Automotive history

Piston heads: the world’s greatest engine designers

by Ben Barry
17 October 2020 6 min read
Piston heads: the world’s greatest engine designers
Hans Mezger and a flat-six 911. Photo: Porsche

Not all engine designers get the credit they deserve, but occasionally their names carry as much weight as the storied badges on the bootlid. In no particular order, here’s our pick of legends behind some of the greatest engines of all time.

Tadek Marek

Tadek Marek_Aston Martin engine designer
Marek at the drawing board. Photo: Aston Martin

Aston Martin is as English as leather on willow and irresponsible drinking, so it’s fitting that its first straight six was designed by WO Bentley (yes, that Bentley). But the engines that followed were designed by Pole Tadeusz ‘Tadek’ Marek. Marek studied in Berlin, worked first for Fiat and GM, before moving to Britain in 1940 and eventually joining Aston in 1954.

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Marek designed the straight six in the 1950s DBR2 racer, and redesigned the earlier WO straight six for service in the DB4 – an all-alloy twin-cam straight six with 3.7 litres, originally with a punchy-for-the-period 240bhp, but with as much as 314bhp in the twin-plug DB4 GT Zagato raced by Clark and Moss. Smooth, characterful and powerful, a good 3.7 still feels potent today.

Marek’s 5.3-litre V8 arrived in 1969 in the DBS V8 and squeaked in to the new millennium in the nose of the twin supercharged 600bhp Vantage V600, good for a claimed 200mph.

Aston’s new hybrid V6 turbo is codenamed TM01 in his honour.

Paul Rosche

Paul Rosche BMW_World's greatest engine designers
Rosche’s swan song at BMW was the straight-six from the E46 M3. Photo: BMW

If one thing’s better than an E36 BMW M3 engine, it’s two E36 BMW M3 engines. Paul Rosche developed both the original 3.0-litre straight six in the M3, and a V12 built to similar principles (if also radically different with an aluminium block and lightweight magnesium cam covers). Making 610bhp at 7400rpm, the S70/2 is one of the greatest engines of all time and was fitted to one of the greatest supercars ever built: Gordon Murray’s McLaren F1.

Born and bred in Munich, Rosche joined BMW in 1957 straight from university, working under Alex von Falkenhausen in BMW’s engine development department. He went on to work on BMW’s four-cylinder M10 engine that first appeared in 1961 and – once turbocharged, comprehensively re-engineered and named M12 – ran as much as 1500bhp in the back of the Brabham BT52 designed by, yep, Gordon Murray. No F1 engine has ever been more powerful.

Rosche worked for BMW for 42 years, retired in 1999 after signing off on the brilliant E46 M3, and died in 2016, aged 82.

Hans Mezger

Hans Mezger and Niki Lauda
Hans Mezger and Niki Lauda deep in thought. Photo: Porsche

The name Hans Mezger is almost as synonymous with Porsche as ‘air-cooled’ and ‘flat-six’. Yet Mezger has more strings to his bow than ‘only’ bringing us the engine in the back of the 911. When he first bagged his dream job in Stuttgart in 1956, it was to work on the diesel engines he didn’t even realise Porsche was fitting to tractors. That led to work on the four-cam flat-four Type 547 engine in the 550 Spyder, and Porsche’s first F1 project in 1960, before he got the 911 gig. It was the start of an association that lasted well in to the water-cooled era with GT cars, bowing out with the incendiary 997 GT3 RS 4.0.

Mezger also developed the entire 917 – not just its mighty flat-12 – that won Porsche its first two Le Mans, and mastered other configurations too, most notably the 1.5-litre turbo V6 that powered Lauda and Prost to F1 world championships in the back of a McLaren.

Loyal to Porsche to the end, Hans Mezger passed away aged 90 in June this year.

