Greetings fellow pandem-prisoners! Even though some enthusiasts are revolted by the thought of anything apart from naturally aspirated engines, every car guy has surely done a “ waaaaaaaaahhhhh pshhhhhhhh stututututu” noise ( a.k.a the supra guy mating call) for whatever it may be. The distinctive hiss and blow noise from the engine bay has become more and more common in the automotive industry, mainly because they are cheaper, faster, and have years of research and development in order to get the best performance easily and frugally.
Yes, I’m talking about the turbocharger. The David to the Goliath that is displacement. But have you ever wondered? Who thought of this? What was the first turbo car? What is my life? Is it worth living? Well, fret not my dear friend , because I’m about to give you the answer to the first two of them!
Before diving in to the meat of the matter, we need to understand how the turbocharger works, in very simple words , the turbocharger takes the exhaust gases into the turbo, inside the turbo the exhaust gases propel a turbine , which propels another turbine that is forcing air that is coming from the intake into the inter-cooler which compresses and cools the air, once the air is through the inter-cooler it is shoved into the cylinders. The cooler, denser air allows the firing inside the cylinder to be more visceral, hence creating “More Powah, baby!"
The first patent for this was registered by Swiss engineer Alfred Buchi in 1905. He managed to increase the power of an engine by taking the exhaust gasses and passing it through a compressor and fed the denser air back into the engine to create more power. However, the aeronautical industry was the first to use this technology in their favour. They used the a turbocharger to tackle the problem that was loss of power at high altitude due to very thin air. You see, the higher you go the tougher it gets for engines to breathe. So in order to normalize the pressure inside the engines they had to use the turbocharger to compress air as much as possible in order to keep the air pressure constant going into the engine . This was called TURBO-NORMALIZING, and when you use the same method in order to increase the pressure inside the engine is called TURBOCHARGING. The more you know, eh?
It took car manufacturers 60 years to decide to play around with the idea of using a turbo on a car But in their defence, it was very impractical at the time given the sheer size of the turbos back then as they were for aircraft engines. And the first turbo car didn’t come from Japan, or England, or Germany, or Italy . In fact it came from the land of muscle, meat and monster trucks, good ol’ Murica.
General Motors wanted to give some “oomph” to the Oldsmobile cutlass, but they were bored of just swapping big blocks into their chassis because people were already doing that themselves. So in hopes of giving the customer something new, the Oldsmobile cutlass’ 3.5L V8 was slapped on with a turbo charger developed and supplied by Garrett.
The same Garrett that is the turbo manufacturing daddy today. Aptly named the Jetfire V8, this engine has gained legendary status amongst collectors and enthusiasts
But sadly, the story of the turbo is not all hunky-dory. The air compression ratio was 10.25:1, which for modern standards is not far from average, but without any of the modern day wizardry of electronics, the engine would knock like it really, really wanted to use the restroom. So, to tackle this, Oldsmobile used what we now know as a regular water-methanol injector kit that solved the issue, and even though it succeeded at going faster than the N/A variant by a decent margin, it was still impractical and unreliable .the jetfire oldsmobile lived a short life due to the massive $300 premium over the regular cutlass. Only 4,000 jetfire v8 cutlasses made it out of the factory and GM discontinued the jetfire V8 within a year of production.
It took 12 years for the automotive industry to really that turbos can be used to go fast, really fast. In 1973 the legendary BMW 2002 turbo came into production, however that wasn’t a happy ending either as the car suffered from turbo lag so brutal that it felt more like a shot of nitrous rather than a turbo spool and fuel consumption so poor that fuel stations would remember your name. And it doesn’t end there, the turbo lag was so unpredictable that it was considered dangerous .
The BMW 2002 Turbo met the same fate as the cutlass jetfire V8 and its production ceased a year post its launch. However, after the 2002 turbo’s demise. The Porsche 911 was born . it was the fastest production car in the world in 1974 clocking a top speed of 260 km/h (160 mph). This was arguably the most significant commercial milestone for turbocharged engines. Having been associated with the most exotic dream car of the day, the enthusiasm for turbocharging began to take shape. By 1978, one year after the birth of the Saab 99 Turbo, it was clear that the turbocharger wasn’t going away.
The turbo induced madness continued till 1981 when Maserati joined the party with not one, but two turbos. the aptly named Biturbo was the first twin turbo car to be mass-produced, and in true first-turbo fashion, it was shambolic. Maserati theorised that if you put two turbos just like that they would mitigate turbo lag, which isn’t always the case.
This parallel twin turbo setup definitely produced more power than a single turbo but it doesn’t deal away with turbo lag
As Porsche proved in 1986 with the 959 though, there is another way to set up two turbochargers to reduce the lag effect. The 959’s twin turbos are set up in sequence with each other. Unlike a parallel twin-turbo setup, where the two turbochargers work independently and at the same engine speed, a sequential setup involves one turbo spooling up at low RPMs and the other (or both) spooling up at high RPMs. Although this setup can be less reliable, the 4th-generation Supra’s sequential twin-turbos are reported to have an astonishingly low failure rate of less than 1 per cent.
The next revolution might be on the near horizon. Electrically-assisted turbochargers are showing a lot of promise for future vehicles. While standard turbochargers convert exhaust gases into the electricity needed to power the compressor, e-turbochargers divert some of that electrical energy into a capacitor. That capacitor stores the energy much like a Formula One KERS system, and is used to power the compressor while the turbo isn’t spooling at optimal revs. This would, in theory, eliminate the effects of turbo lag.
As big engine displacements and many cylinders are becoming a thing of the past. Turbochargers have become a staple in the automotive industry, the future is electric and maybe we might not find a purpose for these humble air compressors again. But as long as internal combustion is a rage, the turbo will always be a sign of speed, power and a beautiful journey through time.