines like the one in Mr. Juan Manuel Fangio’s Maserati 250F to the nearly bullet-proof Mopar slant-six. While both of those engines were close to the top ten, ultimately they were beaten by, what we thought, were stronger choices. We’re sure quite a few people will be happy with number one, but let us know if you agree with the rankings and how you would change them.

#10 The Chevrolet Corvair Flat-Six–This may seem a strange choice given its limited use, but in its brief ten-year life the Corvair flat-six more than doubled its output (from eighty to one-hundred eighty horsepower). Also, it was a radical departure from GM’s somewhat conservative modus operandi with aluminum heads that incorporated integral intake manifolds. Today, in addition to powering the Corvairs still on the road, it has also spawned a cottage industry powering many home-built aircraft. We can’t help but wonder where it might be if the Corvair hadn’t been unceremoniously aborted.

#9 The Toyota M-series I-6–While it began life as a two-valve SOHC in the 1960s, the block stayed in Toyota’s rotation through the 1990s. Toyota’s first fuel-injected engine, variations can be found in the Toyota 2000GT and the last, most powerful version (about 230hp) provided power to the Mk3 Supra.

Photography by Josh Clason, Rémi Dargegen, and Yoav Gilad for Petrolicious

#8 The Aston Martin Tadek Marek I-6–Aston’s legendary inline six, designed by Mr. Tadek Marek made its debut in the DBR2, a Le Mans racer. Remarkable in the era for being an alloy engine, Tadek then developed the engine further to make it reliable enough for road use. It was such a success that it found its way into the DB4, DB5, DB6, and late-sixties DBS. Over the straight-six’s fourteen year production run (in road-going cars) its output grew consistently and early overheating problems were eventually dealt with. Regardless, how many cars can claim their engines are Le Mans racer-derived?

#7 The Nissan RB Series–Until recently, this series of engine wasn’t very well-known in the US because we never had the pleasure of importing the cars it graced. Typically found in the Skyline, the RB series is tremendously flexible (as most six-cylinders are) making up to 276hp (pre-’90) but easily tunable and solid enough to support much higher output. This engine is the reason that the Nissan Skyline’s popularity exploded in the late ’80s.

Photography by Josh Clason, Rémi Dargegen, and Yoav Gilad for Petrolicious

#6 The Buick 3800 V6–Over twenty-five million (!) of these engines were built over its forty-seven year life. It has been used in both FWD and RWD applications, sold off to another company in the ’60s and then bought back in the mid-’70s. Named one of the ten best engines of the twentieth century by Ward’s, certainly this workhorse could hardly be considered sexy, however in turbo-charged Buick GNX guise, it produced nearly 280hp in 1987! 

#5 The Porsche Flat-Six–Yes, the Porsche flat-six (any variation, really) is a very good engine. It is the heart driving the immortal 911 and, depending on tuning, can produce seemingly endless power and torque. But why didn’t it score higher? Two simple reasons: first, it has a split crankcase that tends to complicate matters. Second, the sound is completely disappointing unless you remove the mufflers and make other modifications. Additionally, their reliability is suspect, just ask a certain Petrolicious freelancer who likes visiting his 911 at the mechanic’s.

Photography by Josh Clason, Rémi Dargegen, and Yoav Gilad for Petrolicious

#4 The Dino V6–Now this is an engine that truly makes a great sound. Whether in two-liter guise or as a 2.4-liter, the Fiat Dino V6 has powered Ferrari’s 206 and 246 GT as well as the triple world champ rally-monster Lancia Stratos. Like the Aston Martin straight-six, this is another race-derived engine. Originally engineered by Mr. Vittorio Jano for use in Formula Two, the sixty-five degree V6 that Vittorio designed (that allowed for straight intakes) was so ingenious that the ideas behind it were carried over to Ferrari V8s and V12s.

