It was 1945, and whispers of a new Italian racing car were being scattered throughout the racing capitals of Italy. Modena, Bologna, and Milan sat in wait for the fruition of rumours of a V12 powered single-seater from the former sporting director of the Alfa Romeo racing team, Enzo Ferrari.
This wasn’t just any V12, though. A v12 was nothing new to Italy, with several cars already being powered by the these goliath power-plants. But that’s just the thing. This V12 wasn’t a goliath. It was to be a 1.5-litre – a size more akin to engines with a third of the pistons, and because of that, critics were keen to criticise.
Formula 1 was a hotbed of 4.5-litre V12s, but Ferrari had a trick up his sleeve. His engine was to embrace the help of a supercharger, and soon, he was in his Maranello office talking to Gioachino Colombo, a former Alfa Romeo engineer. This iconic moment was to be the subject of Colombo’s book years later named “Origins of the Ferrari Legend”. It reads like this.
“Colombo,” Ferrari said, “I want to go back to making racing cars. What do you say: How would you propose to make a fifteen-hundred?”
“Listen,” Colombo replied, “Maserati has a first-class four-cylinder; the English have the six-cylinder ERA and Alfa Romeo has the eight-cylinder. In my view, you should be building a 12-cylinder!”
The deal was done, and Colombo got to work on an engine. What he came up with was not supercharged, but was still a concoction of sublime technology such as vee-inclined valves to accommodate hemispherical combustion chambers, and rocker arms with a single overhead camshaft above each line of cylinders to open said valves. Colombo writes in his book that he kept in mind the powertrains of motorcycles while building this engine, which interested him greatly.
To close the valves, he used hairpin springs instead of coils, being much simpler in design and therefore more efficient and lightweight. This single piece of technology later spread through Formula 1 like wildfire, but I digress.
The chassis for such a car was said to had been built by Rocco Motto, and was rather tame in nature with leaf springs at each corner, a live rear axle, and independent front wheels. But before the car was even given a proper body shell, Enzo could be found testing it on the road on March 12, 1947. They found that the comparably small V12 made 118hp at 6,800 rpm with a compression ratio raised from 7.5:1 to 9.5:1. This required a special fuel, which is not surprising when realise this car revved to 7,000 rpm – a very high redline for a car of its time. The engine was also mated to a 5-speed manual – also rare to find at this time.
“You had to pay very close attention to the revs with this engine,” said Cortese, the first man to race with it. “It was a somewhat different engine, one that went up to speed very quickly. This twelve was like an electric motor. It revved so easily that you always had to be on your guard. You had to drive with your head…and with your eye on the tachometer.”
On May 11, 1947, the now named 125C (125 for its size per cylinder, and C for Corsa) had its first race being the first car to brandish the Ferrari badge. Unfortunately, this race at Piacenza wasn’t to be, as a faulty fuel pump retired it from the race. But of the ten races it took part in, it won six of them, came second in one, and retired from the rest. Ferrari had already become a domineering force to be reckoned with.
But, soon after that season of racing ended, the car did too. It disappeared, with another chassis appearing cycle-fendered sports-racer design. It had the same engine and was a very successful racecar. And while this car only raced for a year or so, its engine was eventually put into Ferrari’s Formula 1 car.
And yes, Enzo got his wish – it was supercharged to 230 horsepower in 1948, and in 1949 was given a dual-stage supercharger which would propel it to 280bhp.