The Evolution of Lamborghini’s Heart and Soul, the Naturally Aspirated V12

Lamborghini Aventador SVJ Engine 44 photos
Photo: Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A.
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Whether it was front- or mid-mounted, at the heart of Lamborghini’s most successful models stood a twelve-cylinder work of automotive art. The tradition that started in the sixties and continues to this day has defined the Italian carmaker and delighted those lucky enough to hear one roar.
In 1963, Italian magnate and disgruntled Ferrari owner Ferruccio Lamborghini started a company wearing his name, intending to create the perfect sports car. He was adamant about using a V12 engine, even if developing one would prove to be challenging.

Giotto Bizzarrini and his Società Autostar were commissioned to design the powerplant and legend has it that Lamborghini offered the famed engineer a bonus for every horsepower it could produce.

Derived from a project for a 1.5-liter Formula One racing unit, the 60-degree twelve-cylinder had a displacement of 3.5 liters, featured a double overhead camshaft, and it was theoretically capable of making close to 400 hp.

Later, it was detuned by Gian Paolo Dallara and Bob Wallace to around 320 hp in order to run smoother and increase its reliability. The engine also received several modifications that made it more cost-effective such as a wet sump lubrication system and side-draft 40 DCOE Weber carbs.

Lamborghini GT V12
Photo: Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A.
It was eventually fitted under the hood of the first mass-produced Lamborghini, the 350 GT which debuted at the 1964 Geneva Motor Show. The car wasn’t perfect, but its engine was praised for delivering linear power and progression accompanied by a beautiful sound.

For the 1966 400 GT, its displacement grew to 4.0 liters, and also increased bore and stroke. This new version served as the base for several significant forthcoming models, including the two-plus-two Espada launched in 1968, a car in which it produced 350 hp. It also powered the Islero albeit making 30 fewer horses, and eventually evolved into the 350-hp unit of the 1970 Jarama. It gained 15 hp in the Jarama S, which, by all accounts was Ferruccio Lamborghini's favorite car since he always preferred a sporty two-plus-two grand tourer.

Returning to the early years, some Lamborghini engineers including Gian Paolo Dallara, Paolo Stanzani, and Bob Wallace realized that to achieve better weight distribution and thus a more engaging driving experience, they would have to place the engine as close to the middle of the car as possible.

Against the wishes of the big boss, who favored powerful grand tourers over the race car-derived machines, they worked in their spare time and developed a prototype known as the P400 in 1965. One year later, it became the legendary Miura, one of the first mass-produced supercars with a transverse rear mid-engine. The powerplant in question was a 345-hp version of the 4.0-liter used in the 400GT and by 1971, it made no less than 370 hp in the SV model.

The successor of the brilliant Miura was unveiled in 1974 in the form of the futuristic Countach. Once again, the iconic V12 was repositioned, this time in a longitudinal mid-rear layout. For the LP500 prototype, a bespoke 440-hp 5.0-liter was developed but it was deemed unreliable, so the 4.0-liter used on the Miura SV ended up powering the production-spec Countach LP400. Later development led to an increase in displacement and power. First, the engine grew to 4.8 liters and 380 hp in the 1982 LP500S, then it became a 444-hp 5.2-liter beast gaining four valves per cylinder in the 1985 LP5000 Quattrovalvole.

Lamborghini Jarama S
Photo: Automobili Lamborghini S.p.A.
A year later, Lamborghini took the wraps off its off-road truck, the mighty LM002 which received the LP5000’s unit. Those who wanted even more power out of their Rambo-Lambo could order it with a 7.2-liter V12 but this was taken from class 1 offshore powerboats and had little in common with the Bizzarrini-designed version.

The next model that carried the twelve-cylinder torch was the 1990 Diablo. Early engine variants displaced 5.7 liters, delivered 485 hp and helped the gorgeous Lamborghini reach a top speed of 202 mph (325 kph). In 1993, the output was taken all the way up to 595 hp in the limited-series SE30 and SE30 Jota, eventually dropping to 510 hp in the 1995 SV.

In 2001, almost four decades after being fired up for the first time, the legendary engine was handed down to the latest flagship model, the Murciélago. It was thoroughly revised and bumped up to 6.2 liters, which meant it now made 580 hp. In the final Super Veloce variant, its capacity grew to 6.5 liters and maximum output was rated at 670 hp. This was the last iteration of the legendary engine that powered the Italian manufacturer’s finest vehicles for 46 years.

However, Lamborghini didn't abandon the V12, as the company that was now under the control of VW AG’s Audi division was working hard to develop a new one. Thus, in 2011 the Aventador was released, and with it came a brand-new fire-spitting 700-hp 6.5-liter. Four iterations of this engine have been built to date, including the SVJ’s 770 hp powerplant, so the twelve-cylinder heart of Lamborghini continues to beat even in the era of electric propulsion.
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About the author: Vlad Radu
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Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
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