Development of the internal combustion engine began before the 19th century, but it was the commercial drilling and production of oil in the mid-1850s that made it so widespread. By the late 19th century, the four-cycle, two-stroke, and Atkinson-cycle were all patented, as was the first gasoline engine with a spark plug, coil ignition, and spray jet carburetor. After Ford launched the Model T in 1908, the bulk of mass-produced cars used an internal combustion engine for motivation.

Over the past century, the internal combustion engine has been updated and redesigned in many ways, spawning far too many iterations to mention here. Some were recognized as groundbreaking advances, while others went in and out of production almost unnoticed. I’m here to discuss some of the greatest engine designs ever created, as well as the brilliant engineers behind them.

Picking only a few wasn’t easy, but after much thought and consideration, I came up with the Top 5 below. I based my selection on factors such as innovation, the number of applications (or cars, if you will), success, and lifespan. It’s possible my personal affinities made me choose certain designs over other equally significant alternatives, so feel free to drop me a line in the comments box if you feel this Top 5 should’ve included other engine designers not mentioned.

Keep reading for the full story.

Harry Miller/Fred Offenhauser

The 5 Greatest Engine Designers Of All Time
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Although it’s the European engineers that take most of the credit for the world’s greatest engine designs, I’ll begin this Top 5 with a pair of U.S.-born geniuses, starting with Harry Miller. Miller built some of the most successful Indy 500 cars and engines in the 1920s, and historian Griffith Borgeson calls him the "greatest creative figure in the history of the American racing car."

Miller created his very own engine, a 3.0-liter four-cylinder with dual-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder

Born in 1875 in Wisconsin, Miller began his automotive career at the Yale Automobile Company before becoming a race mechanic for Oldsmobile. In the late 1900s, Miller opened a small shop specializing in carburetor production, but soon expanded to build other engine parts as well. His early innovations included the first aluminum pistons (aluminum alloys are still used in modern-day engines), and the first carburetors and induction systems to use Helmholtz resonators. In the early 1920s, Miller created his very own engine, a 3.0-liter four-cylinder with dual-overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder, which was used to power a Duesenberg to victory in the 1922 Indianapolis 500. Miller then switched to supercharged 1.5- and 2.0-liter units, taking 11 more wins at Indianapolis. Of course, it’s not all that surprising given the fact that between 1923 and 1928, 83 percent of the Indy 500 field consisted of Miller cars and/or Miller-powered racers.

Although Miller filed for bankruptcy in 1933, his saga continued until the late 1970s. Fred Offenhauser Jr., Miller’s shop foreman, purchased the business and continued development, eventually offering the Offenhauser racing engine, or the "Offy." Like Miller’s engines, the Offy design dominated the Indy 500. Offenhauser continued to refine his creation, making it more powerful and more reliable than its predecessors, extending the brand’s dominance for another four decades. Between 1935 and 1976, Offenhauser engines powered no less than 27 Indy 500 winners, making it the most successful mill in the race’s history. Even though "Offy" engines were used until 1982, the final win came in 1976, right before Cosworth began making a name for itself in the series. In total, the Offenhauser and Miller engines have 39 Indy 500 wins between them, more than Cosworth, Honda, Chevrolet, and Ford combined.

Giotto Bizzarrini

The 5 Greatest Engine Designers Of All Time
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One of the very few engineers to have worked for both Ferrari and Lamborghini, Bizzarrini began his career at Alfa Romeo, where he developed the Giulietta chassis and was later moved to the Experimental Department as a test driver. He joined Ferrari in 1957, also as a test driver, but was quickly promoted to chief engineer and designer. His ideas and technical solutions led to the creation of the 250 Testa Rossa and 250 GT, but it was the 250 GTO that’s considered Bizzarrini’s most successful project at Maranello.