#3 The Jaguar XK I-6–Since its introduction in 1949 until it was discontinued in 1992, the Jaguar XK engine found itself powering countless sporty (and some not-so-sporty) British cars due to its torquey, easy output. While most motors were cast iron, with a few aluminum alloy racing engines built, their distinctive alloy double-overhead cam heads covered an engine displacing anywhere between 2.4 liters through 4.2 liters. And they powered everything from the XK120 up to Formula racers, including the C-type, D-type, and E-type.

Photography by Josh Clason, Rémi Dargegen, and Yoav Gilad for Petrolicious

#2 The BMW M30 I-6–Like the Buick V6, this is another one of Ward’s top ten engines of the twentieth century. It enjoyed a smooth twenty-eight-year lifespan and eventually begat the M88, which powered Group 5 racers making up to 900hp! But even as a street-car-powering, naturally aspirated engine the M30 is renowned for easy torque that helps you power out of corners and is far more accessible than other cars on this list costing significantly more. It’s simply a wonderful powerplant.

And finally, #1… the Alfa Romeo Busso V6–There are engines that were produced for longer or in greater numbers or with better performance. But the Busso (named for designer Mr. Giuseppe Busso) V6, which began development in the early 1970s and has been built in a variety of displacements (we prefer the 2.5L), is simply the most glorious sounding six cylinder ever. You should be so lucky as to drive a car equipped with a Busso V6 just so you can listen to the song when you downshift. It is symphonious and really don’t we all just want a car to sing?

Images Sources: spannerhead.com, 2009gtr.comoldcarmanualproject.com

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Holt Robyn
Holt Robyn
2 months ago

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dan walmsley
dan walmsley
11 months ago

su,rprised the Mercedes straight sixes in various guises aren’t mentioned …renowned for meteoric mileage – I have 486,000 miles on my 2006 CDI and all ive done is service it…and thats the V6 which wasnt as good as its straight 6 predecessor

Cezary Obniski
Cezary Obniski
2 years ago

I was scrolling down and down, hoping to see the Busso engine and was getting nervous seeing no sign of it, as I did not expect to be ranked no. 1. What a nice surprise.

To all the people mentioning reliability as a key thing that makes the engine glorious, I am afraid you are in a wrong place here. It is of course important (kind of, at some point), but I do not think this is a game changer in vehicles that now, usually, drive up to few thousand kilometers per year. Am I missing something?

Duaney
Duaney
3 years ago

While the Buick V-6 went on to have a long life and good service, the older versions had a dreadful lubrication system, making Buick engines some of the worse engines of all time.

Westxi
Westxi
3 years ago

BMW / Bristol 2 liters L6, may be ?

ralfvonraab
ralfvonraab
3 years ago

Lads. One hour ago. I just returned from a 672 km trip in my porsche 911 sc . Thats a day trip Großglocknerstraße and a bit of others. 12h of serious motoring. Reliability ? Sound ? Pls think again. BOLLOCKS. in all due respect.

Rickard Holtemark
Rickard Holtemark
3 years ago

Sorry, here you go;

Rickard Holtemark
Rickard Holtemark
3 years ago

☝️

Peter J Smith
Peter J Smith
3 years ago

The fact that you did not include the Chrysler 170/198/ 225CID “Slant 6” is feckin’ CRIMINAL!

Jean-Noël Fermaud
Jean-Noël Fermaud
4 years ago

As with some people here, I think the first ever V6 -thanks Lancia- should have had a place here, but far more deserving is the PRV engine : used in high end Peugeot, Renault and Volvo, it was at first underpowered (think Delorean), but when turbos came in the game, it topped at 400hp inroad version (Venturi), and happened to be the engine fitted to the car who reached the highest speed ever at Le Mans in a Peugeot race car. And that’s quite a journey, from commuter’s car to unbroken records.

