Cubic capacity used to be at the very core of a car's identity. If the engine wasn't big enough, it wasn't good enough. And we're not just talking American muscle cars (although we'll come to those in a moment) we're talking across the board, from Mondeo buyers to Bentley magnates. As downsizing picked up pace in the last decade, it was common to hear dealers complain about the difficulties of talking drivers into lower-capacity cars; they were programmed to believe bigger equals better, and anything beneath 2.0-litres (certainly in anything family-sized) was regarded with suspicion.
Of course now that spell is largely broken. The march of forced induction and (much more recently) electrification - not to mention the relentless marketing of both - has finally convinced the average buyer that even a humble four-cylinder engine might be overkill for their requirements. Six-cylinder engines are becoming increasingly uncommon; V8s and V10s are virtually extinct beyond the performance segment - and even within that niche they are an endangered species.
But there really is no substitute for the windfall - and, yes, the romance - of big capacity, naturally-aspirated petrol engines. Not only are they retained in a current generation of supercars for a good reason, they've also been selected for forthcoming money-no-object projects like the Aston Martin Valkyrie or GMA T50 - cars where the theatricality and responsiveness of an uninhibited V12 are considered crucial to success. It is that relationship, between car and atmospheric, fuel-quaffing engine, that we celebrate here...
Chevrolet COPO 427 (and ZZ572/620R Deluxe)
This list would hardly be credible without a Chevrolet engine on it. The small-block V8 has rightly earned its placed in history, and came in many flavours that seem preposterously large when viewed from 2020. Ditto its LS-badged descendent, which in 2006 delivered the hand-built LS7 with 512hp from 7.0-litres in the Corvette Z06 - the largest 'small-block' motor ever offered by GM.
But where there was a small-block there was also a big-block. Famously this line-up included the '427' V8, only offered to Camaro buyers in 1969 as an option after enterprising Chevrolet dealers started offering to fit the 7.0-litre unit themselves. The Central Office Production Orders (COPO) cars included the all-aluminium ZL1 engine which cost more than the price of the car, and could be made to output beyond 500hp with very light tuning.
Chevrolet of course has gone bigger than that. Much bigger. Special mention goes to the bottom of the Performance Crate Engines customer webpage, where the manufacturer keeps the really silly stuff. Now, granted, this is the sort of engine it doesn't waste time trying to put into production cars, but you'll forgive us for gurning at the plinth-topper which is the ZZ572/620 Deluxe. Why? Because it's a 621hp naturally-aspirated V8 that supplies its user with 645lb ft of torque from 4,200rpm. And to do that it displaces 9.4-litres. Oof.
Now, granted, this isn't the newest or cleverest V8 in the world - it's been around since 1998 - and strictly speaking Chevrolet Performance says its intended for competition only, chiefly drag racing. But given there's another version (the 720hp 720R Deluxe) built specifically for race fuel, we're going to welcome it right into the winner's circle and contemplate its preposterous 4.56 x 4.37-inch bore and stroke (not to mention its presumably enormous size and weight) a little longer. 'Built to dominate' Chevrolet says. And how.
Ford Boss 429 (and M-6007-572DR)
If we're including Chevrolet, then naturally Ford must feature too; it is the flip side of the same sixties coin, when cubic capacity was the only surefire way to vanquish your enemy. Obviously the engine to highlight here is the big-block V8 which had Camaro buyers up in arms - the Boss 429. The decision to install the 7.0-litre petrol motor in the Mustang was not taken lightly in Dearborn (because it did not easily fit, for one thing) but Ford needed to homologate the new unit for NASCAR.
The resulting car, which featured the largest factory bonnet scoop to ever appear on a Mustang, swiftly achieved legendary status. Ford built less than 1,400 cars between '69 and '70, ensuring exclusivity, but the Boss 429's various modifications also marked it out as special: it was the first Mustang fitted with a rear anti-roll bar, had a reworked subframe to accept the big-block engine, sported a limited-slip differential and four-speed manual, carried its battery in the boot and, yes, looked the business.
