Cosworth — The Upstart That Dominated F1

August 15, 2022

The name Cosworth is familiar to most car people of a certain age -- an age that includes me. I must admit, the association with Ford made me believe that it was some special project division created by the powers that be at the Blue Oval. However, Cosworth is a true underdog story that started as a scrappy, upstart engine-building shop.

The firm grew to produce the indisputably greatest engine in Formula One history, and perhaps the best engine anywhere, full stop. The Cosworth DFV transformed Formula 1, by building a crate engine that topped all others, including Ferrari. During its reign, the Cosworth DFV powered customer cars to 155 F1 World Championship wins, making it the third most successful engine manufacturer overall.

The name itself is an amalgamation of two founders’ last names: Brian Costin and Keith Duckworth (pictured above, Duckworth on left, Costin on right). They went with “Cosworth," and I'm guessing "Duckstin” wasn't considered for long!

They only built 375 DFV engines. They could be purchased for around £28,000 each, the modern equivalent of just over $100,000. This model revolutionized F1. It helped Lotus and Tyrell, as well as their top drivers Jim Clark, Jackie Stewart, and Mario Andretti, become legends of the sport. Yet, these two have minuscule Wikipedia entries in spite of being two of the most influential engine builders in history.

Blooming at Lotus

The story of Cosworth began at Lotus. After spending a few years building his own race cars, Colin Chapman founded the company in 1952 in North London. When the company was first getting off the ground, it built race cars for privateers, as well as kit sports cars, which were a way to skirt a costly sales tax. Chapman was a visionary whose experience as an aeronautical engineer revolutionized race car design.

In 1953, Mike Costin joined Lotus at age 24, working part-time building gearboxes, but his responsibilities quickly grew. A few years later in 1955, Duckworth joined Lotus as a gearbox engineer. His first assignment was to fix an innovative but unreliable sequential transaxle. His solution was too costly for Chapman’s tastes, so the two had a falling out. 

In 1958, Costin and Duckworth formed Cosworth Engineering and Duckworth went to work full-time there. Costin was bound by a long-term contract at Lotus so he wasn’t able to officially move to his own company until 1962. For the first four years, Cosworth was his side hustle.

In spite of this, Cosworth had a strong relationship with Lotus and Chapman, and Lotus was their largest client. Duckworth and Costin’s first engine was the Mk II, a 1L 4-cylinder engine that used a Ford Anglia block with cylinder heads of their own design. This progressed through the SCA which became the dominant engine in Formula 2 in 1964 and 1965.

They used this general formula, hotting up engines using a basic production block, when supplying engines to Lotus through the mid-60s. All along, they were learning numerous tricks to squeeze more and more bhp and reliability, by optimizing gear drives, cylinder heads, cams, camshafts, and rods. 

A disassembled Cosworth DFV.

The Birth of the DFV

Everything changed in 1965 when the FIA announced that a new formula utilizing 3.0L engines was to be introduced in 1966. F1 had limited the engine capacity to 1.5L while sports cars were using large-capacity engines which started to overshadow Formula One.

Lotus had been using Coventry Climax engines in its Formula One machines, but Coventry Climax was planning to bow out of F1. Chapman approached Costin and Duckworth and queried them as to whether or not they could build an F2 engine in 1966, followed by a lightweight 3.0L F1 engine that could produce 400 bhp in 1967. They agreed to do it, but asked Chapman for £100,000 upfront.

Chapman approached Ford U.K., which had been supporting Lotus, to get them to fund it. They agreed with the stipulation that the engine would be badged as a Ford. The deal was done. 

The F2 engine was the FVA, a four-valve per cylinder, 1.6L engine designed for a new spec for the series. This little engine pumped out 225 bhp at 9,000 rpm and was the powerplant to beat from its introduction in 1967 through 1971.

The DFV (“double four valve”) essentially took two FVA engines and laid them in a 90-degree “V” but it wasn’t that simple. The FVA was built on an existing block, so Duckworth -- for the first time in his career -- did a full “clean sheet” design. 

The result was a masterpiece, but it was not yet known at that point. The 32-valve engine used a flat-plane crank and had an 11.1:1 compression ratio, gear-driven camshafts, and Lucas fuel injection. Importantly, Duckworth designed the engine to 1) be a stressed member of the chassis to which the transaxle would be mated, and 2) be a “plug and play” unit that a customer could buy and bolt to a chassis and be ready to go. 

The first DFV produced 405 bhp at 9,000 rpm. The engine that was the soundtrack of the 70s was born.

Jim Clark in a Lotus 49 winning the '67 Dutch GP on the DFV's debut.

Off and Running

The “Ford-Cosworth” DFV, as it became known in spite of the fact that Ford did little more than pay the bills, wasted no time in showing its prowess. The first car fitted with it was the Lotus 49, which appeared in the fourth race of 1967 at Zandvoort. Graham Hill put the Lotus 49 on pole position, but ended up as a DNF. However, the young Scot Jimmy Clark took the victory. The DFV had a 100 percent record! Clark took three more victories that year but missed out on the championship.  

In 1968, the world had tipped in Cosworth’s direction. The engine was now available to anyone who wanted to purchase one, so the DFV not only powered Team Lotus, but McLaren and Matra too. In total, the Cosworth V8 won 11 out of 12 rounds of the World Championship that year, with England’s Graham Hill winning his second title. Jimmy Clark, Jackie Stewart, Jo Siffert, Bruce McLaren, and Denny Hulme also stood atop the podium. 

To say the DFV was dominant would be an understatement. From the late 60s to early 80s, it won 65 percent of the World Championship races and took 12 Driver’s World Championships in 15 years, with 10 Constructor’s Championships in the same period. The engine was used by the majority of teams, including Brabham, Ligier Lotus, March, Matra, McLaren, Shadow, Tyrell, Williams, and Wolf. The innovative approach of Cosworth to let anyone use it paid off.

Cosworth DFX took Danny Sullivan to victory in 1985 Indy 500.

Long Live the DFV

The end of the DFV’s dominance was the beginning of the F1 Turbo Era in 1983. It soldiered on but finally ran its last F1 race in 1985. However, the DFV and its variants had great success outside of Formula One.

It nabbed two Le Mans 24 Hours victories in 1975 and 1980. The DFX, a turbocharged variant for IndyCars, took 10 consecutive victories at the Indy 500 between 1978 and 1987, and nine CART titles between 1979 and 1987. There is no engine that even comes close to this level of sustained dominance across multiple race series.

Cosworth continued to develop F1 power units and picked up the occasional victory, including winning another Driver’s World Championship with Michael Schumacher in a Benetton in 1994. They also continued to be active in other series, including IndyCar, sports cars, and even road cars with special engines manufactured for special edition Fords like the Sierra Cosworth.

The company lives on, but long gone is the fantastic stretch where they dominated open-wheel racing for 15 years. Keith Duckworth died in 2005, but Mike Costin is 93 years old. It’s a bit unfortunate that their names are little known, subjugated to the Ford brand, when they built an engine that dominated in a way we will likely never see again.


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