V12 Engine – 5 Things You May Not Know

close up photo of v12 engine

Prior to World War II, very few American car manufacturers offered the V12 engine as an option. They were just too costly and complicated in their design. Only Cadillac and Packard offered this engine in their vehicles. After the war the Lincoln H-Series continued with this option. After the Lincoln model was phased out in 1949, the V8 replaced the V12 and not a single American car was built with this engine type. However, in Europe there have always been a few luxury models and sports cars that offer the V12. Its performance is unparalleled in both smoothness of ride and power.

V12 Engine Overview

A V12 engine is an internal combustion design with 12 cylinders designed in a V shape. The two sides contain 6 cylinders on each side. They are usually set at a 60-degree angle, but not always. This design offers perfect balance in that each side, or bank, is in itself a straight, six design engine. Both banks drive one crankshaft. This design offers even firing order, on a four-strokes the firing order occurs at every 60 degrees of the crank rotation.

This type of engine can be powered by natural gas, diesel or gasoline fuel. It runs very smooth because of its design, is responsive, and is a favorite in race cars. It is also used in heavy machine applications where it can run slower which prolongs the life of the engine.

Car Models Currently Offering a V12 Engine

  • Ferrari 250 GTO - It was first used in 1947 in the Ferrari 125S and powered the 1962 250 GTO
  • Ferrari LaFerrari - Featuring an F140 V12, it gets electric assistance and could be turbocharged in the next generation
  • Lamborghini Countach - The V12 powered every Lamborghini from 1963 to 2011
  • Lamborghini Aventador - This car introduced a new V12 codenamed the "L539," offering 740 hp
  • McLaren F1 - BMW designed the ultimate naturally aspirated race car, which can go up to 240 mph
  • BMW 760Li - This luxury model offers N74B66 twin-turbo in a 6.6 liter option and is the fastest BMW
  • Mercedes S-Class - This road car got its first V12 in 1992, offering 402 hp: the latest model offers 621 hp and gives BMW a run for its money
  • Pagani Zonda - Introduced in 1999, it offers a carbon-fiber body and the latest version has a twin-turbo Mercedes engine
  • Jaguar E-Type - In 1971 it came out with a 5.3 liter V12m and remained in production until 1997, offering 250 hp
  • Aston Martin One-77 - This very limited edition offers 750 hp and a 7.3 liter engine

Key Features and Applications for the V12

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Engines are not just for cars. There are several industries that used the V12 and had specific reasons for liking its features.

Aviation

The V12 engine was first used in aircraft applications. It was a popular option used in bombers and fighters at the end of WWI, and many Zeppelins were equipped with a V12. One famous British battle, the Battle of Britain, saw the Rolls Royce Merlin V12 engine in Britain's Supermarine Spitfire and Hawker Hurricane fighters. The engine's design offered good aerodynamics, and it's smooth operation allowed it to be used in fragile and light aircraft operation.

Road Cars

The V12 engine was not a common option in production road cars because it was expensive and complicated. For these reasons it was mostly used in the luxury and high-end sports car markets, which loved this engine for its distinctive sound, low vibration, and power. Many luxury cars used the V12 engine before WWI, but in the 1930s V8s began to replace them. The V8 was designed to be a lighter and more powerful engine, and since WWII only a few car manufacturers continued to use the V12 engine in their cars.

Toyota was the first Japanese manufacturer to use the V12 engine in their Century Limousine in 1997. China also used the V12 engine in their Hongqi HQE in 2009.

Auto Racing

Endurance racing and Formula One race cars have used the V12 engine for many years. Ferrari used it in the first Formula One race in 1950, but several reasons made Ferrari replace it with the Ford Cosworth V8 engine. This change was made because the V8 was smaller in design and weighed less, which is important in a race car.  Plus the V8 was turbo-charged, giving it more power. Another factor for the replacement was that the rules changed and the size and power of the engines was limited.

The 24 Hours of Lemans race was won in 2007 by an Audi R10 TDI equipped with a V12 engine.  Second place went to a Peugeot 908, also equipped with a V12.

Heavy Trucks 

From 1960-1965 GMC produced a V12 for their trucks known as the "Twin Six". It was the largest gasoline engine used in the U.S. for heavy trucks, which commonly use a V12 engine.

Large Diesel Engines

Many diesel locomotives have a V12 engine, and they use a variety of cylinder configurations depending on the power they require. These V12 diesel engines are also commonly used in ships: especially cruise ships, which can have up to 6 engines onboard.

Tanks and Similar Vehicles

Armored fighting vehicles and tanks from many countries are commonly equipped with a V12 engine. 

  • America used the Continental AV1790 in both diesel and gasoline versions of the Patton and M103 tanks
  • Russia used the V-2, T-34, KV-1, KV-2, IS-2 and MBTs in their tanks
  • Britain used the Rolls-Roycegasoline V12 engine for their Comet and Cromwell as well as the more modern Conqueror and Centurion tanks
  • Germany used the Maybach HL120TRM V12 was in their Pz
    Kpfw II and IV tanks

5 Things You May Not Know

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Marine Engines

In 1889 Daimler built the first "V" engine designed by Wilhelm Maybach. Putney Motor Works was the next company to venture into V12s with their racing engine built in 1904. This engine weighed 950 pounds and was designed to power a 40 foot boat. In 1909-1910 the Lamb Boat & Engine Company in Iowa built their version of the V12 for their 32-foot boat. It weighed 2,114 pounds. This was followed by the Panhard, which was developed in 1914 and was a popular option for motor boat racing.

Motor Car Engines

Sunbeam Motor Car Company competed in the 1913 Brooksland long and short handicap races with their V12 engine. The car they entered in the competition, named Toodles V, broke several records in 1913-1914 for its aerodynamic design and speed.

Early Aero Engines

Renault powered their 1909 V12s with an air-cooled engine. Their design incorporated a propeller driven camshaft at the nose of it rather than on the crankshaft, which improved efficiency. These designs were followed by the Royal Aircraft Factory in Britain, whose RAF engine was produced in great numbers during the war.

A few years later ABC Motors offered a water-cooled version in 1912 that had a radiator and coolant design.Sunbeam showed an airborne version of their Toodles V engine in March 1914, called the Mohawk. It was the most powerful option British aviation had during the start of WWI.

Post-WWI V12s in Aviation

The Germans built a version of the V12 that had an inverted design, which allowed them to have a lower center of gravity and improved visibility for their pilots. The Americans built a version of the inverted V12, the Ranger V-770, but it was limited in use and was mostly used in training in the States.

After WWII, the V12 engine became obsolete due to the introduction of turboprop and turbojet engines that offered fewer complications and more power for their size.

V12 Road Cars

The V12 was used in many of the luxury cars available before WWII, such as the Pierce-Arrow (1936), Rolls Royce (1936), Lincoln (1932-1942), Franklin (1932), Auburn (1932), Cadillac (1931), Hispano-Suiza (1931), Daimler (1926-1937), and the Packard (1916-1923, 1932-1939).

In 1916 Packard's "Twin Six" offered the first production car, the Auburn, with a V12 and the list price of $1,000 US. It was the most affordable V12 ever produced. Their use of horizontal head design resulted in production savings, but it was not a powerful or efficient engine for the market.

In the 1930s, V8s replaced the V12 due to improvements in piston form and the combustion chamber.

Conclusion

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The V12 engine fires more often than a V8, offering a smoother feel. But the V8 was a more affordable option, it was less complex, and with the improvements that it offered over time it became a faster and lighter engine for many high production applications. The V12 still has a lot of applications in the luxury market, in racing, and in heavy machinery use, where it is the best engine choice for the purposes it serves.