Theme: Engines – The Greatest?

Italy’s engineering giants slug it out for your entertainment.


Given the size of the Italian motor industry by comparison to say, the United States or Germany, it’s difficult to compile a list of the great engine designers without coming to the conclusion that Italy has historically punched well above its weight. The fact that most of them were schooled through Italy’s once thriving aeronautical industry says as much about the era from which they emerged as the political and socio-economic causes, but either way, Italy’s contribution to the pantheon of notable engines is undeniable. Since driventowrite has been championing the engine this past month, it would be slightly remiss to neglect the men who designed them; although to do the subject ample justice would require a lot more time, effort and wordcount than any of us are likely to have the stomach for – especially now. But in a hypothetical pub argument scenario, and given Italy’s one time dominance in engine design, who should we award the engine-design Oscar to?

d501Some would argue for it to be given by default to Vittorio Jano and given his back catalogue, it would be a challenge to argue against him. Or how about Dr. Orazio Satta Puliga – Alfa Romeo’s post-war engineering architect, who oversaw Alfa’s legendary twin-cam four; inspiring a rich seam of elegantly engineered cars that reached its apogee with the seminal 105 Series – perhaps the definitive modern-era Alfa? An equally strong argument could be made for Lancia engine designer, Eng. Ettore Zaccone Mina, the man responsible for two of the most exquisite engines of all time – the D50 V8 Grand Prix unit and the narrow angle V4 used in the Fulvia. Conclusively the ‘high-art’ choice and for what it’s worth, he takes it over Jano any day of the week.

Then there’s Giulio Alfieri – Maserati’s engineering colossus, responsible for racing machines like the 250F and Top 61 ‘Birdcage’; Maserati’s six and 8-cylinder power units, and a number of engines for Lamborghini in later years. Still not convinced? Okay, how about Mauro Forghieri – Technical Director at Ferrari who masterminded the prancing horse’s run of four grand prix world championships; synonymous with the flat-12 engine layout. Admittedly, the less said about his later work with the Lamborghini F1 engine the better, but Forghieri probably deserves to be viewed with the greats.

Fiat_L14But really, it has to be Aurelio Lampredi, an engineer who perhaps epitomised the egalitarian spirit that permeated Fiat during the 1950’s and ‘60s under chief engineer, Dante Giacosa. Lampredi had already made a name for himself at Ferrari, responsible for their race winning four and 12 cylinder F1 engines. He placed an emphasis on simplicity and reliability, something he put into practice in his later career at Fiat where he was responsible for an illustrious family of in line four cylinder overhead camshaft engines that were notable for their zesty nature, smooth running characteristics and willingness to rev. And unlike the cars themselves, Lampredi’s engines tended to hold together. Thanks to his legacy, a generation of ordinary motorists had their first real taste of sophisticated engine design, without having to pay Ferrari prices for the pleasure. Without his influence, the democratisation of modern, free-spinning engines might not have occurred – certainly, few other mainstream manufacturers were espousing it at the time. Few enough do so now.

So while the likes of W.O Bentley, Hans Ledwinka, Ferdinand Porsche, Wifredo Ricart, Felix Wankel, Walter Hassan or Keith Duckworth* all deserve their place in the engineering chamber of honour, Aurelio Lampredi stands above them primarily I believe, as an engineer of the people, not just the privileged few.

* Author’s note: This is not intended to be an exhaustive list. If we have omitted to mention your own personal candidate – leave a comment and tell us…

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founding Editor. [Dis]content Provider.

2 thoughts on “Theme: Engines – The Greatest?”

  1. I don’t know enough about engines to guess which tweaks and nudges produce which outcomes. But do you think these people intuitively knew that a bit more weight here or shaving off a bit there, so to speak, would produce desirable qualitative effects like a pleasant noise or smoother run? They did this based on informed guesswork and experience and so their analogue-era work is all the more astonishing. What else is an engine but a kind of programme made solid: it determines what power is produced from a defined quantity of fuel.

  2. I agree with Eoin about Lampredi. The work of the engineer who is able to devote himself to the everyday engine, and to elevate its status, has more standing in my eyes that the production of another supercar or racing engine. I could propose the team under Satta Puglia who designed the Alfa Twin Cam as getting there before Lampredi, but the latter’s work reached much further, notably the Fiat 128’s single cam unit.

    On the subject of Alfieri, I’ve recently being reading the excellent “Maserati – The Citroen Years”. There was an interesting section about Alfieri who, although known as an engine man, dominated the entire engineering of Maseratis at that time. The Citroen era Maseratis, with their use of hydraulics, have always fascinated me, especially the Khamsin. My preconception though was always that Citroen came along and insisted that hidebound Italian engineers incorporated Citroen engineering into their cars. Certainly not true – the impetus for this apparently came direct from Alfieri who was highly enthusiastic about melding the two technologies.

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