Aston Martin has long been associated with V12 engine power, but it wasn’t always so (and within the next decade that relationship will change again with electrification, but that’s for a future story). According to Aston Martin historian Steve Waddingham, the company’s earliest connection to V12 technology can be traced back to the mid-1950s when then owner David Brown — who purchased the Lagonda side of the business in 1947 — wanted to develop a super saloon with enough power to take on Rolls-Royce and Bentley. Called Project 115, “the idea was to race the engine first so when the production saloon car was launched the company could claim it had a race-derived engine,” Waddingham explains. “In order to do that, Brown had one car built and took it to Silverstone and Le Mans in 1954.” The resulting 300bhp 4.5-litre V12, designed by Willie Watson, was capable of 148mph and fitted into a lengthened Aston Martin DB3S chassis and body, but with a new front end, as it was intended to run under the Lagonda name. “The engine showed a lot of promise,” Waddingham continues. “But Aston couldn’t develop it sufficiently as it had too many other projects to develop at the same time, and the project was killed off.”

Charting the evolution of the world-renowned V12 engine

The Aston Martin V12 Vantage represents the last of the 5.2-litre V12 lineage

Fast forward 40 years to the early 1990s and Aston Martin was a one-model marque — the Virage — with an ageing engine design for the 5.3-litre V8 that was originally introduced in 1969 in the DBS Vantage. The DB7 was unveiled in 1994 after Ford took 100% control of Aston Martin and launched with a supercharged 3.2-litre straight-six engine. A newer, cleaner engine was required to meet tighter emissions regulations and more power was needed to properly take on its rivals. 

The V12 lent itself to the front-engined sportscar with rear-wheel drive and transmission at the back, giving it perfect balance. The DB9 set the blueprint for all future Aston Martins

“Recently evidence has come to light that there was a small group of engineers in Detroit [Ford’s North American HQ] designing an engine with Aston Martin in mind," says Waddingham. "Although the V12 engine was first seen in the 1996 Ford Indigo concept, it was earmarked for a new Lagonda saloon.” It was previewed by the 1993 Vignale concept but never put into production. 

Charting the evolution of the world-renowned V12 engine

In the DB9’s first iteration, the hand-assembled V12 engine was uprated to 450bhp

That V12 was shown to the public in Aston Martin guise as the 1998 Project Vantage concept — whose body shape led to the later Vanquish model — and then in 1999 it was launched to the world in production form as the core of the DB7 Vantage. The naturally aspirated 5.9-litre V12 started life with 420bhp, 400lb ft of torque, 0-60mph in 5.0 seconds and a 184mph top speed.  

The 2001 Vanquish and DB7-replacing 2003 DB9 soon followed as the company moved to a new premises in Gaydon, with modern vehicle architecture, production techniques and aluminium bodywork combining to reduce weight and better accommodate the V12 engine, uprated to 450bhp in the DB9’s first iteration. The V12s were hand-assembled at the marque’s dedicated engine factory in Cologne, Germany, before being shipped to Gaydon to be installed in the DB9. 

Charting the evolution of the world-renowned V12 engine

The marque’s V12 engines are hand-assembled at the purpose-built Aston Martin Engine Plant in Cologne

Numerous tweaks to the engine architecture for other Aston Martins in the early 21st century would finally see the naturally aspirated V12 reach 820bhp in 7.0-litre guise in the 2015 Vulcan track-only hypercar. “I remember somebody telling me that the design of the engine was rated to 800bhp, which was unthinkable back in the late-1990s,” says Waddingham. “But the Vulcan did finally get to that magical figure. It’s a very under-stressed engine, and that makes it a true Aston Martin engine. They’ve always been capable of running for long hours from an endurance point of view, whether on road or track. The heart of every Aston Martin has to have a very strong, powerful and torquey engine.”

Charting the evolution of the world-renowned V12 engine

The Aston Martin Rapide AMR, launched in 2017, features a 595bhp version of the marque’s celebrated 6.0-litre naturally aspirated V12 engine

The all-new twin-turbocharged 5.2-litre V12 added to this fine tradition, starting in the DB9’s successor, the 2016 DB11, with 600bhp and 516lb ft of torque. Lighter, more efficient and with intelligent cylinder deactivation and stop-start technology in the DB11, the 5.2-litre V12 continues to the present day, developing 715bhp in the flagship Aston Martin DBS. There is one more special V12 to mention, created for the long-sold-out, multi-million-pound Valkyrie. The naturally aspirated Cosworth 6.5-litre hybrid at the hypercar’s core was developed just for that model and is capable of an incredible 1139bhp. 

Charting the evolution of the world-renowned V12 engine

The Aston Martin V12 Vantage is the last of the 5.2-litre V12 lineage, and is set to be quite a finale before the firm moves to electrify its line-up. “The thought of combining that engine with the current Vantage body is very exciting,” Waddingham says. “It’s a fitting end of the line for that type of engine.” We can’t help but agree.

This story is an extract from an article featured in the AM50 issue of Aston Martin magazine, out now. If you're not already a subscriber, visit magazine.astonmartin.com/magazine-subscription so that you can read the full story. 

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