Bizzarrini began work on the 250 GTO in 1960, using his personal 250 GT Boano as a test mule. His goal was to reduce aerodynamic drag, which plagued the 250 GT SWB, but also to move the engine farther back into the chassis to improve weight distribution and handling. The end result went on to become Ferrari’s most iconic car yet, as well as a tremendous racer, winning the FIA International Championship for GT Manufacturers in 1962, 1963, and 1964. These days, the 250 GTO is the most expensive classic car of all time, with each version fetching at least $10 million at auction (and sometimes, depending on state and history, more than $50 million).

Bizzarrini’s design was used as a base for every V-12 engine Lamborghini dropped in its supercars until 2010

But as spectacular as that may sound, Bizzarrini’s fascinating work didn’t stop there. In 1961, he was one of the five engineers to leave Ferrari over a dispute with Enzo in what is now known as the "Ferrari night of the long knives". Bizzarrini and the other ex-Ferrari engineers went on to found Automobili Turismo e Sport (ATS), building Formula One cars and a GT sports car. During this time, Bizzarrini was hired by Count Giovanni Volpi, owner of the Scuderia Serenissima racing team, to upgrade a Ferrari 250 GT SWB to GTO specification, and the Ferrari Breadvan, a unique race car featuring a shooting brake-like rear end, was born.

In 1962, Bizzarrini founded Societa Autostar, an engineering firm that brought him a contract with Ferruccio Lamborghini. Sharing a common dislike for Ferrari (Ferruccio founded Lamborghini Automobili after a dispute with Enzo over a flimsy clutch in the 250 GT), Ferruccio commissioned Bizzarinni to design an engine for his first grand tourer. Bizzarinni built a 3.5-liter V-12 that debuted in the 350 GTV in 1963. Amazingly, Bizzarrini’s design was used as a base for every V-12 engine Lamborghini dropped in its supercars until 2010, including the Miura, Espada, Countach, Diablo, and Murcielago. Displacement increased from 3.5 to 6.5 liters and output increased from 270 horsepower to 661 horsepower, but at the heart is Bizzarrini’s design.

One of Bizzarrini’s last efforts in the sports car world was the Iso Grifo, a grand tourer developed with Renzo Rivolta, Giorgetto Giugiaro, and Bertone. However, unlike previous projects, the Rivolta used Ford- and Chevrolet-sourced V-8 engines. Following a dispute with Iso, Bizzarrini began building a version of the Grifo under his own marque. The car had radically different styling and a Corvette small-block under the hood.

Vittorio Jano

The 5 Greatest Engine Designers Of All Time
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Much like Giotto Bizzarrini, Vittorio Jano’s engine designs survived for decades. But while Giotto kick-started Lamborghini, Vittorio created the Ferrari Dino engine, which was built in several forms between 1966 and 2004. Born Viktor Janos to Hungarian immigrants, Jano began his career with a small Italian company before moving to Fiat in 1911 and then to Alfa Romeo in 1923, where he replaced the famous Giuseppe Merosi as chief engineer.

During his tenure at Alfa Romeo, Jano designed the inline-eight engine that took victory in the 1925 Grand Prix car world championship, as well as the Alfa P3, a racer successfully campaigned by Scuderia Ferrari in 1933. He also developed four-, six-, and eight-cylinder engines for road cars, as well as a V-12 for the 12C that Tazio Nuvolari drove to numerous victories in Grand Prix racing. He resigned in 1937 to join Lancia, where he worked on the D50 Formula One car. When Ferrari took over Lancia’s Grand Prix effort in the mid-1950s, Vittorio moved to Maranello.

Jano completed the first engine in time for the 1957 racing season

At Ferrari, Vittorio began working on a V-6 engine for Formula Two cars with Enzo’s son, Dino. Although Dino died in 1956, Jano completed the first engine in time for the 1957 racing season. The Dino V-6 eventually replaced the older Colombo V-12 and Lampredi inline-four engines on the race track, and in 1966, also found its way into road-going vehicles like the Dino 206, Dino 246, and Fiat Dino. In 1973, the same engine was handed to Lancia for use in the successful Stratos WRC car.

