Symphony in Flat 6

31st August 2018

There are fast cars, there are beautiful cars, and there are some cars that sound extraordinary, from the distinctive growl of the ’68 Dodge Charger to the mesmeric thrum of the Matra V12.

Words by Andrew Frankel

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We don’t know why one car sounds better than another, but nor do we need to: we know a great-sounding car when we hear one, and that’s all that counts. Here then, from road and track, present and past, are some of the most sonically stunning machines ever created.

We start before the war, with Bugatti, and it doesn’t really matter if you choose a Type 51 Grand Prix car or a Type 55 street machine because they both shared the same engine: a 2.3-litre supercharged motor with eight cylinders all in a long line. Decades ago someone likened its ripping, screaming voice as being akin to “tearing calico” and I don’t suppose anyone will ever describe it better.

The purest sounds, however, were always made by straight-six engines. For some reason they always remind me of Britain, so let’s choose the engine of a lightweight Jaguar E-type, tuned to the very limit of existence. Hearing such a car howling its way around Goodwood is like listening to the very soundtrack of the circuit.

We need an eight-cylinder too, or a V8 to be precise. But these can be engineered to make very different sounds, as anyone who’s heard, say, a V8 Ferrari and almost any American V8 will attest. I won’t dwell on the crankshaft configuration responsible but to me it’s always been the American approach I’ve preferred: if you ever feel an engine shake the ground beneath your feet, turn to your neighbour and say, “That’ll be a V8 with cross-plane crank,” and 99 times out of 100 you’ll be right. The best? In the racing arena, the Aston Martin AMR1 Le Mans car of 1989. Among road cars it’s probably the 1968 Dodge Charger 440 R/T. Perhaps the most interesting sound made by a conventional car engine these days belongs to those with five cylinders in a line. These engines are inherently unbalanced, but that’s actually the source of their amazing noise. Their offbeat thrum was captivating when we first heard it regularly in cars like the original Audi Quattro, but with its cylinder count doubled to make a V10, and shoehorned into the back of a modern supercar, the configuration can sound absolutely incredible. Indeed the current Lamborghini Huracán Performante is probably the most exciting-sounding car on sale today. 

Best of all? It has to be a V12, the most classically configured engine arrangement of them all. A proper V12 can do it all, changing its voice from growl to howl to scream to shriek as the revs rise. But the V12 sound, at least if you’re listening to the right one, is also deeply layered and complex, a mesmeric orchestration of mechanical sound. It’s an old cliché, so motoring journalists no longer use it, but there is something symphonic about these engines that no others have.

As for the best, racing geeks will know it’s the Matra V12 engine, used in F1 and sports cars from 1968 through the 1970s. Its sound is incomparable. But the car that most people have heard of that has the best claim to being the greatest-sounding car ever created? I’d probably choose the 1962 Ferrari 250 GTO, thanks to its 3-litre V12 engine. Its voice is not the loudest, nor the most exciting, but simply the most beautiful I’ve ever heard a car make. And that’s good enough for me.

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  • revival

  • Goodwood Revival

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