Featured: What is the Greatest Pre-'90 Twelve-Cylinder Engine?

What is the Greatest Pre-’90 Twelve-Cylinder Engine?

By Yoav Gilad
January 8, 2015
30 comments

Photography by Raffaele Danna and Yoav Gilad

Let’s make this clear at the outset: the twelve-cylinder engine is the pinnacle of automotive internal-combustion powerplants. Yes, there have been V16s both past (Cizeta) and way-past (Auto Union and Cadillac), but twelve-cylinder engines produce smooth, easy power and torque throughout the range and are the conventional choice for any machine whose mission is clear and uncompromised. That’s why they are reserved for the top tier, and also why their days are numbered. A direct function of increasingly stiff emissions regulations, twelve-cylinders have become anachronisms being passed over for boosted sixes and eights in the most bonkers of machines.

It’s sad, but their era is ending. Fortunately, their power and the performance they enabled will forever live with equal vigor in our minds and hearts. Now most of us don’t have personal experience with twelve-cylinders, nevertheless, everyone has a favorite car or series of cars that were powered by twelves and we’d like to know what you think is the greatest pre-1990 twelve cylinder of all time.

What is the greatest pre-’90 twelve-cylinder engine ever?

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30 Comments on "What is the Greatest Pre-’90 Twelve-Cylinder Engine?"

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Jesse Bogan
Jesse Bogan

Depends on your definition of greatest. I see some disparaging comments on Jag V12s. I have to disagree. First Jaguar built and sold over 130,000 V12s. Likely more than all the rest combined. Properly maintained, they are bulletproof. I know of (and service) several that are over 150Kmiles with nothing more serious than cam cover gasket replacements. And Jags are seldom maintained as well as more exotic V12s, but there are still many 10s of thousands on the road. Jaguar has let more people enjoy V12 ownership by far, than any other manufacturer. I think that is greatness.

Rose Gardener
Rose Gardener

Over 150k Merlins were built over the years.

Michel Vienneau
Michel Vienneau
My favorite V12, is in fact a flat 12. The engine in the Ferrari Testarossa is to me, a very special engine. I have not been able to find a picture of a crankshaft, so it might be in fact a 180 deg V12 and not a true flat 12. Anyhow, the sound this engine makes, is incredible. As a teenager, while waiting inside a glass bus stop, a testarossa stopped at a red light in front of me. At idle, sound made the windows around me rattle as it seemed to created some sort of harmonics. As it left… Read more »
Jake Williams
Jake Williams

My vote is on the either 3.0L 250TR Ferrari V12, Jaguar’s V12 from the 1966 XJ13 (which would later be slightly redesigned and used in the XKE), or Lamborghini’s Bizzarrini design 60-degree V12. All are historical, purpose built, sound godly, and still hold there own to this day.

Out of my 3, my favorite is the Ferrari V12.

Clayton Merchant
Clayton Merchant

Gotta put a plug in here for the 1938 Auto Union Type D, 3 Liters and nearly 500 HP. Had some teething problems initially, but was good enough for 4 GP wins between 1938-’39.

Dustin Rittle
Dustin Rittle

The Packard Twin-Six engine. Set the bar for most 12 cylinder engine design

Martin James
Martin James
Good lord . Some of the answers here are truly beyond belief . Jaguar’s pos V12 ? Christmas … that thing barely got you there … never mind being able to get you home . Lamborghini V12’s ? Ehh … they had their moments but calling them the best is stretching it a bit . BMW V12’s ? Errrr …. BMW’s V12’s didn’t come into their own until they partnered with McLaren on the F1 road cars engine [ which was a creation all unto itself ] . All these V12’s break ? Well … yeah … like everything thoroughbred… Read more »
Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange

See my comment at the top of the page

Rose Gardener
Rose Gardener

Apparently both Martin and I didn’t read your first post. A short film about the development of Merlin:

Rose Gardener
Rose Gardener

I couldn’t agree more with your choice, sir.

JB21
JB21

I realized that the only 12 cylinder engine that I have personal experience with is ’80s XJ, so I’m probably not very qualified to comment, but I really like Lambo’s V-12 for having the firing order written on it (nerdy).

