Thank Frankel It's Friday: The greatest engine of all

20th October 2016
andrew_frankel_headshot.jpg Andrew Frankel

As shadows lengthen I often find myself wondering which anniversaries will be recognised at Goodwood in the year to come. And though I have no inside knowledge at all, if there is not a sizeable celebration to mark the 50th anniversary of the Ford Cosworth DFV engine, I will eat this laptop.


The hard points of the DFV’s existence are known to many and available to all with access to the relevant Wikipedia page, (or my colleague Henry Hope-Frost's excellent article on GRR) but it’s worth recapping that this engine won its first race on debut in 1967 when Grand Prix cars were still cigar tubes on wheels with spindly, treaded tyres without an aerodynamic device to their name, and its last in 1983 when F1 cars were bewinged, slick shod monsters. During those 17 seasons DFV-powered cars won 12 drivers and ten constructors championships.

But even such extraordinary statistics don’t begin to do justice to perhaps the greatest racing engine of all time. In turbocharged DFX guise it helped win ten Indy 500s and crown nine CART champions and in sports car racing even clocked up a couple of Le Mans wins (in 1975 for Mirage and 1980 for Rondeau) despite never having been conceived as a twice around the clock motor.

And yet it is still a somewhat misunderstood motor. I think, for instance, its near instant success is perceived to have derived from it arriving on the F1 scene with more power than anything else. But that’s not my understanding. In 1967 the earliest DFVs struggled to make 400bhp, more than the Repco and Ferrari motors were making at the time, but actually less than best V12s made by Honda and Weslake. It’s also widely believed that when it made its debut in the Lotus 49 it was the first F1 engine to be used as a stressed chassis member. Not so. Its predecessor the Lotus 43 used its engine structurally as did the Lancia D50 over a decade earlier.


So why the success? Initially it was because the 49 was the first Lotus to be designed around its engine. Up until that time the common practice was for chassis designers to design the chassis and engine designers to design the engine, the two elements then being married with as few compromises as possible. With the 49, there were no compromises: it was designed to fit the DFV and vice versa. The DFV was also light, stiff and so short it was actually wider than it was long, so it was not just a great engine, it was a very effective chassis component too. It was the blend of those three fundamental engineering requirements – lightness, structural rigidity and power – it was able to bring that blew the opposition into the weeds.

But that’s not what made it the greatest F1 engine of all time. That was made possible because it was also the first purpose-built F1 engine designed for volume production and sold at a price teams could afford. Lotus’s exclusive contract ran out at the start of the 1968 season and just one year later two thirds of all F1 cars were DFV-powered. It would be 1975 before anything other than a DFV-powered car would win the title.

How did it stay on top for so long? Partly because nothing better came along that was affordable to teams requiring customer engines, but also because it proved responsive to development too. Those early engines may have only made 400bhp at 9,000rpm, but by the early 1980s it would spin past 11,000rpm and make better than 500bhp. Also it was immensely versatile too: in DFX form it would shrink to 2.65-litres and be turbocharged to race in the US, and expand to 3.5-litres in DFZ form to meet 1987 F1 regulations and as far as 3.9-litres in long-distance DFL form.


Its last lease of life was provided by a major design in 1988, this DFR-designated motor surviving among minor F1 teams until 1991, an almost ridiculous 35 seasons after its debut. But it was not quite done even then.

A DFR powered at least one state of the art racing car this century, and I know this because I was there to see it. It was 2001 and the car was Bentley’s brave EXP Speed 8 Le Mans car. The car was brand new and designed to run with Audi’s 3.6-litre twin turbo V8 under its engine cover. But while the car was ready to start testing, its engine was not. To have waited until Audi provided the required motors would have meant delaying the programme another year. So, and in complete secrecy, the Bentley went through almost its entire development programme powered by a DFR. And it actually did the team a massive favour. Not only did it match the 600bhp expected from the Audi engine (if not the torque), like all DFVs it was not exactly the smoothest running engine. In fact it vibrated so much the car had to be phenomenally well built not to be shaken to pieces by it. The result was a car that, once teething troubles were overcome, would run with enviable reliability throughout its career.

I’m so looking forward to whatever DFV celebration there might be and I hope at least one example of every type of engine – DFV, DFW, DFY, DFX, DFZ, DFR, DFL, DFS and even the four cylinder FVA that influenced its design – is there. And every kind of car too: F1 machines from every era, Indy cars, sports cars and F3000 cars too. And at least one commercial vehicle too: remember the Ford Transit Supervans? Well Supervan 2 was DFV powered too. One more example of the versatility of the greatest competition engine ever built.

Photography courtesy of LAT.

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