Throughout automotive racing’s long and illustrious history, various high-powered vehicles have served as the basis for rivalries, friendships, collaborations, and dramatic redemptions. From track to track, circuit to circuit, and country to country, the influence of these transcendental platforms can be felt throughout the ever-changing landscape of speed-savvy design, bringing about the evolution (and innovation) of one of the world’s most adrenaline-inducing sports. But while the vehicles themselves might be the most notable aspect of the circuit due to their striking looks, interesting technologies, and mass appeal, an equally-as-deserving engine sits at their heart, spurring them onward as they overtake one another at every turn.
It’s true that, for many, the outward appearance of a vehicle might remain its most notable quality. But for us, there’s a deeper connection that can be made. Instead of focusing on the aesthetic of racing’s most dominant cars, we’ve decided to dive into what it is that makes them tick — in this case, the engines that sit at their center. Below, we’ve aggregated a handful of our favorite power plants from throughout history, honing in on what they are, what they’ve achieved, and where they’ve left their mark. Obviously, the automotive world is a vast and daunting place, so we’ve narrowed down our list to provide an accurate representation of some of the most celebrated engines in the genre, without relying too heavily on the intricacies of each manufacturer, model, and era. Without further adieu, let’s take a look at some of the powerful models that have shaped the circuit into what we know today.
Audi 5.5-Litre V12 TDI
We’re kicking off our list with one of the most interesting and dominant engines in Audi’s competitive history, the 5.5-liter V12 TDI. This aluminum powerhouse was introduced alongside the company’s R10, as it was meant to supersede the R8 platform after successive wins at Le Mans. The then newly-adopted engine introduced two parallel turbochargers, and capitalized on the brand’s Turbocharged Direct Injection (TDI) technology, resulting in a 638-horsepower output, overall. But what made the TDI so notable was its dependence on diesel technology — something that separated it from the vast majority of LMP1 series models that were in use during the early 2000s.
At 441 pounds, it weighed more than its competition, but that didn’t stop it from leading the Audi team to victory in a number of notable races, including the 2006 12 Hours of Sebring, the 2006 24 Hours of Le Mans, and various annual gatherings in the years to come. It defended its title until 2009 when it was replaced by an innovative TDI offering within the company’s R15 TDI chassis. Despite this, the 5.5-liter V12 TDI struck fear into competitors during its years of use, going so far as to prompt changes within the LMP1 series to hinder its dominance.
BMW’s M-Power engines have been utilized by many of the brand’s championship vehicles, but among them, a number of award-winning models have surely stood out. If we were forced to choose between the brand’s modern-day variants and its domineering examples from generations past, we’d have to go with its retro power plants. One of our favorites just so happens to be the S14 — the notable powerplant behind the BMW M3. That alone should give you a good idea of its iconic lineage, but if you’re looking for a deeper dive, we’ve got you covered. The S14 was utilized within the brand’s touring series vehicles from 1986-1991, and as such, it played a vital role in the company’s racing pedigree.
The E30 M3 has captured the hearts and minds of onlookers on many occasions, but it was most notable for its five wins at the 24 Hours Nürburgring, three of which took place in 1989, 1990, and 1991. Of course, these were the years where the 2.3-liter, naturally aspirated engine reigned supreme, fostering a large fanbase that remains committed to its preservation, even today. The M3 would go on to race in various rally, superturismo, and touring circuits, laying waste to cars (and engines) that were larger, supercharged, and deemed “more capable.” Regardless, the S14 series would be the last of its kind, with no successive model after its retirement in 1991.
Chevy 302 Small Block V8
Chevy’s 302 Small Block V8 is no stranger to the spotlight. As the primary power plant within its vehicles from 1954 until 2003, there’s a reason that it’s become one of the most acclaimed engines in history. Not only did it power the brand’s most prevalent platforms, but it also made its debut in early-era stock car racing alongside the Corvette and Bel Air, putting Chevrolet on the map during the series’ fledgling years. Known as the “Mighty Mouse” within the racing world, the V8 served in its role for many generations, and in 1966, the brand released its 302 Small Block, powering the Z/28 Camaro for its admittance into Trans-Am Series road racing.
