There’s an assumption that V12s are always hulking great engines. Indeed, Ferrari’s current F140 12-cylinder engine - which powers the 812 Superfast and GTC4Lusso - displaces a hefty 6.5 litres. But Maranello’s first ever V12 quite a bit smaller than that.
The original ‘Colombo’ V12 is a hugely significant engine for the company. It was the first Ferrari engine of any sort, and it powered the 125 S, the first car to be adorned with the Ferrari brand. That V12 displaces just 1.5 litres.
The 60-degree engine is - as you might have already worked out in your head - four-and-a-bit times smaller than the F140. If you’re drinking a cup of tea or coffee right now, the likelihood is you’d be able to comfortably fit one of the V12’s pistons inside - the diameter of each is just 55mm.
It was primarily designed by Gioacchino Colombo with help from Luigi Bazzi and Giuseppe Busso, the latter man being best known for his Alfa Romeo V6 which was produced right up until 2006.
The ‘Colombo 125’ features a single overhead camshaft per cylinder bank two valves per cylinder, and a trio of Webber carburettors. At 6800rpm, peak power of 118bhp arrives. That may not sound like much, but the 125 S - which derives its name from the 124.73cc displacement of each cylinder - only weighed 650kg. And hey, this was 1947.
Enzo Ferrari dubbed the competition version’s racing debut at Piacenza circuit as “a promising failure,” since the car was able to lead the race, only to retire with a fuel pump issue a few laps from finishing. Subsequent outings were much more successful, with the 125 winning six of the 13 races it entered in the months that followed the Piacenza debut.
There was a Grand Prix racing version too. Now referred to as the 125 F1 (initially called 125 GPC or Grand Prix Compressore), it used a Roots-supercharged version of the 1.5-litre Colombo which produced 228bhp. Although it struggled for power against rival cars from Maserati and Alfa Romeo, Frenchman Raymond Summer managed to steer the car to third place at the 1948 Italian Grand Prix in Valentino.
Before the race, Enzo Ferrari had apparently been making noises about quitting the sport due to its sheer cost, but the encouraging podium finish soon put those thoughts to bed. Were it not for that result, Ferrari as a company and as a competitor could have ended up substantially different to how we know it today.
At the same time, the Colombo 125 had grown to 1.9 litres via an increase in bore and stroke, powering the short-lived 159 S. The engine would go on to switch to a quad-cam layout and eventually balloon to 4.9 litres. It remained in the Ferrari stable right up until 1989 under the long bonnet of the 412, lasting long enough to ditch the carbs for Bosch fuel injection.
The automotive world had to wait a few years until the replacement came along, with Ferrari’s flat-12 (which was more of a ‘flattened’ V12 than a boxer engine owing to its opposing pistons sharing crank pins) remaining Maranello’s only 12-cylinder engine for a period.
In 1992, the 456 arrived with its all-new F116, a 65-degree, dry-sumped V12 which evolved into the F133 before being replaced by the F140. A glorious V12 dynasty, the story of which is still being told, and it all started with an engine the same size as an inline-three Ford Ecoboost engine.