The 12 best V12 engines ever made

28th February 2022
Ethan Jupp

The V12 is perhaps the most evocative engine configuration among car fans. Most of our poster cars, many of the all-time great automotive sounds, many motorsport glories, are the product of a dirty screaming dozen. So which are the very best V12s? We’ve counted them down.


Mercedes-AMG M120

Starting with the engine masters at Mercedes-AMG, which was a very different company back in the early 1990s, when it developed the M120. Appearing initially as a 6.0-litre to be used in flagship Mercedes-Benz models in the S-Class family, these were humble smooth beginnings for an engine that would end up at 7.3-litres, producing over 750PS (551kW) in a limited-run seven-figure Italian hypercar. Yes, the M120 is best-known for being the heart and soul of the Pagani Zonda, from its introduction in 1998. 

On the way from the S-Class to the Zonda, it took a motorsport detour in the Mercedes CLK GTR. By the time Zondas were being built, this engine was an FIA GT Championship winner. 

To our ears, the Zonda was one of the best-sounding supercars ever made and that noise, in combination with its stellar performance, reliability and pedigree, cemented Affalterbach’s twelve-banger as an all-time great. Zondas are still leaving the factory in 2022, with the very latest being the third of three Barchetta models, only appearing in public this weekend at The Ice event in St. Moritz.


Ferrari F140

On the way to matching the M120’s term of service is Ferrari’s Tipo F140 65-degree V12. Contrary to the Merc, the F140 started life in a hypercar, powering the Enzo to magazine covers and bedroom wall posters the world over in 2002. From there, a de-tuned version dropped into the 599 GTB. Every V12 Ferrari since has used the F140, with installations after the GTO in 2010 besting the Enzo’s original 660PS (485kW) output. 

The latest most powerful version, the F140HC, sits in the middle of the Daytona SP3, displaces 6.5-litres and produces 840PS (618kW) at up to 9,250rpm. Like the M120, it also has a couple of FIA GT Championships to its name, having powered the MC12 GT1 to constructors’ titles in 2005 and 2007. Impressive though that pedigree is, it’s this engine’s legacy on the road that will be remembered. It’s considered by most to be one of the finest engines available in production cars today, with many surprised it’s lasted as long as it has in this era of hybridisation and downsizing. Long may it live on.


Lamborghini Bizzarrini

From the first Lamborghini and for almost 50 years, the Bizzarrini V12 brought the all-time great Lamborghinis to life. Designed by Giotto Bizzarrini (of Ferrari 250 GTO fame), the four-cam howler was all but a race motor for the road in its initial design. Claims that it was capable of 400PS (294kW) at up to 11,000 revs when sufficiently fuelled boiled down to 284PS (209kW) out of 3.5-litres for road use in Lamborghini’s first car, the 350GT. That was 1964. By 1966 in the Miura, it displaced 3.9 litres and produced 350PS (257kW). That growth proved to be exponential over the decades. 

The 2010 Lamborghini Murcielago LP670-4 Super Veloce featured the last of the Bizzarrinis, displacing 6.5 litres and producing 670PS (493kW). It’s had many different voices over the years, as its character and the cars it’s powered have evolved. From the thrum of the Miura, to the chunter of the Countach, to the howl of the Diablo to the scream of the last Murcielago, the Bizzarrini V12 has proven to be one of the most versatile and long-lived supercar engine platforms and grew to be a defining feature of a flagship Lamborghini. 


Ferrari Colombo

Like many motoring greats, the Bizzarrini V12 was a retaliation to Ferrari, specifically his fabulous Colombo V12. Ferruccio Lamborghini insisted dual overhead cams, if only because the Ferrari Colombo used single overhead cams. The Bizzarrini had to be 3.5-litres or more, because Ferrari’s Colombo was generally a 3.0-litre. Incredible as the Bizzarrini was, there was no tarnishing the legacy of what was already an extraordinarily accomplished engine, having powered prototypes to Le Mans glory, while powering the world’s most beautiful GT cars on long drives down to the South of France. 

Much as the Colombo V12, designed by Gioacchino Colombo in the mid-1940s, carved out the bulk of its legacy in the late 1950s and early 1960s, it served for almost as long as the Bizzarini. The last 412i, featuring a 4.8-litre version of the engine, left the factory in 1988, 41 years on from the debut of the original Colombo in the original Ferrari, the 125 S. This free-revving and charismatic mill inspires engine designers even to this day and provides an evocative soundtrack at all of our flagship motorsport events.


