The Cosworth DFV is one of those engines that’s overburdened with statistics of all kinds spanning several eras, but one stands out above the others purely for the fact that it’s likely to remain unbeaten forevermore: this unassuming engine has netted more Grand Prix victories than any other. It did so over a span of some 20 years and served in dozens of different cars – and that’s before we touch upon its success outside of F1. Here’s what made the definitive F1 engine of the 1970s such a potent force, and why it’s an easy choice for the ‘Retropower Hero treatment.’
The origins of the Cosworth DFV are intertwined with the fortunes of Lotus F1 and its charismatic leader, Colin Chapman. Never one to rest on his laurels and with one eye firmly on the competitive fortunes of his beloved race team, Chapman was seeking a new engine, one which would power Lotus race cars for the remainder of the 1960s and into the decade to follow. He eventually made contact with two of his former employees, Keith Duckworth and Mike Costin, the pair having recently formed a company of their own, a little known concern called Cosworth.
The need for a clean-sheet engine design arose through the change in engine regulations, with F1 cars doubling in size from 1.5 to 3.0 in time for the 1966 season. Billed as ‘The Return of Power’ following several seasons of small capacity engines, the move had the effect of rendering the Coventry Climaxes hitherto favoured by Lotus uncompetitive.
Something had to be done, and Chapman understood that Duckworth, his reputation burnished by a slew of successful engine designs for lower formulae, was the man to do it. A budget of £100,000 was sought from Ford (and made possible by the ever forward looking Walter Hayes), enough for the Cosworth duo to design and build 5 engines. The DFV was underway.
There was nothing especially radical about the engine Duckwoth and Costin came up with, but it was beautifully engineered and stunningly realised. DFV stood for ‘Double Four Valve,’ and the engine was of a 90 degree V8 configuration with a bore & stroke of 85.67 x 64.897 mm, and an initial power output of just 400bhp. Later variants would make at least 120bhp more than that. It was both powerful and lightweight, traits which would go on to make it one of the greatest F1 motors of all, but perhaps more important was its sheer versatility.
This is neither the time nor the place to discuss the complete achievements of the DFV and its offspring outside of F1 in detail, but it would live long and see service in everything from Indycars to Sportscars, powerboats to hill-climb specials. Not bad for an engine cooked up in months and to the tightest of budgets.
All of this future success must’ve seemed like something of a pipedream during the DVF’s development, however. The demands placed upon the Cosworth pairing were nothing if not daunting, and things were only made more stressful through the need to have said engine up, running and ready to win within a year or so. Indeed, Ford had made plans to unveil the new engine at a specially hosted convention in Detroit at the very end of 1965!
This deadline was achieved, just, though the engine wasn’t ready to race until the middle of the 1967 season, whereupon it was debuted in the Lotus 49, fittingly one of the most significant race cars of all time. This marked the first time that an engine had been mounted as a stressed, structural member within an F1 car, and the results at that maiden race at the Dutch Grand Prix were dramatic: Graham Hill qualified on pole and led away from the line, but it was the car of Jim Clark that came through to take the win in emphatic fashion.
A debut win for a debut engine in a brand new, almost totally untested car (Clark had seen it for the first time when it was rolled off the Lotus truck at Zandvoort) was impressive, but Hill’s retirement was to prove instrumental in the career of the DFV and the success of its designers. It was found that a cog enmeshed within the cam drive system had failed thanks to the amount of load being placed upon it (supposedly more than the mean load coming from the flywheel), as well as excessive torsional vibration and resonance within the timing train itself.
The solution was as ingenious as it was impactful, so much so that the component in question still resides in Cosworth’s reception in Northamptonshire to this day – the Quill Hub Damper. With space and weight both at a premium within the rump of the featherweight Lotus, Duckworth devised a complex set of 12 torsional drive quills machined from one-piece steel, half driving one way, half the other. These provided the only source of rotational movement between central hub of the main gear assembly and the outer ring gear (approximately 1.2 degrees), and as such were able to smooth torsional vibration and prolong engine life.
The Quill Hub was nothing short of a revelation, nullifying the DFV’s one true achilles heel and flinging open the door hitherto unimaginable motorsport success for Cosworth, Lotus and Ford. Clark was pipped to the 1967 title by Denny Hulme, the Kiwi’s Repco V8 gifting him the crown through sheer consistency, but there was no way of disguising that the DFV was now the F1 engine to have. Chapman’s fellow team owners began beating a path to Cosworth’s Northamptonshire base in earnest, chequebooks in hand.
That could well have been the end of the story, and it probably would’ve been had Colin Chapman had his way. The Lotus boss was understandably keen to protect his competitive advantage and therefore tried his utmost to make the new engine a Hethel only affair, a scenario only avoided when Hayes and Duckworth put their collective foot down. The former could see that restricting the DFV to Lotus and Lotus alone would lead to stupefying levels of Lotus domination, and that it would therefore be of benefit to all parties if the engine was made available up and down the grid.
This decision resulted in one of F1’s truly golden eras, one marked by the ease with which British ‘Garagista’ teams could setup shop, buy a DFV and Hewland gearbox, then go racing. Not only could they race and race competitively, they could do so on something resembling a real-world budget, a scenario that would be simply impossible in this day and age.
DFV powered F1 cars took 9 different drivers to 12 drivers’ titles between 1968 and 1982, and the engine powered 10 title winning F1 cars over the same period. The DFV (or a derivative e thereof) claimed a staggering 176 individual grand prix wins over the course of its career, a stat that’s likely to remain unbeaten for as long as petrol-propelled motor racing is a ‘thing.’
The DFV demonstrated an almost cockroach like resistance to being rendered uncompetitive and remained a front-line engine choice for the duration of the 1970s, only being side-lined with the rise of the turbocharged F1 car in the early ‘80s. Even when comprehensively out-gunned by the forced induction crowd, its ‘80s derivative, the DFY, proved good enough to power Michele Alboreto to a final (admittedly somewhat fortuitous) win in the Detroit GP of 1983.
That really should have been it for this pensionable engine, but it wasn’t – not quite. The DFY morphed into the DFZ for the mid 1980s, and then its third and final F1 iteration, the DFR. The banning of forced induction for 1988 left the sport in a state of flux and presented teams like Benneton with something of an opportunity, one they seized with gusto. The DFY also birthed (in a roundabout manner) the HB, and while nothing was carried over to the new, pneumatically valved engine it was a direct relation and also a winner, providing a certain Michael Schumacher with his first title.
Then there was its versatility: like the Spitfire before it and the Porsche 956 after, the DFV proved to be almost limitless in its ability to take further modification for competition of all kinds. There was the DFL (a long stroke variant which won a brace of Le Mans victories), the turbocharged DFX (10 Indy 500 wins), and a dizzying array of other derivatives designed for anything from bike racing to Ford’s series of mighty Supervans.
Superlatives are par for the course when talking about F1 level engineering, but in the case of the DFV it’s more than justified. Costin and Duckworth’s unassuming little V8, an engine developed to the most modest of budgets and to an immensely tight timetable, revolutionised, then dominated motor racing from the top down.
The best way of underscoring the impact the DFV had on motorsport in the 20th century is to look to the regard in which it is held by the firm it effectively built, Cosworth. Duckworth retired in 1988, and to commemorate the occasion and mark all he’d achieved over his career, Cosworth awarded him with a plinth mounted Quill Hub inscribed with the following sentence:
“with these quills, you wrote a new book in the history of motor racing.”