Bill Blydenstein

Bill Blydenstein engineered the Vauxhall Firenza V8 'Baby Bertha'
Bill Blydenstein engineered the Vauxhall Firenza V8 ‘Baby Bertha’. Photo: Vauxhall

Blydenstein initially trained as an aeronautical engineer and was a handy racer too, but his name earned real currency when he developed race and rally cars for Dealer Team Vauxhall in the 1970s. ‘Baby Bertha’ was a Firenza-based saloon with a 500bhp Holden V8 in which Gerry Marshall won the ’75 and ’76 Super Saloon championships, and even the 2.3-litre slant four in the roadgoing Firenza HP was blessed with Blydenstein magic. A Chevette HSR prepped by Blydenstein also took Pentti Airikkala to the 1979 British Rally Championship.

When the Dealer Team Vauxhall days were over, Bill turned his hand to tuning road cars, working from a workshop on a farm in Buntingford and renowned for his expertise with hot cams and gas-flowed heads.

Fitting a Blydenstein cylinder head to your Vauxhall unleashed as much street cred as performance, and the name still resonates with boy racers of a certain age.

Gioacchino Colombo

Gioacchino Colombo is the genius engine designer behind the Ferrari 250 GTO V12 motor
Colombo’s V12 powered the most coveted Ferrari of all time – the 250 GTO. Photo: Ferrari

Born in 1903, Gioacchino Colombo was taught how to tell his cams from his cranks by Vittorio Jano during an apprenticeship at Alfa Romeo, but the Italian (you didn’t know?) is most feted for his work at Ferrari. In fact, Colombo’s 1.5-litre V12 engine is the keystone of Ferrari – it was developed in the aftermath of World War Two to Formula 1 regulations, and fitted to Enzo Ferrari’s first ever car, the 125 S of 1947, producing 116bhp at 6800rpm.

In various guises, 60-degree V12 Colombo engines were fitted in Ferraris right through to 1988, most famously in the 250 GTO as a 3.0-litre SOHC V12 with 296bhp. The Colombo engine’s last gasp came with the 412i grand tourer of 1986, but the man himself had actually clocked off in 1950, first to return to Alfa, later Bugatti and MV Augusta.

It’s ironic, and perhaps a sign of what a small community the world of engine design is, that just as Colombo was effectively ousted by Lampredi after his V12 had performed poorly in F1, so Lampredi was ultimately replaced by Jano, the man who’d taught Colombo so much.

Aurelio Lampredi

Aurelio Lampredi was a master engine designer
Aurelio Lampredi, second from the right, with Enzo Ferrari and Franco Cortese to his right. Photo: Ferrari

If Ferrari’s Colombo V12s were typically smaller and bred for European racing, those created by Aurelio Lampredi were bigger-chested units associated with cars conceived for America – like the 4.1-litre motor in the 340 America and thumping 5.0-litre in the 410 Superamerica.

Ironically for a man famed for big motors, Tuscan native Lampredi started his career at scooter-maker Piaggio, but quickly progressed to aero engines and joined Ferrari in 1946, working alongside Colombo, later replacing him while still in his early 30s.

His engines weren’t only for cruising US highways – in fact, the Lampredi V12 was originally designed for Grand Prix racing. Ascari clinched fifth at Spa on the engine’s debut in 1950, Lampredi power also won the 1951 Mille Miglia, and the 1954 Le Mans 24 Hours. Neither was Lampredi a one-trick prancing horse: his twin-cam fours powered Ferrari F1, F2 and sports cars.

He quit for Fiat in 1955, following Ferrari’s acquisition of the Lancia F1 team and with it, famed engine designer Vittorio Jano.

Wolf Zimmermann

Wolf Zimmermann designed engines for AMG and now Ferrari
Photo: Rahul Nair, YouTube

If the old 6.2-litre naturally aspirated V8 in AMGs including the C63 and SLS Black Series was personified, it’d probably look a lot like Wolf Zimmermann, who’s equal parts Lemmy from Motorhead and Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men. He also just happens to be the engineer behind AMG’s first in-house hand-built engine. Raucous, powerful and very rock n’ roll, the M156 engine is a fitting legacy for a man who’s now left the Affalterbach building.