Cosworth RA

From an all-time great cemented in the depths of V12 history, to a potential legend in the making. When we first heard the projected specifications of the Aston Martin Valkyrie, scepticism was understandable. F1-rivalling lap times, LMP levels of downforce and a design whose road legality had to involve a bribe. Just as unbelievable was the engine: a Cosworth-developed V12 good for over 11,000rpm. Years rumbled by and the sceptics insisted it wouldn’t happen. Yet here we are in 2022, with deliveries of the Valkyrie now getting underway.

This 6.5-litre unit weighs less than an equivalent F1 V10 would if scaled up and produces over 1,000PS (735kW). Yet for all its revs, for all that power, it’s emissions compliant, idles at ‘normal’ speeds and is durable enough to leave the factory with a warranty. This car, this engine, could be more at home screaming down the Mulsanne Straight at over 200mph. That they’ve been beaten mercilessly into road-usable machines is if anything more impressive. We still want to hear it at Le Mans, mind…


Cosworth GMA

Yet the RA isn’t Cosworth’s last word in V12 supremacy. That falls to the units designed for use in the Gordon Murray Automotive T.50 and T.33. Some conflate these and the Valkyrie engine, but the GMA engines lose 2.6-litres and 340PS (250kW) compared to the RA V12. But the 3.9-litre mill revs higher, to 12,100rpm, gets there faster and is controlled exclusively (at least in the T.50) with a six-speed manual transmission. More specifically on the speed of revs, it had by Gordon Murray’s command, to be the fastest-responding engine ever built for the road.

On the other hand, one of the weirder stipulations from Murray on the engine was affordable serviceability. Apparently, T.50s will be cheaper to service than a high-end Mercedes at a dealership, while still being able to chase early 1990s F1 cars on revs. If this is a crescendo for the V12 engine, it’s a great one.


BMW M S70/2/3

To be fair, it had a tough act to follow. The S70/2 wasn’t Murray’s idea of an ideal engine for the McLaren, being heavier than he intended. He let it slide though, given the power it produced. Arguably BMW M’s crowning achievement, the S70/2 was a 6.1-litre V12 producing 618PS (461kW), on the way to a redline of 7,500rpm. That sounds weirdly tame off the back of those exotic Cosworths but in 1993, it was scarcely believable for a road car. For ten years it would sit as the supercar benchmark power-wise before the Enzo arrived in 2002. 

Yet still, the F140 Ferrari motor would never top the accolades the S70 had to its name. It powered the F1, sans rev limiter, to a top speed of 241mph. Two years earlier, it powered an F1 GTR to overall Le Mans victory. A fluke because the prototypes were terrible in the wet? Maybe. To cement the legacy of this incredible engine, BMW M put it to work, with a few small changes, in the V12 LMR, resulting in another overall Le Mans win in 1999. That's pedigree few road car engines enjoy.


Cosworth-Ford Aston Martin V12

From incredibly specialised engines that added together won’t number more than 700 made, to one of the most prolific 12-cylinder mills yet. We couldn’t not mention the Aston Martin 5.9-litre V12, that saw service in everything from the DB7 Vantage from 1998, to last year in the AMR Rapide and Zagato Vanquishes. Designed in principle by Cosworth and commissioned by Aston’s old custodian Ford, it shares common dimensions and internal componentry with Ford’s Duratec V6. That’s more a credit to the Ford mill, itself Cosworth-engineered, than a discredit to Aston’s V12. On the contrary, from a Mondeo, to Le Mans, to an FIA GT Championship manufacturer’s title for Aston Martin, what sound like humble origins made for an incredible legacy.

First producing 426PS (313kW) in the DB7, this engine evolved quickly, reaching beyond 500PS (368kW) in the Vanquish S in 2004, beyond 570PS (420kW) for the Vanquish in 2013 and beyond 600PS (441kW) for the Vanquish S in 2016. The wildcard in its history is the One-77 7.3-litre unit, which was dry-sump lubricated and featured a nanoscopic low-friction coating that helped increase the capacity. Power was 760PS (558kW), making it the most powerful naturally-aspirated engine ever put into production on release in 2009. Yet by contrast, in the world of V12s, Aston’s can serve as a gateway, with DB9s available in the mid £20,000s. It can even be said the old engine lives on in the new 5.2-litre turbocharged units, given they share bore, bore offsets, V angle, cam covers and are built in the same Ford-owned manufacturing facility.


