The history of Cosworth engine

The history of Cosworth engine

Today, Cosworth is a totally different business from the original company of 1958. When the first Ford-based Formula Junior engines were made in 1960, the firm operated from a scruffy shack in north London. Now, 60 years later, the company is much larger, much-more high-tech, and is based in Northampton with operations in Cambridge too. It all started with work on Anglia 105E engines, before Cosworth became a major Ford F1 engine supplier from the 1970s through to 2000s, and, of course, built production runs of famous YB and FB (aka BOA/BOB) engines in the 1980s and 1990s. 

These days, Cosworth is a respected consultant on all matters, has a thriving electronics business on the side, and (on a confidential basis) builds complete road car engines for several companies all over the world. What was once a two-man-band is now a multi-national operation. 

Along the way, the company has notched up many successes, often connected with Ford. It has also designed road-car engines for Aston Martin, Chevrolet, Ford, GM-Europe, Honda, McLaren and Mercedes-Benz. 

Before Ford and VW/Audi took control in 1998, if you needed an engine designing in Europe – for racing or road use – you could really only approach two independent companies. One was Porsche, the other was Cosworth. But if you needed the job done quickly, and you wanted hundreds manufactured too, there was no choice: it had to be Cosworth. 

Starting on the basis of the Ford Essex V6 engine, Cosworth produced the race-winning 24-valve GA power unit, for works Capris, in 1974 and1975

Originally, founder Keith Duckworth used to insist that he never wanted this to happen. His original philosophy, shared with his good friend (and business partner) Mike Costin was just that: “It must be possible to make an interesting living, messing about with racing cars and engines.”

But those were the days when the first workshop was a converted stable behind a London pub, where vendettas against the rat population were needed. And where visit to the men’s room meant a sprint up the road to the nearest London Transport railway station. 

Co-founder Mike Costin couldn’t join until he had worked out his contract with Lotus, after which they developed an amicable partnership. The two were perfect foils for each other. Duckworth was the intense thinker, who could be bitingly rude to anyone he did not respect. Costin, though, was practical, infinitely patient, and always able to tie up every possible loose end. 

Luck? Maybe. Duckworth, of course, was the genius; easily bored with people, especially the story-spinners. But he respected Costin as the practical achiever; the man who could produce everything he invented. Keith once told me, “I thought that Mike is supremely capable. We actually are a brilliant pair – he is still a racing mechanic by nature, whereas I tend to think for too long.” 

Cosworth was founded by Keith Duckworth (right) and Mike Costin (left)

Cosworth made its reputation in the 1960s, first by modifying existing engines and then by designing its own pieces, before finally breaking into Formula One. Costin didn’t join Duckworth until 1962, and that’s when the company’s links with Ford were established. 

First there was the increasingly ambitious work on 1.0- and 1.1-litre Formula Junior engines, then came the first road car contract (to design the downdraught dual-choke Weber engine installation for cars like the Cortina GT), and a host of other four-cylinder Ford road car engines that would follow. 

In the meantime, Lotus approached Cosworth to sort out the many problems it was having with the new Twin Cam engine – not only for road cars, but for saloon car racing and rallying too.

Duckworth then took the big step of designing his first own-brand overhead camshaft cylinder head – for the Ford-based SCA engine, which was dominant in F3 in 1964 and 1965. It was after this that Ford’s PR man Walter Hayes got together with Colin Chapman of Lotus, to promote the birth of the now-legendary V8DFV F1 engine –which went on to win 155 F1GPs and countless events of lower-standing. 

Until 1990,members of this family, some turbocharged, some normally aspirated, at capacities up to 3.9-litres,wouldwin in F1, Indycar racing, Le Mans, and in many sports car events too. 

Cosworth turned the new Lotus Twin Cam engine into a viable proposition in 1962 – its first road-car engine project

Ford had been delighted with its investment in this engine, a paltry £100,000, and also astonished by the birth and incredibly long life of the four-cylinder BD family, which found fame in the Escort, and ultimately as a turbocharged monster in the Group B RS200; 1.6-litres became 2.0-litre; 120bhp eventually became well over 270bhp (or 650bhp with turbocharging). 

Asked to make the Capri dominant once again in touring car racing, Cosworth then evolved the Essex V6-based GA engine to 440bhp from 3.4-litres. It was no wonder that by the mid-1970s the compact Northampton based business had certainly become one of Ford’s favourite sons. 

Those early days were when Cosworth was a very personal business; inspired, run and developed by just two people. It was only later that a machining genius called Ben Rood arrived, and when another unsung hero, Mike Hall, took responsibility for road-engine work.

Even with those he knew well, Keith could be very dismissive. He could also be devastatingly rude and must have lost a lot of business that way. Once invited to look at Ford’s 1960s NASCAR engines, his only reaction to the shape of the porting was to suggest arrows should be cast into the walls ‘to tell the air which way to go’, and when first invited to work on them, he dismissed pushrod overhead valve gear with the aphorism that ‘pushrod operation is fundamentally unsound. It’s like lying on your back and trying to play the piano with your feet’.