Today you can't buy a Boss 429 for much less than half a million dollars. Thanks to the oil crisis of '73 (and the subsequent slow march of technology) Ford didn't exceed 7.0-litres in a production Mustang. Although it's worth mentioning that the big block 385 engine family from which the 429 was derived continued till 1998, and spawned a number of other performance derivatives including the '514' - an 8.4-litre crate engine.
Much like Chevrolet, it has not stopped there. Thanks to the rude health of the US aftermarket, Ford also has a webpage which lists its more diabolical boxed-up creations. Prominent among these is 'Godzilla', the all-new 430hp 7.3-litre V8 engine derived from the F250 Super Duty. Special mention, though, goes to the '572' M-6007-572DR - another carburettored 9.4-litre monster capable of summoning up 655hp and 710lb ft of torque from 4,500rpm, again primarily for competitive purposes. Packaged up, Ford says it weighs 340kg. And costs $17,795. Pow.
Dodge Viper 8.4-litre V10
A car called a Viper just wouldn't work with a feeble engine; a car introduced to the world at the Indy 500 with Carroll Shelby driving could have nothing less than a monumental powerplant. A V8 would have been fine, and that's how the Viper project initially proceeded after its Detroit debut in 1989 - then the V10 idea came along.
The infamous Viper engine - 7,990cc, 16 valves, 406hp, 465lb ft and 323kg - began life, almost as infamously, as a truck engine. The Chrysler LA engine family was found in Durangos, Rams and Dakotas, the biggest 5.9-litre Magnum V8 used as the basis for the V10. It was Lamborghini's help that made a legend, though; owned by Chrysler at the time, Sant'Agata redesigned the engine, replacing the cast iron block with an aluminium one to reduce weight and installing dual valve springs to the 16-valve head, to help great lump rev a bit.
Naturally, the enormous powerplant came to define the Viper experience, much as an engine did in the classic muscle cars it aimed to emulate. It had the torque to move mountains, the power to scare exotica and a noise to rouse the dead. It wasn't musical, but it was memorable.
People sometimes forget, too, that the monstrous V10 helped the Viper on track. It secured numerous GT racing championships during the 1990s but, just as relevantly, grew and evolved to take on Europe's very best production sports cars as well. The 2015 ACR was peak Viper, and peak V10: 8,382cc (or 511 cubic inches), 654hp at a heady (for a Viper) 6,200rpm and 600lb ft. There's no need for forced induction or any other assistance at all with 10 cylinders each displacing more than 800cc. With the wildest aero package this side of a GT3 car, the American Club Racer topped every fastest lap chart, with 13 records eventually to its name. Oh yes, and the scariest seven minutes and one second around the 'ring you ever did see. The Viper is gone now, but it'll never be forgotten - and you can thank one almighty V10 for that, almost entirely.
Pagani AMG 7.3-litre V12
Sometimes AMG's handiwork finds itself in the most inappropriate of places. The imperious M156 6.2 V8, for example, should never have been shoved in an R-Class; the M152 deserved a better home than the R172 SLK55 AMG and the 6.0-litre M120 V12 could really have done with being unshackled from the burden of lugging an SL around. Fortunately, in that last instance, it very much was set free - by Pagani.
People forget that the original, non-S Pagani Zonda used that M120 in 6.0-litre form, with 400hp and a five-speed manual. However, proving that there really is no substitute for size, the V12 grew along with Pagani's notoriety. The C12 S is what really brought Pagani to the world's attention, with 550hp from a 7.0-litre evolution of the AMG engine. But it was with a 7.3-litre car that the Zonda really achieved international recognition.
