The Mastermind Behind the Ferrari V12: Gioachino Colombo

July 11, 2022

On a trip to Milan some time ago, I visited my happy place, Libreria dell’Automobile, a bookshop for car enthusiasts on Corso Venezia. While there, Origins of the Ferrari Legend caught my eye, so I grabbed it without paying close attention. When I read it a few months later, the autobiography of the great Gioachino Colombo provided a firsthand view of the beginnings of Ferrari.

Colombo is far from a household name, but his work is known the world over. He is the man behind one of the greatest engines of all time, the Ferrari V-12. And it’s fair to say that without Colombo, Ferrari (the automaker) may not have ever gotten off the ground. He only spent two short years with Ferrari, but across his career he was responsible for more than 110 engine designs that powered not only Ferraris, but the Alfa Romeo 158, Maserati 250F, and Bugatti Type 251.

It All Started at Alfa 

Colombo was born in 1903 in Legnano, a suburb northwest of Milan. The precocious young man was completely self-taught, and by age 14 was already working as a draftsman in a hometown shop that designed diesel engines and steam turbines.

In 1924, Colombo went to work at Alfa Romeo under the great Vittorio Jano. He was responsible for helping birth the engines powering the dominant Alfas of the day, including the inline 8-cylinder in the P2, 6-cylinder 1750s, and all of the great 8-cylinder engines of the marque in the 30s. 

In May of 1937, Enzo Ferrari, who as head of Alfa Romeo’s racing team was well acquainted with Colombo, approached the designer to help him with a new project. He wanted to build a vetturetta (or voiturette) race car for an emerging category of smaller, less powerful race cars. Alfa Romeo commissioned Ferrari to build the car for Alfa Romeo at his shop in Modena, so Colombo headed there during the car's development.

Colombo’s first proposal was for a mid-engine car, which Auto Union had just used to great effect in Grand Prix racing. Enzo Ferrari shot that down with his famous quote, “It’s always been the ox that pulls the cart!” 

In the end, Colombo designed a 1.5L 8-cylinder engine that debuted in 1938. Soon, war consumed the continent. When racing restarted afterward, Formula One started and reverted the “formula” to rules of the category of the vetturetta! The Alfa Romeo 158, better known as the Alfetta, or “little Alfa,” won the first and second World Championships, with Farina winning in 1950 and Fangio in 1951.

Colombo's hand-drawn design for the Ferrari 125.

The Birth of the Ferrari V12

After the war, Enzo Ferrari set out to build his own company, and he called Colombo to visit Modena in July 1945. In his autobiography, Colombo recalls the challenge of getting from Milan to Modena immediately after the war. Since all of the bridges across the Po were destroyed, one had to drive onto precarious little barges which could carry only one or two vehicles at a time.

Upon his arrival, he met with Enzo Ferrari who said, “I want to go back to making race cars!” When asked by Ferrari how he would approach making a 1500cc engine, Colombo did not hesitate. “Maserati has a first-class eight-cylinder machine; the English have the ERA six-cylinder job, and Alfa have their own 8C. In my view, you should be making a twelve cylinder!” Ferrari’s grin confirmed that he too shared that idea. Ferrari had dreamt of a V12 since seeing a Packard after WWI which was his inspiration.  

Colombo had been ruminating on the V12’s design from the moment he left Enzo’s office. In August 1945, he had an inspiration while on holiday and sketched, while sitting under a tree, the cylinder head with two valves controlled by a single camshaft. He positioned the sparkplugs next to the carburetors which made for a simple design -- and made accessing the plugs a cinch! 

The 125 V12 engine was born, named for the displacement of 125cc of each individual cylinder, twelve of which totaled 1.5L. Colombo worked feverishly at a drafting table in his Milan apartment. Inspired by motorcycle racing, he designed a cylinder with a 55mm diameter and 52.5mm stroke, which was a novel idea for cars of the time. 

There would be two banks of six cylinders in an aluminum engine block at a 60-degree “V.” The design was water-cooled and delivered fuel via three carburetors. Colombo’s engine used a bearing from England’s Vandervell Products, owned by Tony Vandervell (another story for another time).