The 302 would produce more horsepower than the larger 8-Bbl systems that it was competing against at the time, offering an unadvertised 376 horsepower, and helping the Z/28 to accrue its legendary status. Although its racing lineage is different from others on our list, the small block is a surefire contender that remained at the center of Chevrolet’s various automotive pursuits for nearly 50 years, earning it a spot among its legendary peers.
Citroen 2.0-Liter Turbo XU10
Citroen is a legendary company within the world of automotive racing — more specifically, within the world of rallycross. It became synonymous with companion manufacturer, Peugeot, in the mid-70s, and since then, its technologies have been used in both Citroen and Peugeot models. If you’re a fan of any outdoor race series, you’ll know that Citreon is truly a force to be reckoned with, and at the heart of its dominant vehicles, there have been a handful of equally-as-enticing engines. It’s hard to choose, but out of all of PSA Peugeot Citroen’s power plants, the 2.0-liter Turbo XU10 is one of our favorites.
The XU10 is a cast iron “square engine” that made a name for itself in the company’s various models at the tail-end of the 1990s and into the early 2000s, participating in a number of off-road and cross-country rally events. Whether we’re talking about a carbureted, eight-valve variant, or a 16-valve DOHC fuel-injected turbocharged model, the XU10 family has spanned generations of Citroen and Peugeot chassis, including the ZX, 306, and 405, with the turbocharged DOHC turbo catalyst and 8v turbo catalyst making their marks in the 405, 605, and Xantia models.
Ferrari Dino V6
Ferrari’s illustrious career on the racetrack wasn’t easily earned. After shaping the European circuit in the early 1950s, the brand set out to create the next generation of V6 and V8 power plants. Coincidentally, this would take place under the partnership of both Enzo Ferrari and his son, Alfredo. Under the supervision of the pair, the Ferrari Dino engine was born — a groundbreaking capsule of mechanically-inclined V6 and V8 examples that would power the brand’s vehicles for years to come. Although the Ferrari Dino enterprise spanned from the 1950s into the early 2000s, the Dino V6 was the outfit’s first breakthrough, offering the quintessential 1.5-liter engine for use within the Formula Two auto racing series.
In 1956, the development (and production) of the industry’s first 65° V6 engine was well underway, and by April of 1957, it would make its debut in the Dino 156 F2 during the Grand Prix of Naples. What made the Ferrari Dino V6 so interesting, however, was the fact that it didn’t harbor a true V6 layout. Instead, it featured a separate crankpin for each connecting rod, resulting in true harmonic balance and increased horsepower. During its short stint within the world of racing, the Ferrari Dino V6 made its mark as one of the most refined engines of its era, paving the way for the brand’s impending breakthroughs.
Ferrari V12 3.0-Liter
Ferrari is gracing our list for the second time with its groundbreaking 3.0-liter V12 — a historic model known by many as the “Colombo.” Before the automaker’s significant engine breakthrough, which took place near the end of the 1950s, the Colombo reigned supreme as its most daunting V12. To this day, it’s revered as one of the greatest engines of all time, thanks to its widespread use from 1947 to 1988 in a variety of vehicles — most notably, Ferrari’s very first F1 car, the 125 F1; the 250 TR, its infamous “Testa Rossa” racing car; and the 250 GT SWB, which remains one of Ferrari’s most influential models.
Throughout its tenure, the engine’s various evolutions would make their debut on the racetrack ahead of their publicly-produced counterparts, with circuits like Le Mans, Carrera Panamericana, Mille Miglia, and Sebring falling underneath its umbrella. At the tail-end of the 1960s, a revised edition was proposed for the 275 GTB/4. Despite the prominence of its predecessor, the engine was completely overhauled, adopting dual overhead cams, a more compact head, courtesy of its reduced valve angle, and a dry-sump design, resulting in an attractive 325-horsepower output.