Sandro Lavagnini
Sandro Lavagnini
4 years ago

You forgot the father of them all, the DeVirgilio V6 created for Lancia Aurelia.
Introduced in 1950 was the first V6 in regular production, made all in alloy and mated to a transaxle transmission, inboard brakes, 4 wheels independent suspension and monocoque frame.
All this in a 1950 sedan 😉

Jim
Jim
5 years ago

Where’s the Chrysler 225 slant six? One of the most if not the most reliable 6 cylinders ever made, not to mention they sound amazing and make great turbo engines

Cole Warner
Cole Warner
5 years ago

That doesn’t look like a BMW M30 to me… its not vertical.

Cole Warner
Cole Warner
5 years ago
Reply to  Cole Warner

Among several other reasons.

Armin Suljaković
Armin Suljaković
5 years ago

I read somewhere that you can get an exact tune from the busso engine, if you drive it at around 4000 rpm… i just love the busso… working on finding my own busso car…

David Boys-Hawley
David Boys-Hawley
5 years ago

Where’s GM’s Stovebolt 6?

One of the longest production runs of any engine in the world.

Jon Haynes
Jon Haynes
5 years ago

I’m surprised there’s no mention of the Stovebolt Chevy 6 or the Aussie hemi in line 6…

Jamie Yates
Jamie Yates
5 years ago

I deserving winner, but I’m biased

moosesport
moosesport
5 years ago

I believe the 911 engine deserves the number one spot.

Gavin Butterworth
Gavin Butterworth
5 years ago

I loved my 156

Nicolas Audouin
Nicolas Audouin
5 years ago

Where is the Triumph GT6???

XjFred
XjFred
5 years ago

Excellent piece, as usual !
What about the V6 PRV, fitted onboard the 504 coupe, the DeLorean, the Alpine A310, the Venturi and so more ?

Rich Harman
Rich Harman
6 years ago

If you love the GTV6 2.5 Busso V6, you should try the South African 3.0 litre version. Autodelta reworked 2.5 coupled with 6 Dell’Orto carbs, competition suspension, brakes and clutch, plus fibreglass bonnet.

Dirk Stoop
Dirk Stoop
6 years ago

Missing the Nissan L-series here. For most – if not all – of the 70s the 6-cylinder L was the most powerful engine available in Japan, which made it the most developed one of that era of Japanese engines as well. Also, it’s a superbly bulletproof design.

Boylan Or
Boylan Or
6 years ago

Where’s the NSX V6? Volkswagen’s VR6 sounds awesome.Haven’t you heard a TR6 or a TVR Speed Six?

Peter Marcatili
Peter Marcatili
6 years ago
Reply to  Boylan Or

Can you let us know where we can get one of those pre-1990 NSX engines?

I’d like to drop one in my 1983 Honda Insight.

Johnny Warburton
Johnny Warburton
6 years ago

One to look out for the future,Subaru’s 3-3.6 boxer 6

Frederico Leite
Frederico Leite
7 years ago

Make one for 5cylinders, don’t forget Fiat’s 20VT present in the Lancia Thesis, Lancia Kappa and Fiat Coupe

Aaron Cole
Aaron Cole
7 years ago

this site is run by amateurs. the ’92 ford taurus I learned to drive on had a 3.8l v6 making 140 hp that can only be described as legendary. I can still remember the sensation of it slamming into second, watching the speedo continue its climb to 25mph.

ND
ND
7 years ago

Alfa 2.5 in the 2nd street tunnel DTLA sets the V6 sound standard

Martin
Martin
7 years ago

Although the first place for the Busso V6 is very well deserved, I wonder why the Maserati Tipo C.114 six / Biturbo six is missing. Did I miss something ? The machine has an excellent pedigree with roots in Maseratis glorious V8 history and has been used for nearly 20 years in the Citroen SM, Merak and the whole Biturbo-family.
Even considering some quality problems in the first Biturbos, the machine produced a brilliant power output in the last Ghibli-models and can be driven up to 300.000 km if well mantained.

Stephen Licursi
Stephen Licursi
7 years ago

Toyota 2JZ-GTE? Anyone? Bueller?