While the V-6 was somewhat short lived, the Dino project also spawned a V-8 engine. First used in various race cars in the 1960s, a 2.9-liter version of the V-8 was made available in the Ferrari 308 in 1973. An updated version with four valves per cylinder was built for the 308 GTB, 308 GTS, and the Mondial. The same engine was later fitted into the special-edition Lancia Thema sedan and the Lancia LC2 race car..

Further applications of the Dino V-8 followed in the 1980s, most importantly with a turbocharged version developed for the 288 GTO. In 1987, the same Dino unit served as a base for the turbo 2.9-liter used by the bonkers Ferrari F40. Maranello continued to use the V-8 until 2004, pushing displacement to 3.4, 3.5, and 3.6 liters. These engines were used in the 348, F355, and 360 series. After that, Ferrari replaced the old Dino with the F136 co-developed with Maserati. In all, the Dino engine architecture powered road and track Ferraris for 48 years.

Mike Costin/Keith Duckworth

The 5 Greatest Engine Designers Of All Time
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Unlike other engineers on this list, Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin had less spectacular careers with carmakers. Duckworth served with the Royal Air Force for two years, training to become a pilot but eventually seeing reclassification as a navigator due to incompetent flying. He then become a light aircraft and helicopter pilot before joining Lotus as a gearbox engineer in 1955. After only three years with the British marque, Duckworth founded Cosworth with Lotus colleague Mike Costin.

Cosworth started out by developing small-displacement engines for various racing series and road cars, the most important being the 1.6-liter four-pot built for the Lotus Cortina. But in 1965, Cosworth was commissioned to build an engine that would eventually become one of the most successful powerplants in racing history.

Duckworth founded Cosworth with Mike Costin and started out by developing small-displacement engines

It was at this time that the FIA raised the maximum engine capacity in F1 from 1.5 to 3.0 liters, prompting Colin Champman to team up with Duckworth to produce a competitive 3.0-liter engine for the Lotus single-seaters. Cosworth asked for a development budget of £100,000, so Chapman went to Ford to ask for funding. The project was approved by Ford’s Detroit head office, and a deadline was set for May, 1967.

The engine wasn’t ready until the third race of the 1967 season, a month later than scheduled, but it won its maiden race in the Lotus 49 with Jim Clark behind the wheel. Lotus took three more wins by the end of the season, making it clear the Cosworth DFV engine was the most powerful and reliable in the series. The Lotus 49 car was built around the DFV engine, integrating it as a stressed member in the design, and this helped make Lotus unbeatable in 1968. Though the initial agreement between Cosworth, Ford, and Lotus gave Chapman exclusive use of the powerplant, Ford eventually decided the DFV would be available for sale via Cosworth. Ford felt that its image wouldn’t benefit from winning against lesser opposition, as Lotus’ rivals were all either underpowered, heavy, or unreliable. It was a significant blow for Chapman, but the beginning of a successful venture for Cosworth, Duckworth, and Costin.

In 1969, 18 of the 25 teams that raced in F1 used Cosworth DFV engines. What followed is described as the Golden Age of Formula One, with both factory and private teams benefiting from an engine package that was not only competitive and relatively affordable, but light and compact too. For British teams, the DFV replaced the previous Coventry Climax as the standard F1 engine.

Until 1974, every World Championship was won by a DFV-powered car

Until 1974, every World Championship was won by a DFV-powered car. Moreover, in 1969 and 1973, every F1 race was won using DFV engines. The DFV’s success in F1 continued into the ground effects and turbo era of the 1980s, with five more World Championship titles and 155 wins from 262 races.

But that’s not all. In the mid-1970s, the DFV received several modifications and saw use in other race series beyond F1. Revised into a turbocharged, 2.65-liter unit for North American racing, the DFV scored ten consecutive wins at the Indy 500 (1978 to 1987), nine back-to-back CART championships (1979 to 1987), and three consecutive USAC championships (1977 to 1979).