Ferrari Tipo 036/Tipo F130B

This is a bit of a strange one, because it’s appeared only a few times, albeit in very different guises. But it is that breadth of variety in its use that makes it interesting. Of course, it’s the Ferrari Tipo F130B of the F50, which is famously derived from the Tipo 036 used in the 641 Formula 1 car. The latter is one of the best-sounding F1 engines of all time, the former one of the coolest road car engines of all time. Of course, in the F50 it’s bigger, displacing 4.7 litres, and revs lower, to 8,640rpm, producing at its peak 519PS (381kW). The 036 in the F1 car revs to 14,000rpm, displaces 3.5 litres and produces up to 689PS (507kW).

Neither led their respective classes but both endeared all who came into contact with them. McLaren bested both, with the F1’s BMW V12 far more powerful, albeit not as high-revving, and the MP4/5B’s Honda V10 up on the Ferrari unit too. But it doesn’t matter. This is one of the great underdogs

It’s not just F1 and the road however. The Tipo 036 saw action at Le Mans as well in the Ferrari 333SP. Splitting the difference between the road car and the F1 car, the sportscar version of the engine revved to 11,000rpm and displaced 4.0-litres, producing 650PS (478kW). In the 333SP, this engine found glory, with two IMSA GT Constructors’ championships and one FIA Sportscar championship in its cabinet. The 036 came good in the end. What about the F130B? Well, the F50’s £2million-plus entry price today should say something of its desirability.


Honda RA121E

What else needs to be said of Honda’s RA121E V12 engine? Okay, you may not have heard of that. Let’s try Ayrton Senna, the McLaren MP4/6 – Formula 1 world champions both in 1991. Yes, the RA121E is the last V12 engine ever to win a Formula 1 World Championship. It just pipped Ferrari’s Tipo 037 V12 at the beginning of the season for power, with 725PS (533kW), though mid-season developments pushed it to over 780PS (573kW).

It wasn’t just power that made it a monster, though. It was flexibility. The Ferrari mill wasn’t great at slingshotting the red cars out of slow corners. By contrast, the Honda pulled harder more of the time. An all-time great we got to hear sing again in person at the 78th Members’ Meeting in 2021, with none other than Bruno Senna driving. A core memory, that one…

Matra V12

One of the most evocative V12s of all time produced an unmistakable sound wherever it was found, from sportscars to F1. We of course refer to the Matra V12. Just look at the MS11 of 1968, whose exhaust manifolds look almost intestinal sprawling out of the head, for two-into-one merges and six exit pipes. It’s engineering artwork and the noise they make, pure mechanical music.

Its most successful application? The MS670 sportscar we’d argue, which took wins at Le Mans in 1972, 1973 and 1974, with World Championship for Makes titles in 1973 and 1974 to boot. They beat out Ferrari to glory in that period and in doing so, largely put the Scuderia off top-flight sportscar racing altogether for the next 50 years. These were beautiful blue cars that sounded as good as they looked and went as fast as they sounded.


Jaguar V12 engine

You didn’t think we’d forgotten it, did you? The original Jaguar V12 was intended for use in the stillborn XJ13 endurance racer, which was canned in 1966. A number of versions of the engine were in development, though, so while the quad-cam racer died with the XJ13, road-biased versions lived on. From 1971 to 1997 the Jaguar V12 engine served as a benchmark for performance and crucially, smoothness, from the E-type, to the XJ12, to the XJS and of course, the XJR racing cars.

This was arguably the crowning application of these engines. In the XJR series of sports racers, 7.0-litre versions of this howling machine powered TWR and Jaguar to victory at Le Mans in 1988 and an incredible one-two Le Mans finish in 1990. This, just over 40 years on from when the engine was first being drawn up. From the silkiest smoothest Daimler-badged limousines to fire-spitting endurance racing legends, the Jaguar V12 has to be one of the most versatile on this list.

So there’s our list of the greatest V12s ever made. Do you agree? Are there any we’ve missed? Let us know…

  • List

  • Ferrari

  • McLaren

  • Lamborghini

  • Honda

  • Matra

  • Jaguar

  • Aston Martin

  • Cosworth

  • GMA

  • BMW

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