Rose Gardener
Rose Gardener

My vote for Rolls Royce Merlin V12 the the question didn’t specify automobile engine.

Evan Bedford
Evan Bedford

They also wound up in tanks, and at least one enterprising soul put one in a street legal car (I think it was featured in Octane a few months ago).

Martin James
Martin James
Seriously ? Errr … heres a clue . There are a whole host of cars from classic Rolls Royces right up to some truly insane vehicles that have had a Merlin stuffed into their noses . But ahhh … claiming the Merlin was ‘ instrumental ‘ in the defeat of Germany is in fact over stating the case … leaving out a plethora of Radial [ including those found in our B17’s etc ] etc motors including that ubiquitous little four banger in JEEP’s .. along with Harley Davidson V Twins etc that in fact were equally if not more… Read more »
Rose Gardener
Rose Gardener

Instrumental in winning the battle of Britain. Without Merlin powered Spitfires, the Brits would have lost that battle that involved 4000+ aircraft. Without that victory, Royal navy couldn’t prevent the invading. Would America still join the war if UK was lost? Where will our troops land to prepare for war without the islands?

Merlin may not single-handedly won WW2, but it did play a pivotal tole.

JB21
JB21

Well, it’s in a car at least.

Rose Gardener
Rose Gardener


A rover with merlin engine, muffler-ed too.

Evan Bedford
Evan Bedford

Good point. And the fact that it was instrumental in defeating Hitler, makes it the winner.

Martin James
Martin James

…. except this is an automotive website … not a general gearheads symposium .. so the Merlin V12 as good as it was doesn’t really count .

Nick Ayrton
Nick Ayrton

The one and only:
“La 5 litros” –> “The 5 litre” from the Ferrari 375 Plus. No objetion. THAT`s the best V12 engine from history.

Tobi Aufdemrad
Tobi Aufdemrad

All of these Ferrari, Lamborghini and Jaguar engines are dead or they need a lot of Service.

Lukas Duyck
Lukas Duyck

in my opinion, the ferrari 250’s had the best v12’s ever fitted in a ferrari. those 3.0 liters sounded just amazing.

Steve Perry
Steve Perry

I am glad you have a picture of the double overhead cam V12 Lamborghini engine designed and developed by Giotto Bizzarrini. It was a true master piece and sent Ferrari back to the drawing board when it was first seen in the 350GT in 1964. It was developed in 1963 and was used in largely unmolested form until very recently by Lamborghini when it was replaced in 2011. A 48 year run. What a run and what a beautiful piece of engineering.

Daniel Torres Arenas
Daniel Torres Arenas

BMW M70, used in the BMW 850 in the late 80’s.
It was the base for the Maclaren F1 engine a few years later ( BMW S70) and its 391 km/h!

Martin James
Martin James
Errr … y’all might want to spend a bit of time reading and researching the V12 BMW created from scratch in order to meet Gordon Murray’s outrageous and demanding design briefs before making a claim such as this . Suffice it to say the M70 had absolutely nothing to with the F1’s engine other than the number of cylinders ! re; ” Driving Ambition ; The Official Inside Story of the McLaren F1 ” Suffice it to say as well that BMW was the only manufacture [ though many were approached ] willing to take the steps needed to create… Read more »
Ryan Rapolas
Ryan Rapolas

Better yet the Jaguar 7.0 V12 in the XJR9! Good call on the Porsche.

james dempsey
james dempsey

How about the 5.4 litre 1500hp flat 12 boxer in Mark Donohue’s 1973 Porsche 917/30?

Thijs ten Cate
Thijs ten Cate

Jaguar 5.3 V12!

Matthew Lange
Matthew Lange
Well obviously I shoud say the Tipo 251 4 cam 4.4 litre version of Colombo’s Ferrari V12 fitted in my Daytona, but actually it’s not the greatest pre 90’s V12. As the question doesn’t specify that the V12 had to go in a car the greatest V12 by miles was the Rolls Royce Merlin fitted to the Supermarine Spitfire, Hawker Hurricane, De Havilland Mosquito. Avro Lancaster and most significantly of all the C and D versions of P51 Mustang aircraft in the second world war. A few enterprising hot rodders have put Merlins (or the Meteor version used in Tanks)… Read more »
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