Colombo also designed the chassis, prepared by GILCO, as well as the rear suspension. The car was built under the auspices of “Auto-Avio Costruzioni, Modena,” the precursor to the company that would eventually become Ferrari. 

The first homegrown Ferrari engine made its debut in 1947 in Piacenza, but it was essentially a shakedown that was not successful. Ferrari himself labeled it a "promising failure." It got sorted out quickly and won nine days later in Rome, scoring the first victory for Ferrari! It was the beginning of great things, with five more victories that season, including the Turin Grand Prix in October 1947.

During this time, Colombo was moonlighting while still working for Alfa Romeo so he could keep a salary. He dabbled with a small company called Alca in June 1947 to help develop a little car called the Volpe. In late October 1947, Gioachino and Enzo met for dinner and sealed the deal for him to formally join Ferrari on January 1, 1948.

Colombo (center) with two Ferrari mechanics in 1949 at Monza.

The Colombo V12’s Long History

The “Colombo V12” as it was known, carried his name as the lead designer, and is one of the most influential and important engines in history. It should be noted that Giuseppe Busso and Luigi Bazzi played supporting roles, and would go on to their own success, The same basic design was used in Ferrari production cars from 1947 all the way to 1988 -- a span of more than 40 years! 

Unfortunately, the strong personalities involved -- mainly Enzo Ferrari’s, it must be said -- led to the dissolution of the partnership. Towards the end, Ferrari was openly talking about Aurelio Lampredi taking over the next V12 design. 

Alfa Romeo approached Colombo to return to his roots and was successful. In January 1950, he departed Ferrari to fully developed the Alfetta. The vehicle was the dominant machine in 1950 and 1951, and effectively delayed Ferrari’s ascendancy. 

The breakup wasn’t too rancorous, and Colombo and Ferrari maintained a genial relationship. Much later on, Ferrari personally proofed and fact-checked Colombo’s autobiography prior to its publication in 1985. 

The Colombo V12's longevity was due to its “oversquare” design. It delivered power smoothly and could rev higher than other designs. A balanced crankshaft, and ample space for larger valves helped the engine breathe. It was adapted to larger capacities, with double-overhead camshafts, superchargers, dual spark plugs, fuel injection, and so on. 

Colombo’s V12 went through a few key generations, with the 58.5mm stroke engine running from 1953 into the 1960s. This variant powered the 250 and 275 engines, including the Testa Rossas, 250 GT SWB,  275 GTBs, and the mighty 250 GTOs for 1962-64.

In the 60s and 70s, the engine was expanded to 4.0L with the 330 engine, and then 4.4L for the even larger 365. Some Ferrari models of this era included the 400 Superamerica, 365 California, 365 GTC, 365 GTB/4 Daytona. The final iteration was the 4.8L 400 and 412 engines that ran from 1976 to 1988. 

In Formula One, the Colombo engine was superseded by the Lampredi V12. The Lampredi engine was produced from 1950 to 1959 and was used predominantly in race cars, but did make its way into some road cars too, including the 275S (1950), 340 America, and Mexico (1950-53), and 375 America. 

Colombo left his mark on many companies, starting with Alfa Romeo in the 20s and 30s. After Ferrari, he returned to Alfa as previously mentioned. He then designed the world-beating Maserati 250F, followed by the Bugatti Type 251, that marque’s last Grand Prix car. He wound up his career at MV Agusta from 1957 until his retirement in 1970 at age 67. He died in Milan in 1988.

Colombo’s successes speak for themselves, having had the occasion to make lasting impressions at each of the companies he served. However, his crowning achievement would undoubtedly be his Ferrari V12 which set the V12 as the standard for high-performance cars from the 50s on and gave us all the pleasure of hearing the throaty and smooth bark of a vintage Ferrari -- one of life’s greatest pleasures!

Dedication by Enzo Ferrari in 'Origins of the Ferrari Legend':
Gioachino Colombo takes me back to the times when we had to sell our victorious cars in order to pay our workforce. He remains in my mind and in my gratitude, the man who interpreted my boyhood dreams with commitment and skill, giving shape and voice to a new engineering design that gave birth to Ferrari.
Colombo visiting the Alfetta at the Alfa Romeo Museum in 1978.

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