If you believe in the romantic notion that cars have soul, then the engine is the heartbeat and the epicentre of a car’s character.
A great car can be ruined by a characterless power unit, while a merely average one can be elevated to an object of worship just because of what lies under the bonnet. Here are ten great engines and the cars they starred in.
After taking apart motorbike engines for inspiration, Rover engineers created an award-winning powerplant with the K-Series. The lightweight construction and long-bolt design meant it was tightly packaged, and the design eventually spanned everything from a 1.1-litre four pot to a 2.5-litre V6. Until recently it also powered sports cars from Lotus and Caterham.
Spiritual home - MGF
The A-Series was a tough little cookie, and saw service in the Austin A30 and A40, Minor, Allegro, Maestro, Metro and even Montego. Torquey and responsive, it made its name in the Mini, especially when tweaked for the Cooper versions. It lasted almost 50 years, but there will be plenty around for the next 50.
Spiritual home – Mini Cooper S
Another golden oldie, the Rolls V8 was a silken if relatively simple unit that provided the discreet oomph that a Roller should have. It was even better with a turbocharger strapped to it, and when Bentley offered its buyers the choice of a modern BMW V8 or a twin-turbocharged version of the old engine, they chose the latter.
Spiritual home – Bentley Turbo R
Not just any BMW 12-banger – this is the bespoke 6.1-litre V12 designed by the Motorsport division to go into the McLaren F1 supercar. The McLaren designers asked for proposals from a number of firms, but it was the M-Sport team that got the nod. 621bhp means in excess of 100bhp per litre without a turbo or supercharger, electrifying performance and spine-tingling sound effects. Once heard, never forgotten.
Spiritual home – McLaren F1
Alfa Romeo boxer
Dubbed boxer due to the fact that its pistons are horizontally opposed, like a boxer’s fists, this Alfa engine is recognised as one of the most characterful ever made. Debuting in the Alfasud, it also speared in the Sprint and the Arna, and stuck around long enough to appear in the 33 and briefly the 145. The earlier carburretor versions were praised for their snappy response, keenness to rev and a glorious exhaust note.
Spiritual home - Alfasud
Porsche flat six
Like the Alfa ‘flat four’, the Porsche six has been around in one form or another for decades. Born in 1964 in 2.0-litre form, it debuted in air-cooled form in the then-new 911. It grew with the car, reaching 3.6-litres with the 1993 model year. A new water-cooled version arrived in 1998 to dissent from Porsche purists, but even the latest 3.8-litre version is imbued with character, an incredible soundtrack and superb performance despite the constrictions of modern regulations.
Spiritual home - 911
Another engine with a long history, the Lamborghini V12 began in 3.5-litre form in the 350GT back in 1964, then appeared in legends like the Miura, Countach and Diablo, growing in size and output all the time. A highly developed version is still playing a starring role for Lamborghini – the latest Murcielago LP640 uses a 6.5-litre version delivering a manic 631bhp at 8,000rpm, with a howling sound track to match.
Spiritual home - Miura
There have been a number of Chevrolet V8 engines over the years, but the small block Chevy unit is the daddy. Although now only available in crate form, 90 million have been produced since 1955, thanks to its simple but effective design and compact packaging. It was also very tunable, producing as much as 370bhp in stock trim but twice as much with serious work.
Spiritual home - Corvette
With heavy taxes on large capacity engines, Honda went about getting a quart of power from a pint pot. Hence the creation of V-TEC variable valve timing. Two sets of cam lobes, one for smooth low speed running and another for high rev power means the best of both worlds. Despite its complexity, Honda has not had a single warranty claim for the system in 16 years of production.
Spiritual home - Civic Type-R
Although based on the humble Pinto, the addition of a 16 valve head and a turbocharger created a late 20th Century icon. Originally with 204bhp, it rose to 227 with the Escort Cosworth, but in BTCC trim it could reach 550bhp from only 2.0-litres. Not exactly smooth or refined, but brutally powerful and raw even in standard form.
Spiritual home – Ford Sierra Cosworth
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