Ford Cosworth DFV V8
For many entry-level automotive aficionados, the use of a Ford engine alongside some of Europe’s most formidable race platforms might seem a bit odd. It’s true; the company certainly supplied its wares to teams and vehicles outside of the US, and in some cases, they became fairly dominant in their respective areas. The Ford Cosworth DFV V8, for example, helped to solidify Team Lotus’ name within the world of F1 — and today, the engine is still recognized as one of the primary catalysts for car culture during the era. This internal combustion engine boasted an early-development “double four-valve” layout and made its debut within Formula 1 in 1967, where it replaced the previously-used Coventry Climax engines found in many of Lotus’ on-track models.
Interestingly enough, the newly-developed power plant was so dominant within the circuit that Ford decided to supply the Cosworth DFV to a number of other teams, citing that “winning against lesser opposition” would eventually tarnish the company name. Throughout the years, the 400+ horsepower engine would be adopted by teams like McLaren, Matra, Brabham, Williams, Penske, and Wolf, becoming one of the most widely-used (and successful) on-track variants throughout history.
Ford 7.0-liter FE V8
Departing from Ford’s impeccably-built Cosworth DFV V8, we’re once again including the transcendental company on our list — this time, due to its 7.0-liter FE engine. While this iconic power plant might not have the high-tier pedigree of its counterpart, it’s worth noting that vehicles like the Ford Galaxie (which dominated NASCAR in the early 1960s), the Ford GT40 Mk II (which won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1966), and the Thunderbolt (securing victory within the Super Stock circuit), are all testaments to the FE’s long-running lineage. Built as the “do it all” engine for Ford’s consumer line, the V8 was a significant upgrade from the company’s Y-block engines, allowing for unparalleled customization, expansion, and evolution due to its purpose-built size.
In order for Ford to race within NASCAR during the 1960s, they had to abide by regulations set forth by the sport — rules that barred any company without a general-sale engine model from entering. Similarly, many of the genre’s quarter-mile drag racing tracks and road racing outfits held a similar belief, leading Ford to foster its FE lineup over time. Needless to say, the widespread inclusion of these engines led to notability within the world of automotive racing, and in 1970, an FE-powered model helmed by Tony Densham shattered the British land speed record of 207.6 mph, securing its title for the next 30 years. If that doesn’t immortalize your name within the world of race-savvy car culture, we don’t know what will.
Another odd but interesting inclusion on our list is none other than the Honda RA line. While it might seem a bit uncanny, the company’s RA167E V6 and RA168E turbo were at the height of their prominence during the 1980s’ Formula One seasons, where they could be found in various high-end vehicles prior to the FIA’s ban on forced induction models. One of the most prolific teams to use the engine was McLaren, who would secure victory in virtually every Grand Prix under the guidance of legendary drivers Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, and Alain Prost during the period.
In 1988, the 640-horsepower Honda RA168E would make its debut, adding to the brand’s notoriety within the world of forced induction thanks to its various wins over renowned companies like Ford, BMW, Judd, and Zakspeed. While it’s difficult to nail down all of the amazing feats that the Honda RA line has achieved, it’s worth noting that these eastern engines held their own against the genre’s most dominant models throughout the 1980s, and into the 1990s, becoming as feared on the track as they were in the world of aftermarket modification.
To say that Mazda’s Wankel engine is a feat of engineering might be an understatement, and within the company’s long-running line of abnormal power plants, there are legendary models that stand out as the height of mechanical prowess. The R26B is one such model. As the most notable (and widely acclaimed) four-rotor engine within the brand’s lineup, it became the basis for a number of the manufacturer’s prototypical vehicles — including the 767 and 787B.
At only 2.6-liters, this compact powerhouse could produce upwards of 700 horsepower, thanks to its unique peripheral intake ports, variable geometry, and an additional spark plug for each of its four rotors. The R26B was so powerful, in fact, that it was used in the 1991 24 Hours of Le Mans, where it dominated its competition to become the first (and only) power plant without a reciprocating piston engine to ever win the series.
