The citizens of the earth have adored fast cars ever since the automobile was invented. I suspect that an important part of this universal passion is the sound of the engines, where men across the globe have gathered in garages and shared some serious male-bonding moments as the heart of a cool car has come to life.
Undeniably many cars produce an engine note that is pure music to our ears. The hard part is to choose the prettiest one! But a few actually pop up in my head spontaneously, and I’m delighted every time these multi-cylinder symphonies echo somewhere in the back of my mind.
Many probably think of Ferrari and the brand can hardly be left out in an engine note discussion. But I’m not thinking about the modern day, insanely revving Ferrari V8s that drone like angry bees, or the contemporary V12s that only purr softly at idle. No, I’m thinking of the exceptionally vocal soundtrack of the Ferraris of the old days. I actually advocate all twelve-cylinder Ferrari models during the “Colombo-engine” era that prevailed for forty years, from the birth of the marque in the 1940s and on.
Ferrari’s first engine, a 1.5 litre V12 with single overhead camshafts, was designed in 1947 by a Gioacchino Colombo, previously engineer and designer at Alfa Romeo. The Colombo engine instantly became a crucial part of the Ferrari myth, which was entirely a result of the many victories in prestigious races across Europe in the following years.
The successful Colombo engine design was used in front-engined Ferraris until the unloved GT car 412 at last threw in the towel in 1990. The soundtrack of every Ferrari that ever held this iconic machine was nothing but divine. It’s irascible, “tinny” and high-frequent. At the same time it’s deep and as full-bodied as a cream cake. Finally it contains a musicality I believe no other car engine has ever matched, perhaps with some competition from contemporary Lamborghinis!
In the movie Rainman from 1988, Tom Cruise drives around in a Ferrari 400i, an earlier variant of the above mentioned, four-seated GT whose customers Enzo Ferrari actually called losers (!). The hollow, racing-derived snarl immediately caught my child’s ears and this veritable symphony still echoes inside my head.
Aston Martin V8
Another favourite engine soundtrack originates from Aston Martin’s hand-built GT cars when they were equipped with the equally handmade aluminium V8 that stayed in production for more than 30 years, 1969-2000. The machine, a high-revving creation with double overhead camshafts, was designed by Polish engineer Tadek Marek and premiered in the DBS, a new, avant-garde GT car replacing the ageing DB6 in 1967. If the citizens of the western world had missed the DBS, they were likely reminded of it if they ever watched the cult series The Persuaders in which Roger Moore carelessly thrusts a golden DBS V8 on the curvy roads surrounding Monte Carlo.
Above from the left: James Bond starred by Timothy Dalton driving his company car, an Aston Martin V8 Volante with manual gearbox. To the right a V8 Saloon that Aston called their coupés at the time, in the late eighties.
The lovely notes that discharge from the exhaust pipes of an Aston V8 didn’t however catch my attention until I (as a small boy) happened to watch the 1987 Bond flick The Living Daylights. In one scene, James Bond (this time portrayed by Timothy Dalton) casually turns up in a dark green Aston Martin V8 Volante at a castle occupied by the British Secret Service. Following the compulsory ID check he throws in first gear of the harsh ZF ‘box and revs the potent V8 enough to give a high-pitched, deep and wonderful musical growl that tickled far down my spine.
But the party doesn’t stop there. On to the Volante is welded a roof under strict supervision of the perpetual technical wizard “Q”. The awfully expensive convertible is thus transformed into a “standard” V8 Saloon that later is chased by Czechoslovakian police driving Vaz 2101. It’s a true pleasure to watch the discrete but powerful aluminium suit slide through the snow, of course accompanied by the rasping, trimmed thunder from under the bonnet.
Number three on my list must go to Maserati’s V8-powered cars, models that saw the light of day in 1990 with the ultra-fast sports car Shamal. The engine was a pure Maserati design of 3.2 litres helped by four overhead camshafts and twin turbo chargers. It was replaced in 2002 by a Ferrari-developed, naturally aspirated 4.2 (and later 4.7) litre machine.
Above from the left: The stunning sports saloon Maserati Quattroporte in its previous generation. To the right the beautiful V8 engine, here in its firtst and turbo-charged, 3.2 litre version. The QP to the left, however, embraces a later, Ferrari-developed 4.2 litre unit without turbo-charging, but still more power! Today, some models have gained brand new Bi-turbo engines, also developed by Ferrari.
These pure pieces of art sit in cars that directly compete with the German sports and luxury car offerings, but the Germans don’t come near the tunes produced by the Italian machines. My best Maserati memory comes from Hong Kong where I happened to spend a few months a few years ago.
It all went down during my daily power walk up the famous Victoria Peak Mountain on Hong Kong Island. And it wasn’t the exercise that had the major positive impact on my health, but the drama and sound offered by the noblest breeds that rolled up the hill with a soothing continuity. The Maseratis were the ones sounding the absolute best, undeniably sweeter than the somewhat too civilized modern Ferrari V12s that thankfully also frequented these roads. Up the steep road struggled shapely Quattroportes and stunning GranTurismos, the whole scene surrounded by the trimmed music that revealed every single full-bred gene.