It also powered Mirage and Rondeau to their 24 Hours of Le Mans wins in 1975 and 1980, respectively, before winning eight Formula 3000 Championships between 1985 and 1995.

All told, the Cosworth DFV remained competitive for around 27 years, a feat not many engines can brag about. Of course, the unit was extensively modified throughout its lifetime, but much like the Dino V-8, the recipe lived on for decades.

Hans Mezger

The 5 Greatest Engine Designers Of All Time
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Though the Cosworth DFV is definitely my favorite Formula One engine (I also pray to Colin Chapman every night before I go to bed, by the way), I had to finish this list with Hans Mezger. Yup, I consider him to be the God of engine designers, and all you Porsche fanatics out there should have a poster of him on your wall. Not because of his hairdo or fancy suit, but because his brain is behind the engines of the most celebrated Porsche cars of all time, both for the road and the track.

Mezger's first project was a 804 flat-8 Formula One engine

Mezger began his career in Stuttgart in 1956 working on the valve train for the Fuhrmann-designed Carrera engine. Three years later, he received his very own project: the 804 flat-8 Formula One engine. The 804 wasn’t terribly successful, but in 1963, Mezger made a name for himself developing the flat-four of the 356 into the flat-six of the original 911. Since then, the Mezger has powered just about every 911 in existence, and although Porsche no longer uses it in its street cars, the RSR and Cup cars still employ a heavily updated version of Hans’ design.

Definitely a very big deal, but there’s more to Mezger’s story than that.

The man is also responsible for the powerplants that motivated Porsche’s most successful race cars. When the 917 came to Le Mans to kick some Ford and Ferrari butt in the late 1960s, it did so with two flat-six engines glued together in a crazy flat-12 design. What’s more, the 917 wasn’t just a Le Mans winner. The extreme 917/30 developed with Penske Racing and Mark Donohue almost killed the Can-Am series, sweeping away the competition in 1973. Powered by a twin-turbocharged, 5.4-liter flat-12 producing up to 1,580 horsepower in qualifying tune, the 917/30 was the most powerful sports car ever built and raced. The 917 was the only Can-Am champion not powered by Chevrolet, a big blow for both the manufacturer and the almighty American V-8.

But wait, there’s more. Mezger is also behind the 935 and 956/962 race cars. Between 1976 and 1984, the 935 won more than 150 races worldwide, including the 1979 24 Hours of Le Mans. On U.S. soil, the 935 won the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring six times each, causing great frustration among other carmakers and privateers running other marques.

Meanwhile, the 956/962 Group C prototype is arguably the most successful car to ever compete at Le Mans, winning six consecutive races in the 1980s. In both 1983 and 1984, the first seven cars to cross the finish line were 956s. From 1982 to 1985, every podium consisted of 956s and 962s. Need I say more?

With TAG units, McLaren took two constructor championships in 1984 and 1985 and three driver titles in 1984, 1985, and 1986

I do actually, because Mezger was also in charge of no fewer than three Formula One programs. Although two of them weren’t successful, the third was the TAG V-6 project, through which Porsche supplied water-cooled turbo engines to McLaren. With these engines, the Brits took two constructor championships in 1984 and 1985, plus three driver titles in 1984, 1985, and 1986. This V-6 gave McLaren 25 wins between 1984 and 1987, and contributed to the brand’s most successful Formula One era yet.

By far the most successful engine designer when it comes to motorsport, with successful racing campaigns spanning more than half a century, Mezger will most likely remain a unique figure in the automotive industry. Granted, we have plenty of talented engineers around these days, but with most racing series subject to strict engine regulations, there’s no way someone will be able to match these achievements or come up with comparable track monsters anytime soon.

To me, Mezger is the greatest engine designer of all time, but I’d understand if you have a different opinion. Who’s your favorite? Let me know in the comments section below.

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