Miller/Offenhauser Indy L4
The Miller/Offenhauser’s Indy L4 is an interesting engine that has garnered a healthy following over time. Of course, that abundance has also been met with criticism. Regardless of the nature of the historic four-cylinder power plant, it’s undeniable that it’s played a vital role within the world of automotive racing, thanks, in large part, to its inclusion within the world of American open-wheel competition. For over 50 years, the engine has served at the heart of the country’s various vintage racers, including sprint cars, midgets, and larger, more prominent vehicles.
It boasts a DOHC architecture, 15:1 compression ratio, and large bore stroke, allowing it to produce 420+ horsepower – although, there are more significant variations that allow for increased outputs. But what made the Miller/Offenhauser so special was its monobloc construction — a unique principle that led to improved reliability over its counterparts, as well as higher cylinder pressures. As a result, the engine dominated the American racing industry from the early 1930s, all the way through the 1970s, earning victories and pole positions at the Indianapolis 500 and Formula Libre, and going so far as to enter the 1959 Formula 1 US Grand Prix, where it would fall short of its competition.
Nissan RB25DET Turbo Straight-6
Throughout history, Nissan has concocted some of the industry’s finest power plants. One of its most prominent, the RB25DET, sat at the heart of its promising lineup, working alongside the company’s NVCS (Nissan Variable Cam System) to produce attractive power figures for aftermarket tuners. Introduced as an evolutionary platform that would usurp the brand’s previous RB, this unique model would incorporate a ceramic turbine, improved ignition coils, and an engine ECU, which could be manipulated to allow for different power curves, layouts, and bespoke ratios.
The fact that the engine only produced around 245 horsepower from the factory wasn’t at all worrisome, thanks to its inherent tunability. As a result, Nissan utilized the RB25DET within one of its most infamous models, the R33 Nissan Skyline GTST, and today, it serves as a viable alternative to many of the company’s stock models, lending itself to full-fledged swaps, modifications, and an ever-growing list of JDM additions.
Porsche 4.5 L Type 912 Flat-12
A list focused on dominant racing engines wouldn’t be complete without the inclusion of Porsche. The brand’s 4.5-liter Type 912 Flat-12, for instance, might just be one of the racing world’s most important power plants. When the engine was first introduced in the latter half of the 1960s, it made its debut as the largest model within the company’s lineup, usurping its flat-eight 908 and 2.0-liter 911 engines. Why was it so large? The 912 was essentially a mish-mash of two of Porsche’s 2.25-liter flat-6 engines, allowing it to produce a staggering 1,580 horsepower at its top end.
To house the powerful variant, Porsche dropped the 912 into its legendary 917 race car, enamoring crowds at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, 1000km Spa, and Monza. Sadly, the engine would prove to be too much for the 917 to make due, especially within the twists and turns of the World Sportscar Championship’s most fabled tracks. Regardless of its performance, the 912 sat at the heart of Porsche’s racing branch for a short while, gaining notoriety as the greatest “shortcoming” that the company had ever built.
Porsche Type-935 2.65 L Turbocharged Flat-6
Porsche is rounding out our list with the Type-935 2.64-liter Turbocharged Flat-6 — an engine that served to define its racing lineage throughout the 1980s. Sitting at the heart of the German manufacturer’s legendary 956 racing Coupe, the air-cooled six-cylinder could produce upwards of 635 horsepower, making it a fearsome competitor when coupled with the car’s lightweight chassis and bodywork.
Fortunately, Porsche decided to place a large emphasis on its 935 and 936 models as its flagship racers during the era, causing the Type-935 to garner collateral fame alongside these new, cutting-edge automotive platforms. Whether it was the Silverstone 6, 24 Hours of Le Mans, Nürburgring-Nordschleife, or 1000km Spa, the 935 would partake in numerous victories and podium finishes, quickly becoming one the company’s most beloved models.
The 10 Best American Race Cars In History
Now that you’ve brushed up on the engines that sit at the heart of racing’s most prominent vehicles, head over to our guide on the best American race cars in history, where we dive deeper into the models that have helped to define North American automotive culture.
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