There was a 7.3-litre 'S' (note the C12 was dropped) and then, in 2005, what's considered to be a real Pagani highpoint: the Zonda F. Power was beyond 600hp for the first time, and torque was up as well, meaning a top speed of 214mph. After which, Pagani went ever so slightly (and quite brilliantly) mad with the big V12: the F evolved into the F Clubsport with 650hp, then the Cinque and Tricolore nudged 700hp as it seemed the Zonda adventure was wrapping up. But, of course, Pagani wasn't done: then came the 760 cars, where existing Zonda owners were invited to commission bespoke 760hp, 575lb ft builds from existing chassis numbers. That those cars were being built into last year tells you how popular that ultimate evolution of the 7.3-litre Zonda has been. If it's good enough for Lewis Hamilton...
Ferrari 812 Superfast 6.5-litre V12
One of the Ferrari greats, and probably the finest production engine on sale today. Why? Because although there are the obvious bits - a sound to die for, 8,900rpm and twice the power of a 360 Modena - it's the Superfast's ability to be normal that's perhaps most stunning. Here is 6,496cc of highly strung Maranello V12 that's happy to pootle along at little more than a thousand revs around town, shuffle up to top gear by 35mph and be no harder to live with, if you need it to, than a Portofino. It complies with all of today's emissions regulations, it can be persuaded past 20mpg and it needs servicing every year or 12,000 miles. To all intents and purposes, the Ferrari 6.5 V12 is a normal engine.
Except, of course, it isn't. The Ferrari 6.5 is internal combustion at its zenith, capacity increased over the f12's 6.3-litres - so helping it get on this list - and all the better for it. To experience the way that such a huge engine seems possessed of so little inertia is truly incredible; peak torque doesn't arrive until 7,000rpm and the 800hp maximum is at 8,500rpm, so the V12 only delivers its best with work. But boy does it reward the effort. With the shift lights blazing from red to blue as another gear beckons, it's impossible to think of another car, another drive, of anything else at all really beyond that engine. It's a masterpiece, the Superfast's V12, just as so many from Ferrari have been. But this is extra special.
McLaren F1 6.1-litre V12
There was a healthy amount of discussion about where to end this list. Doubtless it will continue below and that's good. Anyone pointing out that the absence of Lamborghini's 6.5-litre V12 or Bentley's 6.75-litre V8 or Mercedes' 6.9-litre V8 or Aston's 7.3-litre V12 is a travesty can at least console themselves with the fact that each was considered an ideal contender before we catapulted them into also-ran status in favour of the engine we did select. Namely, the S70/2 unit BMW built to power the McLaren F1.
Why? Well, admittedly the V12 doesn't the possess the heritage or the longevity of its rivals - and is also the smallest, which slightly undermines the thrust of our argument. But the fact is that when Gordon Murray set out to build the ultimate road car - one that would absolutely obey the tenet of low kerbweight - it did not preclude the instalment of a very large capacity engine. In fact, there was literally no replacement for its 6.1-litre displacement because Murray dismissed the idea of forced induction from the outset. Because it adds weight and complexity.
Now, true enough, BMW was not his first choice (Honda famously turned down his request for assistance - twice) and Murray has recently emphasised the manufacturer's failure to meet his original weight specification. But no-one could unduly criticise the dry-sump, 627hp V12 which resulted. It was stuffed with exotic internal components, had a 10,000 revs a second response speed in neutral and boasted a heat shield made of gold (foil). It helped establish the F1 as the world's benchmark hypercar for the next decade and highlighted Jaguar's folly at fitting the XJ220 with a measly twin-turbocharged V6.
Of course the engine that wrested the world production speed record from its grasp was bigger still. The Veyron's quad-turbo, 8.0-litre W16 was its own kind of special - and arguably represents the crest of the bigger-is-better wave, given that no engine made in Europe is now ever likely to exceed its cylinder volume. But that hasn't stopped Murray from attempting to remake the world's ultimate road car in 2020 with another naturally aspirated V12 - one 60kg lighter, 32hp punchier and 18,400 revs a second more responsive. Not to mention 2.2-litres smaller.
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