A Short History Of Turbo Chargers.


Turbo Charging – Understanding The Basics

Before deep diving into the history of a turbocharger, lets first explain how they work. In simple terms, there are two core features: a turbine, and a compressor which are installed on a single shaft and enclosed in a housing. The gasses from the exhaust of an engine, (which are usually wasted and released into the atmosphere) are forced into the housing of the turbocharger, allowing the rotor/turbine on one side to spin.

This spinning action results in the rotation of the compressor. Which effectively gathers air from the outside world and compresses it at a higher rate than a conventional intake for an engine, therefore more air can be fed at a higher speed and combustion can occur with higher energy, resulting in a greater power output than a naturally aspirated power-plant.

Turbochargers are common in today’s ICE vehicles; they are even in smaller hatchbacks with 3cyl engines and obviously help power the worlds most refined supercars. In fact, in 2017 over a quarter of all cars sold in the US were fitted with a turbocharger, up more than five times its 2010 figure.

In fact, in 2017 over a quarter of all cars sold in the US were fitted with a turbocharger, up more than five times its 2010 figure.

This is mainly as a result of the emissions regulations becoming more stringent in recent years. Automakers are having to come up with more efficient ways of harnessing power without increasing cylinder capacity and therefore targeting a CO2 level below 100g/km of an average fleet, whilst also reducing other harmful gasses.

So where did it all start?

Turbochargers have existed for well over a hundred years. For instance, in 1905 the first patent of the technology was filed by a Swiss Engineer, Alfred Büchi, who then went on to introduce the world’s first heavy-duty turbocharger in 1925, which recirculated the exhaust gas emissions and produced a greater than 40% power increase to an Engine, something that we take for granted nowadays due to the advancements in technologies and manufacturing.

Many consider Alfred’s work as start of the turbocharging revolution, however originally, his designs were utilised only in bigger forms of transport (such as in ships and trains) which were powered by large diesel engines.

The Spinning Sixties.

It wasn’t until the 1960’s until the first passenger cars were sold with turbochargers. The Oldsmobile Jetfire came along in 1962 and had a 215 cubic inch V8 which was aided by a turbocharger made by Garrett (which is now considered one of the most popular and historic brands, producing Turbos for the lead Automotive manufacturers such as Ford, Mini and Mazda).

The introduction of a turbo meant that the power output for the Jetfire was improved by 30bhp over the naturally aspirated Engine, producing 215bhp and a 0-60mph time under nine seconds.

However, all did not go to plan. General Motors had to incorporate a special ‘Rocket Fluid’ in its Turbo to stop the V8 from detonating. This was due to “Knock Sensors” not existing at the time, resulting in uncertainty in the behaviour of the engine ignition cycle.

Luckily, if the owner was particularly careless (and didn’t top up their “Rocket Fluid”) a redundancy feature was built in meaning the turbocharger was bypassed. As a result of the new “unheard-of” technology, owners more often than not failed to top this fluid up and often visited the dealer, complaining of lack of power. This ended the Oldsmobile’s exciting reputation, selling less than ten thousand in the first two years of production. With this, at great expense, GM offered customers a removal of the turbocharger system, replacing with a more familiar intake, exhaust and carburettor setup.

The Turbo Meets Motorsport.

As we move onto the 1970’s, Turbochargers were introduced in F1 amongst other forms of motorsport and the huge success that came off the back of it really kicked off the ‘Turbo’ brand.

Auto makers soon introduced Turbos in their higher-priced petrol engined models, such as the BMW 2002 Turbo which had its turbo developed by ‘Kühnle, Kopp & Kausch‘ and was identified as the first turbocharged car from Europe. This was soon followed by the Porsche 911 Turbo (you can see the theme here!), which also incorporated its turbo from the same manufacturer.

Things weren’t perfect though. Early turbos suffered from poor fuel economy and the dreaded turbo lag. This in many cases was putting off customers (even though on paper the car had much more power).

In the late 70’s, Mercedes commercialised their 300 SD with a Turbo Diesel power-plant, and due to the nature of diesel engines, the turbocharger resulted in greater efficiency and therefore more car makers started investing in the technology.

The 80’s, Hot Hatches, And Beyond.

Following this, the 1981 VW Golf Turbo Diesel had an output of 70bhp and was the first performance Golf diesel, which utilised both a Garrett and ‘Kühnle, Kopp & Kausch’turbochargers. It showed that VW were serious about Turbochargers as it also aided efficiency and better fuel economy than the GTi model, having more than 16mpg improvement and being included as part of the debut that was the ‘Hot Hatch’.

In the today’s world, the addition of a turbocharger is more a need than a want. With the ever-reducing list of naturally aspirated engines, car makers are fined if they do not meet the emissions regulations and incorporate turbos across all their models.

With the evolution of the Electric Vehicle space, climate change and a stop to engine developments, how much longer does the turbo have to survive?

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