When you want the best, only a V12 will do.
It's a curious fact that despite the proliferation of large, wafty cruisers and mega-horsepower sportscars in America, very few locally built ones ever featured a V12 engine. The handful of Packards and Cadillacs that offered such a powerplant were all phased out until after WWII only the Lincoln H-Series V12 remained. Once that went out of production in 1949 the American obsession with the V8 was in full force and today there is not one single American model with a V12 on the roads.
Europe didn’t follow the same path though and there have always been a handful of top-tier luxury and sports cars that had a smooth and silky V12 under their hoods. The Germans, Italians and British have been the most ardent supporters of the V12. Its supreme smoothness is unmatched and while the packaging requirements and construction costs make it unviable in even mid-range models, as a range-topper it is hard to beat. Despite the current downsizing trend, there are still a fair few V12s in production and we picked some of the very best examples. From the high-revving supercars to near silent executive expresses, this is one versatile setup.
Enzo Ferrari realized early on that a V12 engine configuration had some worthwhile benefits over 4 and 8-cylinder alternatives. The Ferrari 125 S of 1947 was the first Prancing Horse to fitted with one, although it displaced a mere 1.5-liters. This ‘Colombo’ V12, named after its designer, was continually developed for decades and in 3.0-liter carburettor form it powered the iconic 1962 250 GTO. This road/race car used the race-proven 250 Testa Rossa all-alloy motor and it pushed out around 300-hp, jaw-dropping power for the time. The Colombo V12 finally bowed out in 1988 by which stage it was fuel-injected and up to 4.9 liters in size.
The LaFerrari features a development of the F140 V12 engine.It has, in various states of tune, powered supercars like the 651-hp Enzo, 661-hp 599 GTO and 789-hp 812 Superfast. In the LaFerrari it displaces 6.3 liters and makes an 812 Superfast equaling 789 hp (although the 812 has a larger 6.5-liter displacement) and also gets electric assistance to offer a combined 950 hp. With the excellent V8 488 GTB moving to turbocharging, we may see the next generation of V12 powered Ferraris going the same route.
Ferruccio Lamborghini saw that to compete with Ferrari he too would need a powerful V12. Enter Giotto Bizzarrini, an engineer whose V12 powered every top Lambo from 1963 all the way up to 2011, spanning from 3.5 to 6.5-liters and upgraded to multivalve heads, dry sump lubrication and fuel-injection along the way. The Countach is one of the most famous cars to be powered by the Bizzarrini V12, first as a 370-hp 4.0-liter in the LP400 and finally as a 450-hp 5.2-liter multivalve unit in the 25th anniversary edition model. The 661-hp 6.5-liter Murcielago LP 670-4 SV was the last Lambo built that could trace its roots back to this original design.
Thanks to the influence of new owners VW, the Murcielago introduced reliability and (nearly) daily usability to the Lamborghini range. Despite some Audi switchgear, the trademark madness remained. It was the Aventador however that introduced the biggest change of all, namely a new V12 engine. Codenamed L539 it still displaced 6.5 liters but now made 690 hp in even ‘base’ trim. The madness was left firmly intact. The nuttiest LP 750-4 SV model offers a staggering 740-hp so it is not totally surprising that Lamborghini has decided to eschew turbocharging for the time being. This one shoots blue flames out of its tailpipes too.
BMW made its money with bullet-proof four-cylinder and racy inline-six engines but its handful of V12s marked them out as one of the world’s premier engine designers. The McLaren F1 was designed to be the ultimate drivers’ car featuring cutting-edge technology and design. Today it's regarded as one of the most important vehicles of the 20th century. McLaren's first choice was a Honda engine but it was BMW that ended up producing the iconic 627-hp 6.1-liter S70/2 V12. It gave the F1 acceleration that still matches up to many of today’s turbocharged supercars, and at 240 mph it remains the fastest naturally aspirated car ever produced.
BMW has also offered V12s in a few of its top luxury models such as the latest 760Li xDrive. The N74B66 twin-turbo 6.6-liter V12 in this car produces 602 hp and a massive 590 lb-ft of torque that makes it one of the fastest BMW’s on the road today. Variations of this engine are also found in the Rolls-Royce Ghost where they are profiled to produce effortless torque. The previous non-turbo N73 version also did duty in the Rolls-Royce Phantom as well as the previous-generation 7 Series. Such cross-pollination is not uncommon as developing a V12 from scratch is an extremely costly endeavor.
Mercedes-Benz returned to V12 road car engines in the early 1990s to ensure that rivals BMW didn’t encroach too far into its traditional ultra-luxury territory. The S-Class first got a V12 engine in 1992, this M120 unit displaced 6.0 liters and made a formidable 402 hp. The latest V12 is the M279 AMG unit, which displaces 5.5 liters and uses two turbochargers to produce 621 hp and a gargantuan 740 lb-ft of torque. Aside from powering the S65 AMG, it is also found in the Maybach S650 and SL65 AMG models.
Pagani disrupted the supercar scene when it unleashed the exquisite Zonda in 1999. While its carbon-fiber construction was all new, the 389-hp 6.0-liter V12 that powered it was a development of the Mercedes M120 unit. This engine was also used in the Mercedes CLK GTR road and a few race cars too. The Zonda R Evolution track day car featured the ultimate version of this engine with an output of 800 hp. Road variants included the 547-hp 7.3-liter Zonda S and 602-hp Zonda F. The latest Huayra now uses a twin-turbo Mercedes-derived V12 but the original Zonda still looks and sounds like nothing else on the road.
The British motor industry was once a force to be reckoned with. The Jaguar E-Type was, along with the Aston Martin DB5, one of its crowning achievements. The original 1961 E-Type had a 3.8-liter inline-six but by the time the Series III models arrived in 1971 this had swelled to a 5.3-liter V12. The engine remained in production until 1997 but in this original form it made 250 hp. The additional weight and complexity over the inline-six variants made them hardly any quicker but there was not much out at the time that could offer a smoother drive. The final development was a 6.0-liter V12 which saw duty in the ‘90s XJS and made up to 318 hp.
The DB7 was a stunning car but the company’s troubled financial status meant that it was built on a modified Jaguar XJS platform and its AE28 V12 was actually a pair of modified Ford V6 units. It still drove and performed like a thoroughbred and the 450-hp 5.9-liter engine was continually developed and refined. The very limited-edition One-77 was perhaps the ultimate iteration, producing 750 hp from 7.3 liters. The latest generation of range-topping Astons now use a new AE31 twin-turbo 5.2-liter V12. The N/A V12 lives on for a while longer in the track-only Valkyrie which has its own KERS assisted 1,130-hp 6.5-liter Cosworth developed V12.