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Twincam. Sounds so sexy. Even the acronym DOHC – for double overhead camshafts – is surrounded by a degree of magic. Just recently a was discussing legendary 4-cylinder twincams with a car friend of mine – more specifically comparing Alfa Romeo’s Nord engine with the Lotus-Ford engine.

My dear friend didn’t hesitate long to point out that the Alfa Romeo engine was the superior of the two. But then, as an Alfa Romeo enthusiast, he is perhaps somewhat biased. These two twincams are actually surprisingly comparable, and deciding which is the better will no doubt depend on personal preferences.

The Lotus Cortina was launched in 1963 and its engine the year prior to that, when it debuted in Lotus’s own and brand new Elan. With its double camshafts installed in an aluminium head, it was an excellent machine which Lotus constructed on the cast iron block from the Ford Consul. Granted, it may not sound particularly “thoroughbred” to base such a fine engine on a simple cast iron block out of a mundane saloon, but then again, why not? The Consul block was strong and well-constructed, so why try to reinvent the wheel – even more so, when Lotus were of course always short on cash?

The 1963 Lotus-Ford: 105 horsepower from 1558cc and two single carburettors (in this picture however modified with two DCOE Weber carburettors).

It certainly did the job, and the 1558cc Lotus-Ford twincam managed to produce 105 horsepower breathing through its two single carburettors. Which is just a tad less than the comparable Alfa Romeo twincam. There are multiple variations of Alfa Romeo’s iconic Nord engine, but when comparing it with the Lotus-Ford engine, it would make sense to look at the 1570cc version from the 1963 Giulia TI Super which pushed out all of 110 horsepower using two big sidedraught Weber carburettors.

So does that make the Alfa Romeo engine superior and more interesting? Well, there’s probably an argument for calling it more of a thoroughbred, seeing as it was Alfa Romeo’s own engine construction right from the base, and it was furthermore only ever utilised in Alfa Romeo’s own cars too. It also has a significantly longer history as it was first introduced in the Giulietta back in 1954. In that light, I will agree with my dear Alfa Romeo obsessed friend so far as to say that the Nord engine probably has a little more prominence than does the Lotus-Ford engine. From a more practical perspective it also has the advantage of being easier accessible through its higher production numbers, and thereby also being both easier and cheaper to acquire spare parts for. Through these spare parts, many owners nowadays choose to modify and tune their engines further and often with really good results too – it really doesn’t take all that much to extract more power from the Alfa Romeo twincam.

The iconic Nord twincam. Available in everything from 1.3-litres to 2.0-litres and developing between 52 horsepower and 131 horsepower in stock road trim.

But then the Lotus-Ford twincam is highly receptive to tuning and modifications too. It did after all leave the factory in a relatively conservative state of tune. But which of the two engines is then the best when stretched to its very limits? It’s difficult to judge for a road engine, as it depends so much on how the engine is driven and used? There are so many variables. But if we merely look at maximum power – which is of course often the case within motorsport – it’s actually the Lotus-Ford engine which comes out victorious. In full racetrim but still within FIA regulations, they can manage in excess of 180 horsepower, where I believe the Alfa Romeo engines have to make due with approximately 170 horsepower.

As it is, both of these numbers are significantly higher than what they developed in period. And of course, they can be made higher still if you’re not concerned about your FIA homologation. Back in the sixties though, the race spec Lotus-Ford engine would push out approximately 150 horsepower, while I’ve been unable to find reputable specifications on the race Nord engine – but rest assured that it was a lot less than current days 170 horsepower. The reason is of course found in development and evolution. Time doesn’t stand still. Today we know better how to extract more power from an engine, and we can also manufacture better and stronger parts with smaller tolerances. These last fifty plus years of development – rather than just one race season – have led to more horsepower for both engines. But more so for the Lotus-Ford engine as the head is simply a fundamentally better design than Alfa Romeo’s.