Cosworth built Formula One engines through the V8, V10 and V12 eras

On the other hand, Cosworth never promised what it could not deliver: it could always deliver much faster than its rivals, and the engines always worked. “We are the only people who expect a prototype engine to go together straight away, without fitting and modifying,” Mike Costin once said. 

Along the way, and almost without thinking about it, Cosworth gained a miraculous reputation. Once the Ford V8 F1 engine was winning all over the world (and don’t forget that it was the turbocharged version, the DFX, that also had a stranglehold on Indy/CART racing from1976 to the end of the 1980s), pundits thought Cosworth could do anything, anywhere, in no time at all. 

But it wasn’t like that. Resources – physical, not necessarily financial –were so small that for years Duckworth refused to set up any factories to build engines in series, which explains why the manufacture of Ford’s famous 16-valve BDA engine (as used in world championship rally-winning Escorts) was always contracted out. Yet neither Keith nor Mike ever wanted Cosworth to get too large, even when it seemed to grow in spite of their half-hearted efforts to stop it. 

Even in the 1980s, when Duckworth had ceded personal ownership, Keith said, “I still don’t want to be seriously rich. Neither am I interested in external honours. Having a go at beating the world at building racing engines, I do like that. That’s a reasonable accolade.” 

The changes, when they came in the 1980s, now look to have been inevitable. Although Ford was still a major client, new and prestigious customers started waving big contracts under Keith’s nose. Overworked, Keith had his first heart attack (and a severe warning from his doctors). So he recognised the inevitable. First, he hired a managing director – Alf Vickers, a real treasure – then sold Cosworth to a friendly conglomerate (UEI). Finally, he agreed to let his trusted subordinates – notably Geoff Goddard – to take responsibility for complete new designs. 

Cosworth converted the Cologne V6 to 24-valves and twin-cam power for the1990s, building thousands for Ford to use in the Scorpio

Cosworth was suddenly not the same as it had been ten years earlier. It was larger (much larger in terms of staff and factories) and it was much more corporate. Complete new road-engine projects were completed for Ford (including the magnificent YB intended for the Sierra), whole new factories were built at Wellingborough, Worcester and Torrance (in California). The result being that Cosworth could then build up to 8000 engines in a year.

Keith, though, was still unsettled. After years of arguing against the entire principle (he reckoned a turbocharger meant there was a second engine alongside the original), he was finally persuaded to design a 1.5-litre turbocharged F1 engine, which had just reached its projected 1000bhp when the regulations banned turbos. That distressed him more than we will know. A huge contract (led for him by Mike Hall) to develop a 24-valve four-cam conversion on GM’s ubiquitous 90-degree V6 engine was completed, then shelved by GM. And there was more. 

In 1988, therefore, Keith retired, dabbled with the idea of designing a new flat-six aero engine, then finally gave up. Mike, more placid and more pragmatic, lasted for two more years, then followed Keith into the sunset. 

In the 1990s, Cosworth stopped being a personal business, and became a corporation. It grewand grew. Everyone still wanted to do business with it, but cost-cutting pressure from above stifled enterprise.

Vickers (Cosworth’s owner after 1990) sometimes limited what the team could spend in designing world-beating race engines, though great power units like the CART XBs and XDs were always winners, while Ford’s V8s were good enough for Michael Schumacher and Ayrton Senna to win many F1 races in the 1990s. 

XD engine used in IndyCar racing in the Nineties produced over 800bhp and revved to nearly 15,000rpm

The expansion, though, came in road engines; Cosworth took over Brian Hart’s 24-valve twin-cam conversion of the Ford- Cologne V6, turning it into the refined and silky Scorpio FB power unit. It also built pushrod V8s for Bentley and Rolls-Royce, and provided all the cylinder head castings, then complete engines for Jaguar’s excellent V8. 

Vickers, though, never seemed at ease with the purchase and eventually, in 1998, sold it off to VW/Audi Group. 

Enthusiasts were appalled, but within days it became clear that Ford would buy up the entire race operation and give it full backing. The only awkward feature was that ‘Chinese walls’ had to be set up in Northampton to keep the two sides apart. 

As the new century opened, Ford owned the Cosworth Racing business, while Cosworth Technology eventually became a Mahle subsidiary, and occupied existing factory buildings alongside those of Cosworth in Northampton. Cosworth was heavily involved with Ford’s WRC effort with the Focus too – first building a Zetec-based YC engine for the Mk1 and then a Duratec-based version (also called YC) for the Mk2s. 

But by 2006, Ford’s worldwide financial problems saw the firm having to hive off various subsidiaries, which explains why Cosworth was sold to Gerry Forsythe and Kevin Kalkoven (both of whom were successful American businessman, both of them having run Cosworth-engined Indy cars in the past). Under their guidance, not only did the company continue to work with Ford, but set up a new electronics subsidiary, financed the building of high-tech machining plant in the UK, the USA and the Far East to build engines for manufacturers from around the world, and to provide major castings to companies like McLaren and supercar clients such as Aston Martin. 

Cosworth doesn’t like to shout about it (plus the confidentiality terms written into most contracts would prevent the firm from doing so even if it did), but there is still much to come from this amazing company. 

Cosworth is without doubt one of the true British engineering success stories. So when people bemoan that we don’t make anything in the UK any more, just remind them of companies like Cosworth. 

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