Wankel is a name synonymous with sniggering schoolboys and rotary engines. Not currently in favour with most manufacturers, Mazda are still pursuing the technology as they demonstrated with the unveiling of the RX-8 at the 2001 Detroit Show.
Way back when...
Felix Wankel was born on August 13th 1902 in the Black Forest region of Germany. Graduating from high school at 19 he couldn't pursue his passion for engineering due to the poverty he and his family were living in. Unable to pursue his studies, he went to work as a printer whilst he worked on his ideas in his spare time.
Wankel conceived the idea of a rotary combustion engine in 1924, eventually gaining a patent in 1929. It was based on much research of previous rotary pumps and more primitive equipment. Modern engineering practices would make Wankel's concept a reality.
Growing up in Germany as he did, it was inevitable that Wankel would be caught up in the political activities of the time. Wankel served in the Hitler Youth for a number of years before resigning. He was subsequently jailed after revealing corruption by a local official. A local industrialist came to his rescue and arranged his release, allowing him to continue his work.
During the war Wankel's engineering shop provided components to a number of the major German engineering companies. Unfortunately for his research efforts, the French destroyed his workshops and jailed him when they invaded in 1945.
During his incarcartion Wankel secretly worked on his designs, allowing him to interest German manufacturer NSU after his release. The first fully functional 21bhp engine was completed in 1957 and was used in a number of motorbikes.
NSU went on to produce the first rotary engined cars in the 1960's with the NSU Wankel Spider and the NSU Ro80. Rotary engines were also used in marine applications.
Daimler-Benz looked on with interest and took the plunge themselves making several prototype cars in the 60's and early 70's using Rotary Combustion Engines (RCE). The most impressive of these prototypes was the two-seater, mid-engined C111, complete with gull-wing doors. Sixteen were built using three and four rotor versions of the engines producing 280 to 400bhp.
It's a lesser known fact that Chevrolet acquired a licence for the Wankel engine in 1970. Two and four rotor engines were built and mounted mid-ships in experimental cars.
They went on to get Pininfarina to style a new Corvette around the engine as they considered production options. Various two and four rotor, steel bodied and glass-fibre bodied Corvettes were worked on until 1974 when retiring GM president Ed Cole suspended rotary engine development due to emissions difficulties. Research was halted completely in 1977.
Best known for pursuing the rotary technology is Mazda, who began looking at the concept back in the 1960's with the help of Wankel and NSU. A research division was set up in 1963 and the first car using such an engine the Cosmo 110 sports car which hit the streets in 1967. By 1970 they'd produced 100,000 cars and by 1978 that total was up to 1,000,000.
After the good looking little 110, Maxda embarked on the RX series with the RX2, 3, 4 and 5, a collection of saloons and coupes which were hideous looking in comparison. It wasn't until the RX-7 that some sense of style returned. The RX-7 was the pinnacle of rotary engined development for Mazda with over a million of the various models sold from the first in 1979 to the last twin-turbo versions in 1999.
It's not he end of the story yet though. The RX-8 concept shown in Detroit could be opening a whole new chapter with the latest generation 250+bhp Renesis rotary engine. Still a concept car at this stage, the amount of development work carried out on the engine surely hints that a production model is around the corner.
See the RX-8 at www.mazdausa.com