Rolls-Royce recently announced a new development in their long line of top-end cars.  While it should come as no surprise that a new vehicle from Rolls-Royce is a luxurious offering that’s high on quality and high on price, it may come as a surprise to learn that it’s actually a sports utility vehicle: a 6.6-litre car with a V12 engine.

It’s certainly not the first vehicle to put the power of a V12 engine to good use.  But just what is a V12, and where might we have seen one?

The Rolls-Royce Merlin engine

Understanding the V12

Essentially, the ‘V’ refers to the shape of how the pistons and cylinders are arranged, and the ‘12’ just means it has 12 cylinders, with a row of 6 in each arm of the V-shape.

Compared to an equivalent engine with a straight or ‘in-line’ configuration, V-shaped engines can be smaller in length, height and weight without sacrificing power.

It’s a model that’s been used across the engine scale: from ships, cars and planes to commercial electricity generators.

Here are a few of the most important V12 engines in history, from earliest beginnings to modern super-cars.

1. The Craig-Dörwald

In 1904, the Putney Motor Works created the world’s first V12 engine. And it was actually made for a ship. Named after its company’s founding partners, it weighed 430kg and had a brake horsepower (bhp) of 150. Amazingly, one of these engines was found still running in a Hong Kong junk as late as the 1960s.

2. Toodles V

In 1913, the chief engineer of the Sunbeam car company entered a V12-powered car, the Toodles V, in the racing circuit at Brooklands, Surrey. With cylinders made of iron, it was hardly an advanced machine by today’s standards, but the 200bhp V12 powered the Toodles V through several racing records over the following two years.

3. The Mohawk

Using their experiences in motor racing to help them improve the design of their engine, Sunbeam created a V12 for aircraft: the Mohawk. Unveiled in March 1914, this engine arrived just in time for the start of the First World War, and was the most powerful engine the British air force had as the war began.

4. The Rolls-Royce Merlin

This liquid-cooled, 27-litre capacity engine – fittingly named after the bird of prey – powered the Hurricanes and Spitfires that helped the UK to victory in the Battle of Britain. Its long, narrow shape and smooth form made it more aerodynamic than previous models. And by the end of its evolution, and the end of the Second World War, it could reach more than 1,500 horsepower (hp). HP being brake horsepower minus the loss in power due to engine parts like the generator and gearbox.

5. McLaren F1

Since the 1940s, as aircraft makers began to introduce modern, powerful jet engines, the V12 started to become obsolete in the air. When it came to road vehicles, however, the V12 remained a powerhouse: it’s still being used in modern cars like the Aston Martin Vantage.

In 1998, the McLaren F1 – with a 6.1-litre, 618hp, V12 engine – took the record for the world’s fastest production car, at 231mph (372kmh). It held this record for an impressive seven years, before the Koenigsegg CCR took the title with a top speed of 241mph (388kmh) in 2005.

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