16 Feb 2013

The Porsche Flat 6 – The Greatest Engine In The World

Following our recent Greatest Engines article James Parker writes about the engine that powered Porsche to 14 victories at Le Mans.

In the history of the combustion engine, there have been an uncountable amount of different varieties that have come and gone in various forms – each with their own unique abilities. This is because an engine can perform a fantastic amount of tasks dependent on what it has been built to do. V8s, V10s, V12s, turbocharged units, V6s, they all possess unique characteristics which give advantages with certain requirements or situations and then, of course, disadvantages in others.

Due to this reason alone there are no specific parameters or regulations to adjudicate which engine is greater than the other, and therefore, much like the “my car is better than yours” argument down the pub, the reasoning comes from a sole judgement call from each individual person.  This inevitably means there will be some disagreement between petrolheads.

But I have made my bed, I am now going to lie in it, and over the next few minutes I am going to do my best in persuading you that my choice is possibly the greatest in the world – bar none. So how have I come to my conclusion then? For an engine to be judged as perhaps the greatest in the world, for me personally, it has to have changed the world somewhat, revolutionised the way we think about cars, having a pedigree and history that exists through decades, and has brought unrivalled success both on and off the racetrack. I can imagine a few of you readers might have guessed already what exactly my choice would be, and it probably might not come as a surprise, but for me there lies no better engine in the world than the Porsche Flat 6.

Being a petrolhead almost all of my life, I have encountered a fair share of engines.  Obviously taking a huge interest in the history of Motorsport and performance cars before my time, it has only made the decision even harder, but to me there is something just truly special about the little flat 6 motor – but what is it? Well it was only last year that the “latest and greatest” 911 was released, the magnificent GT3RS 4.0; a kind of send-off for the magnificent 996/997 generation which has now been preceded with the 991 series. It was the culmination of 47 years worth of heritage and pedigree which gave way to possibly the greatest “drivers” car of all time.

But what makes the car so stupendously brilliant in many respects is not the downforce, the gearbox, high speed stability or massive brembo brakes, it is that beating flat 6 heart, and to declare why the 6 banger is possibly the greatest engine in the world we have to start right here at the end of its life. 493 hp, 125.1 hp/L, 339 lbf·ft, a GT3RSR derived crankshaft all in a neatly packaged 4.0L Flat 6. It has put itself in the record books as the most powerful N/A engine in the world in terms of power to Litre, beating the likes of the Lexus LFA, Ferrari 458 and Honda S2000, and at nearly 500hp it puts most cars with much greater displacement and cylinders to shame – it is put simply porscheography.

The engine by all accounts is a nuclear bomb, having been fortunate enough to drive a 3.8L GT3 before, I know how magnificently flat the power and torque curves are right up to redline, but to then add another 50 odd hp on top of that, I am struggling to imagine the effect that has on your gut when you press the loud pedal. But why is this all relevant?

Well to really appreciate how far the flat 6 has come in almost 47 years, the 4.0L GT3RS is perhaps the best living proof of that – a 47 year old design which to this day is still kicking everyone's ass – not bad for an engine constantly being reported for “being in the wrong place” over the rear axle. But this is only the start, as the flat 6 unit has been attached to some scary, and when I say scary I mean terrifying, race cars. The Porsche 956, 935, 962, 959 and 911 GT1, are all cars that have gone on to dominate racing around the world in one way or another – all with exactly the same flat 6 engine. The 959 went on to crush everyone at the infamous Dakar rally, the 962,956, 935 and GT1 all went on to win Le Mans outright, destroying all competition for year after year in sports cars – the cars changed but the engine did not, and powering a Stefan Bellof driven 956 around the infamous Nordschliefe it captured a lap record that still stands today some 30 years on, at 6 minutes and 11 seconds.

The durability, versatility and reliability were all traits that made the flat 6 such a legend in endurance racing. The ability to change from N/A form to turbo charging paid testament to the hard work the Porsche engineers put in to developing the engine internals and the results were spectacular. Big KKK turbochargers were attached to both the 935 and 956 race cars, with the 935 in race trim sometimes yielding over 800hp yet had the durability to race flat out for 24 hours at Le Mans at a pace to see the car claim victory. When we talk about the greatest engines in the world, the flat 6 has seen it all. On the road it is the framework for almost every single 911 based engine, turbocharged or non turbocharged, and whatever model you choose from Porsche, one thing will always remain constant, that glorious wail of a flat 6 on song, whether it be Boxster, Cayman or 911.

On the racetrack however it has built up a reputation that few, if any can match.  The tenacity of the Porsche engineers to stick with the same simple principles has paid dividends. 16 overall wins at Le Mans is something no Motorsport fan can argue with (the greatest in history), and when we break those down and learn that 14 of those overall victories came through the power of a flat 6, it really starts to paint a picture of how stupendously brilliant the engine really is.

When you then take into consideration that over the past 7 years at the historic Nurburgring 24 hours, a flat 6 powered GT3 RSR has taken victory 5 times with the Manthey Racing team it starts to hit you just how influential this engine has not only been to Porsche and the road car market, but to racing and Motorsport, they have almost gone against all other design principles every other major manufacturer follows in the entire motoring world and stuck to what they believe in. The results? Possibly the greatest “drivers car” in the world and “greatest sports car of all time” in the 911 on the road, whilst maintaining one of the greatest legacies in the history of Motorsport on the track. Many models have come and gone over the years, but one aspect remains a constant, a household name in it’s own right – the flat 6 Porsche engine.

It’s wail is iconic, its pedigree unrivalled, power and torque unmatched in its sector, and contains a history even some car manufacturers cannot claim to have. To class the famous little engine as anything but spectacular would be a crime against everything any petrol head stands for, it has conquered so much over such a great period of time, against the fiercest of rivals from all over the world. What Ferdinand Porsche stumbled upon in 1965, with the creation of the 911, was something of a legend, the flat 6 engine has since gone on to carve a legacy only rivalled by that of which it powers, and for that reason alone it is in my eyes the only contender when it comes to the debate of “The Greatest Engine Of All Time”.

But I am still wrong aren’t I?

About James Parker - Hardcore Petrolhead having had a long passion for cars and Motorsport which stretches back some 15 years ago when I first started watching BTCC and Formula 1. Currently a proud Alfa Romeo owner, who is Head of Business Development at Motorsport Merchandise website www.grandprixmerchandise.co.uk I also am senior editor of theGPM blog dedicated to big Motorsport talking points.