The Lamborghini V-12: A Japanese Connection?

By Pete Lyons, The Complete Book of Lamborghini


Keeping track of history is a slippery business at times, and even something as familiar as the origins of Lamborghini's first engine can become a little oily. Take, for example, an assertion by the inimitable L.J.K. Setright that the genius behind the beautiful V-12 was not Giotto Bizzarrini but Honda.

Writing in the Spring 1986 issue of Britain's Supercar Classics, Setright declared: "The accepted legend is that the original engine was designed for Lamborghini by Bizzarrini, based on a design study of his for a 1.5 -litre Grand Prix engine which (properly, from what I remember of it) came to nothing, and that this ... was subsequently modified or mollified by Dallara. Now I will admit to a good deal of respect for the work of young Dallara, but honestly I cannot see anything in the work of either of these engineers, either before or since, of comparable quality. I am therefore all the more inclined to believe what I was privately told quite authoritatively in 19 75 - that the design was secretly commissioned by Lamborghini from Honda."

Alas, Setright does not name his source, and offers nothing further to substantiate the claim. However, he goes on to note that Honda "executed the commission very swiftly, as it was especially capable of doing; it met Lamborghini's original specifications perfectly, getting the design right the first time without need for prolonged development, which again is consistent with its unparalleled competence; and Honda’s corporate and individual sense of honor would prevent it from admitting it, since the normal cloak of commercial anonymity would have been cast over the transaction. Nevertheless, there was no other engine, and especially no other V-12, of equal merit created in the decade before the debut of the first Lamborghini, nor any superior in the years immediately following other than by Honda. What more appropriate than that one of the world's best engines should be designed by the world's best engine maker?"

Setright isn't the only journalist/historian to suggest this possibility, but no one has so far mustered any really compelling evidence. Granted, Ferruccio Lamborghini had established friendly contacts with fellow industrialists of Soichiro Honda’s caliber, and unashamedly "borrowed" their latest manufacturing techniques. We know, too, that by 1963, Honda’s engineering expertise had laid waste to Europe's motorcycle-racing establishment, a forecast of things to come in the street-bike arena.

It's also true that Honda entered Formula 1 auto racing in 1964-a year after the Lamborghini engine appeared - with its own V-12: an advanced, very powerful 1.5-liter unit of similar design and transversely mounted (as Lamborghini would do two years on its roadgoing Miura). But, this car/engine package did not have anything like the success of Honda’s motorcycle program, scoring only one victory before the 1500-cc formula closed at the end of the 1965 season, and it wasn’t until the mid-eighties that Honda would become a dominant force in Fl.

More to the point, why would a proud Italian industrialist like Ferruccio Lamborghini, bent on bettering Ferrari, seek design assistance from a very foreign company with no background whatsoever in high performance cars? And why would this same industrialist, who so often demonstrated a willingness to give his engineers free reign and to give them credit for what they did have any need for outside help when his own staff was already brimming with talent? Finally, we are left to wonder how such a sensational piece of history has remained so obscure all these years.

Bob Wallace, who was there and ought to know, says this would-be revelation is "nonsense." In a November 1986 interview with Automobile magazine's Ken Gross, he observed that the Lamborghini design was merely "typical of Ferrari racing engines of that era. To think anything else about that engine's origin is crap. Probably that's something someone did to sell a magazine." Could be, Bob, could be.

Ingeniere Bizzarrini himself had this to say in Ken Browning's marque history, published by Automobile Quarterly: "I presented to Cav. Lamborghini the drawing of a 1.5-liter motor with 12 cylinders I had designed for Formula 1, but he gave me the assignment to design a 3.5-liter motor." That's a pretty clear statement, and it would indeed be brash of us to call the man a liar. Cementing his claim to design "ownership" are Bizzanini's assertions that the dyno test engine developed 358 bhp at 9800 rpm, that he calculated bigger carburetors would have produced upwards of 400 at 11,000 rpm, and that he had to stop this line of development when Ferruccio made it clear that the goal was a street engine, not a racer.

Sorry but the idea of a Japanese pencil drafting this Italian supermotor sounds to us like the outcome of a lazy afternoon with a bottle of Lambrusco. In lieu of convincing evidence otherwise, we'll continue to believe in the "purity" of the Bizzarrini/Dallara V-12.

Meanwhile, here's one they can ponder: A friend of ours highly knowledgeable about affairs Lamborghini is absolutely convinced that Setright's got it backwards - that it was actually Giulio Alfieri who secretly designed the transverse-engine F1 Honda. Now that makes sense.