Peter Marcatili
Peter Marcatili
6 years ago

Pre-1990 2JZ-GTE Bueller?

Phil Auldridge
Phil Auldridge
7 years ago

I am surprised the Toyota Supra Twin Turbo MK IV 3.0L inline 6 didn’t get mentioned. This engine, made MORE famous in the first Fast and Furious movie, was unlike any other. A unique, sequential-operation twin turbo (do the research) that generated some 320 HP right out of the box. And by just monkeying with boost pressures a bit, 450 HP was easy at a bullet-proof 18 PSI boost.

I know, because I installed one of these Supra engines in my Lexus SC300 5-speed, and NEVER had to look at someone else’s tailpipes!

Smooth, tractable, and incredible torque from low RPM (thanks to the sequential plumbing of the turbos). But when you reach about 3,500 RPM and that 2nd turbo opens up, you’d better have your seatbelt cinched tightly.

I’ve owned almost 100 cars in my lifetime, everything from an XKE series 1 to a high-horsepower C2 Corvette (still in the garage), and I can say without reservation that that Supra 3.0L straight 6 has never been equaled!

[url=”http://ultimatelexustt.com/”]The Ultimate Lexus.. Twin Turbo[/url]

Stephen Licursi
Stephen Licursi
7 years ago
Reply to  Phil Auldridge

Seriously a sin that motor is not on this list.

TP
TP
7 years ago
Reply to  Phil Auldridge

i agree, a legendary engine, but this article is about pre-1990 6-cyl engines.

assaf rutenberg
assaf rutenberg
7 years ago

Aaahhh that glorious Alfa V6! I have an 85 GTV6 and every gear shift is a joy. The race to redline in every gear makes me smile and the fact that the horn sounds as good as it does makes me laugh every time i hit it.

JimB
JimB
7 years ago

I’ve been driving a Busso 2.5 for a couple months now (’84 GTV6). Despite having owned over twenty performance-oriented cars, incl four Porsches (though all water-cooled though), this is EASILY the sweetest engine I’ve ever been around. I’ve enjoyed it so much I plan to get another GTV6 with a 3.0 so that I have both bases covered. I do though acknowledge that the sound of an air-cooled 911 ripping down a straightaway is unique, in a good way. Not the sweetest sound, but such a blast.

Ivan
Ivan
7 years ago

An entry from down under is the triple Webered 4.3 ltr Hemi six used in the Valiant Charger E49

Gilles
Gilles
7 years ago

Unbelievable: a ‘Top-ten’ list I totally agree with 😀 First time in….forever!

rsdeo
rsdeo
7 years ago

I would have thought the Porsche flat 6 would be number 1. Road and track it has achieved a lot.
I’m happy to see the M series Toyota engine I nominated hit the list, though it should have been rated higher. Powered Supras, Crowns and Soarers they are smooth, powerful and bullet proof reliable for their time then led the was to both killer J series engines.

Keep up the good work.

Nick
Nick
7 years ago

I cannot believe you forgot BMW’s S50/S54.

mathrock
mathrock
3 years ago
Reply to  Nick

Those were post-1990

susanrsa
susanrsa
7 years ago

The reliability of the 911s flat 6 is suspect (my 964 begs to differ) ………… but there are two Italians and a Brit ranked higher, ahem …….. really?

TP
TP
7 years ago
Reply to  Yoav Gilad

Ha! Good one. Show me any Dinos, Jags or Alfas w/ over 200k miles on the odometer that haven’t been opened up. You can’t. There are countless 911 SC’s and 3.2 Carreras with that kind of mileage with no rebuild, and even some with over 300k miles. Comparing any Alfa, Ferrari or Jag motor’s reliability to that of an air-cooled 911 flat-6 is laughable.

JimB
JimB
7 years ago
Reply to  TP

As long as you don’t neglect the timing belt, the Alfa engines are bulletproof. I know many with well over 200k on them that haven’t been opened up. Looks like your feelings have been hurt.