But should the ultimate race specifications of an engine be the deciding factor as to which is the better? No. Quite frankly, it shouldn’t. That wouldn’t make much sense, but I still choose to do so in this case, simply to point out that the Lotus-Ford engine most definitely isn’t bad either!

The Alfa Romeo engine has hemispherical combustion chambers, while the Lotus-Ford engine makes do with what one might call semi-hemi. While the hemispherical combustion is ideal for achieving a greater fuel and air mixture to burn, it often suffers a little when it comes to actually burning that mixture in an effective manner. Alfa Romeo tried to compensate for this in 1965 when they introduced a twin spark head with two spark plugs per combustion chamber for their Nord twincam engine.

But regardless of whether you’re in the Alfa Romeo camp or the Lotus-Ford camp, you can rest assured that they are highly comparable and both are among the very best of what the 1600-class had to offer in the sixties. Off the top of my head, I can really only think of three outsiders which are comparable to any extent.

There’s of course Fiat’s delicious Lampredi twincam, but bear in mind that when it was first introduced in 1966, it was only available in the small 1438cc version developing a very respectable 90 horsepower. But the point being, it wasn’t until the seventies – more precisely 1971 – that the Lampredi engine entered the 1600-class when it grew to 1608cc. Still, it’s of course a fabulous example of a characterful Italian small displacement twincam engine, and it also outlasted the others as it remained in production until the year 2000 by which time it had grown further to a 2-litre twincam, and had powered such iconic models as the Fiat 131 Abarth, the Lancia Beta 037 and of course all those rally conquering Lancia Delta Integrales…

I think it’s fair to say, that while the other two I have in mind are both 1600cc twincams and they even predate the Lotus-Ford engine, they really are outsiders in this context. In 1958 MG added a twincam engine to their MGA range by fitting an aluminium twincam head to their trusty old B-series engine. A bold move for the small Abingdon based sports car maker. Initially it produced 108 horsepower, but there were both detonation problems and excessive oil consumption to deal with, costing MG a painstaking amount of warranty work. The project was doomed, and only a mere two years later the twincam was discontinued after only selling little more than 2,000 cars.

Impressively, Facel Vega failed even more spectacularly when they decided to ape Alfa Romeo and introduced their new and smaller Facellia in 1960. The French developed twincam was only given two supporting bearings for each camshaft which led to excessive flexing, timing issues and more often than not complete failures. It very quickly put the French luxury car maker into deep financial issues. The twincam engine was discontinued and the Facellia was attempted relaunched with the Volvo B18 engine out front. Nowhere near as sexy, but at least the Swedish lump was associated with reliability.

But which of these sexy 1600cc twincams is your personal favourite. Are you an Alfisti like my good friend? Or do your prefer the racebred Lotus-Ford twincam? Or are you going to go against the stream and choose one of the outsiders?


10 Responses

  1. Anders Bilidt

    Claus, there is indeed an almost magical aura to the twincam engine – any twincam engine. I’m a BIG fan, and always have been. I suppose it’s kind of ironic I say that when I currently don’t own one myself, but that will be rectified at some point (after I’ve worked myself through the current projects of the Rochdale resto and bringing my Green Devil back to the road).

    I would be happy to own either an Alfa Romeo Nord engine, a Lotus-Ford twincam or a Fait Lampredi. Well, and the MGA twincam would do perfectly alright as well, though I think I’ll give the French attempt a pass on this occasion…

    However, I do feel that you’re missing out on one engine here. Okay, so the engine I have in mind didn’t see the light of day until 1970, so it’s of course not a sixties engine. But it’s close! And it is a 1.6-litre which just like the others pushed out just in excess of 100hp. It was also used with great success in motorsport and remained in production until 1985. Oh, and it was Japanese. I’m of course thinking of the legendary Toyota 2T-G engine. An absolute gem of an engine – I might even go as far as saying it’s one of the very best engines I’ve ever owned!
    Here’s a picture of mine as it was installed in my 1977 Toyota Trueno, running by this time factory EFi and thus developing 115hp:

  2. Himself

    Great article. Thank you.
    I think you are a bit too modest on the output of the AR GTA engine. I was lucky enough to own one some years back and after a trip to a famous German engine builder with Italian roots, it was returned to me with a documented 182 bhp and a warranty in relation to being FIA legal. It was also accompanied by an invoice from which you could otherwise have acquired some very respectable cars ?

