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This Subaru Flat-12 F1 Engine Is an ’80s Dream Worth Reviving

Sure, it might not have been reliable or particularly fast, but there's no denying just how cool it is.

Ask any old-school Formula 1 fan and they’ll tell you—the sport isn’t what it used to be. In some cases, that’s a good thing. But in others, it’s sad knowing that we’ll never again see a truly odd car from an obscure team. Since it now costs hundreds of millions of dollars to be competitive in F1, there’s no such thing as a “small racing program.” And since power units are restricted to the 1.6-liter hybrid V6 format, we will almost certainly never see an engine like this Subaru flat-12 that failed miserably on its debut.

Named the Subaru 1235, the oddball power plant was actually built by Motori Moderni of Italy. It measured 3.5 liters in displacement and had five valves per cylinder, and if my high-school-level math is correct, that equates to 60 valves in total. Ah, just what you want from a completely new engine. Complexity!

The flat-12 formula had worked well for Ferrari in the ’70s, earning the Scuderia multiple championships with its 312T line of race cars. However, that era was more than a decade past when Subaru decided to give it a shot in 1990. While it produced a seemingly respectable output of 559 horsepower, it was no match for Honda’s new V12 which pushed nearly 100 more horsepower in race trim. There were also the howling Ferrari V12s we know and love today, meaning Subaru was stuck on the outside looking in.

Formula 1 Commons

It made its debut at the 1990 United States Grand Prix weekend in Phoenix, which actually turned out to be a great race. While it was remembered for Ayrton Senna’s heated battle with Jean Alesi, it most certainly was not a highlight for those in the Subaru camp. Driver Bertrand Gachot, who would later go on to compete with the Jordan F1 team, finished at the bottom of pre-qualifying after a gear linkage failure prevented him from completing a full lap. 

It didn’t fair too well at Silverstone later that same year, either.

While its low center of gravity was a major plus in theory, the 1235’s lack of power and reliability meant it was ultimately doomed in F1. It was entered in just eight Grand Prix weekends with the Subaru-Coloni team before they eventually reverted back to a Cosworth V8, signaling the flat-12’s end at the top level of motorsport.

Still, if I had one in my shop today, you bet it’d be put to good use.

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