TP
TP
7 years ago
Reply to  JimB

Well I’ll be damned. My feelings are intact, however. I’ll take my 930 over whatever Alfa that Bussi comes in.

Steven
Steven
7 years ago

It may be too new for this list, but VW’s narrow angle VR6 motor is not only hard working but has an intoxicating exhaust note.

Wolfgang Gullich
Wolfgang Gullich
7 years ago

How did the AMC inline 6 not make this list?

Jens Hoorn
Jens Hoorn
7 years ago

Driving a Alfa 90 2.5 Busso V6 every day. Symfonic!

I found this clip on Youtube (not mine)

But listen and understand the first place of this engine. However; Taste of sound is different for everybody

http://youtu.be/-bueBeVBfcQ

Brandon Valentine
Brandon Valentine
7 years ago

A solid list but still hard to believe Petrolicious — both the commenters and the writers, have no love for the AMC I6. Millions of Jeeps are insulted. It’s hard to find an engine that did more proper offroading while providing 300k+ miles of relatively maintenance free torque-heavy power.

Alex
Alex
7 years ago

Luv this website

i am shocked the flat 6 is not first, in reality it should be, BMW I6 is definitely a worthy 2nd

Phil Leone
Phil Leone
7 years ago

As a Porsche owner, I am glad the flat-6 is on the list, but also glad that it wasn’t higher, and that it was criticized for the lack of sound and suspect reliability.

James Shafiei
James Shafiei
7 years ago

Busso FTW! Here’s mine 🙂

http://youtu.be/HmKwwCwGrVg

TJ Martin
TJ Martin
7 years ago

Errr … gonna have to disagree with even including the Alfa V6 in this list … never mind being #1 . Too much experience with the motor first hand telling me it was a bit of a dog …. and certainly not deserving #1 status . The motor never accomplishing much of anything anywhere [ it was always Alfa’s I4’s that got all the glory ] other than a bit of undeserved cult status . The Porsche and BMW 6’ers should of been 1 & 2 with the Dino V6 a solid 3rd . Which tells me an awful lot of the folks voting here have never had even so much as a modicum of first hand experience with any of the 6’s on the list 😉

Alex Sandor Csank
Alex Sandor Csank
7 years ago
Reply to  TJ Martin

TJ, YOUR experience does not reflect the experience of most voters here or in the ‘real world’ either. The Busso V6 has been very successful in a myriad of racing series (look it up!) and has been a favourite of much of the automotive press. Personally, I have owned a bunch of Alfas powered by either the 2.5L or 3.0L versions of this engine and I really haven’t had any problems with the motors. In fact, one of my cars (a 1988 Milano Verde [called the 75 3.0L everywhere except in North America] achieved over 220,000 miles without ever having had any internal engine work performed on it. Even the folks at UK’s Top Gear agree that the Busso V6 is the best V6 ever.

Your disdain and negative assumptions about the folks who voted is unfounded and – frankly – quite insulting.

I DO like and have had experience with many other 6 cylinder engines myself. I might re-order some of the top ten, but they all make sense to me.

Alex Sandor Csank
Montreal, Canada

JB21
JB21
7 years ago
Reply to  TJ Martin

Seriously, you may want to have your heart rate checked, professionally.

Kristaps
Kristaps
7 years ago

Although it is from 1990, my pick is the BMW M50B25. That thing would probably survive a nuclear war.

TVRSPEEDSIX
TVRSPEEDSIX
7 years ago

TVR Speedsix if ya get it goin :p

Alex
Alex
7 years ago

Busso v6:D

Glen Fordham
Glen Fordham
7 years ago

Kind of horrified to see the Buick beat anything on the list, rough as guts in all of the old Holden’s I’ve been in and by the time they were a bit more refined there were so many better alternatives!

Much love for RB’s though! 🙂