Zimmermann was lured from AMG for Dany Bahar’s abortive years at Lotus, and was busy masterminding an all-new V8 for the reborn Esprit (rumoured to have been with a little help from HWA, which ran the Mercedes DTM team) before Bahar was fired.

Zimmermann now works in Ferrari’s F1 engine department, and was last spotted studying the rules for the now delayed 2021 powertrain – if anyone can produce an engine to overthrow the might of Mercedes-AMG, it could well be one of their (former) own.

Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth

Mike Costin and Keith Duckworth of Cosworth
(Left to Right) Mike Costin, Keith Duckworth, Walter Hayes, and the 400th Cosworth engine. Photo: Ford/Wieck

Choosing either Mike Costin or Keith Duckworth as the brains behind Cosworth would be like saying Lennon or McCartney was more important to the Beatles. The pair founded Cosworth Engineering Limited in 1959 after leaving Lotus, and quickly struck gold with a Formula Junior engine based on a Ford road car lump.

The Ford association continued for decades, and for enthusiasts the Cosworth name and the engines the pair produced is synonymous with the Blue Oval.

Three in particular have been crucial to Cosworth’s success: the DFV, a 3.0-litre V8 that debuted in 1967 and became the most successful F1 engine of all time, the BDA 2.0-litre four that powered a generation of rear-drive Escort rally cars, and the 1980s and ’90s YB engine that slotted in all Sierra Cosworth and Escort Cosworths – in essence just a humble 2.0-litre Pinto with a trick twin-cam 16v cylinder head and turbocharger, it dominated Group A touring car racing and could make over 500bhp in the McDonald’s car park.

With so many to choose from, these aren’t the only legends in the field of engine design. Share your suggestions for some of the greats, in the comments, below.

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  • Jem Bowkett says:

    What about the Model T Ford motor: detachable cylinder head, block cast with the crankcase, transmission integrated with the power unit, built-in magneto – all design innovations for the time. And the flathead V8 – again, a single casting, made the V8 the standard configuration for American cars, powered most of the Allied WWII armies, raced & rallied, a brilliant design.

  • Robert Austin says:

    Edward Turner and the lovely 2.5 litre V8 Daimler engine.

  • Anthony Hussey says:

    How could you leave out De Virgilio

  • Peter Kerrison says:

    How about Sir Harry R Ricardo?

  • Georg Urban says:

    I’m guessing that is Hans Mezger standing next to the 911 in the first picture, not Paul Rosche.

  • charles gorst says:

    hi george you guess right that is hans mezger

  • Richard says:

    All the great Italian engines that powered Alfa Romeo – that were well ahead (decades ahead) of any mass-produced car?

  • Nigel Clarke says:

    Frederick Lanchester? Karl Benz?

  • John Dickens says:

    Sorry but your caption of the 400th DFV Ford-Cosworth engine rightly tags Mike Costin, but the man to the left of the engine is Heine Mader (an important customer and friend of Cosworth), not Mike Costin.

    • James Mills says:

      That suggests the Ford archive is incorrect, John, which provided the image and accompanying information. And it does look the spit of Walter Hayes.

  • Nigel Clarke says:

    I forgot…. W.O. Bentley and Henry Royce

  • Michael Cole says:


  • Gordon Higginbotham says:

    How about Georges Roesch? His designs for Talbot were in many aspects 30 years in advance of the times.

  • W.J. Atkinson says:

    How about Ed Cole and Harry Barr both Chevrolet. and Cadillac V8’s

  • Michael McGue says:

    No inclusion of Harry Miller on this list? Miller designed and inspired engines (think Offenhauser) have won, placed or showed in more Indy 500’s than any two other designers combined!

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