  3. AlfaHahn

    Love the whole range of AR Nord engines. Favourites right now is the 90bhp 1300 ccm together with a 160bhp 2000 ccm. Simply great engines in beautiful cars :-)

  4. Claus Ebberfeld

    @anders-bilidt , I will excuse that omission very much: But I don’t think I even knew that engine as I wrote the above piece :-). Lovely it is, though.

    Great story, @himself – and maybe a confirmation that the development is indeed ongoing. 182 bhp sure sounds impressive. And just to make sure: Was that on a 1.6-litre Nord?

  5. YrHmblHst

    Ive had both. On the street, the Lotus makes more usable power and is quicker, but of course, the car is lighter too, so that may be a big part of it. The Lotus/Ford is smoother also. In full boogie, the Lotus can be made to make more power, plus it was the conduit that brought us the Cosworth BDA and such.
    However…the Alfa has it hands down in several areas such as parts – both cost and availability – and ease of maintenance, especially water pumps. The Alfa engine CAN be made to not leak even. Plus, its an Alfa Romeo, which counts for a whole lot.
    If youre actually going to drive the car, go for the Alfa. If youre just autocrossing, racing or only sunny Saturday driving and you like to piddle with the car, get the Lotus. jmnsho…

  6. Himself

    Claus, that would depend on how you define a 1600 nord engine? Ignition, oil pump, cooling etc. The engine in question was fitted in a GTA. For the “standard” 1600 engine I have never heard of anyone being able to modify that beyond 145-150 bhp. I know of several that have tried….and lasted about 20 minutes ?

  7. Anders Bilidt

    Well there you have it Ladies and Gentlemen… @yrhmblhst has spoken, and as he has owned both engines that’s probably as unbiased a verdict on the Alfa Romeo Nord twincam versus the Lotus-Ford twincam as you’ll ever get… ;-)

    @claus-ebberfeld, I’ll forgive you for not knowing about Toyota’s 2T-G twincam. It seems largely forgotten and ignored in Europe, but this was in fact the engine which powered the first Celica when it was introduced in 1970.
    I of course immediately thought of the 2T-G as soon as I read the heading of your article, simply because I’ve owned one myself. But come to think of it, there were other Japanese twincams which in fact suit this article even better! Toyota had their 9R engine which was also a 1600 twincam, and it was in fact earlier than the the 2T-G as it was introduced in 1967. However, it was only used in the Toyota Corona 1600GT Hardtop of ’67 and ’68, so is now ultra rare!
    Isuzu were next to join the league of twincam manufacturers with their G161W engine in 1968. This too was a 1.6-litre, and it was first used in the gorgeous Isuzu 117 Coupé when it was launched, and only a year later equally utilised Isuzu Bellett 1600 GT-R with which they had quite some success in Japanese motorsport. Here’s a picture of the G161W:

  8. Niels V

    I would much rather have the 1500cc Riley Sprite engine, predating the engines in question by some 30 years.

  9. Anders Bilidt

    @niels-v, now here’s a man who knows his vintage motors! ;-)
    And to be honest, I agree with you Niels. I’ll have mine in a two-tone Riley Kestral 6 light please…

  10. Lee

    I think you should have used the Alfa Romeo GTA 1600 twin plug engine as a comparison (or atleast mention it) rather than the regular 1600. This made 170HP in race trim back in the 60s and 115hp in street trim. Today they are making in excess of 180HP.


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