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Talking turbos

 

Why, I’ve been asked, haven’t I given ETi a list of the top 10 turbo engines of all time? Simply, it’s too hard, and any list would be too skewed toward modern engines.

For naturally aspirated engines, the pace of development has been more or less linear over the past 100 years, give
or take the odd spike when someone’s delivered a step change, or the occasional lull when the usual competition
of industry had other things to concentrate on.

Or like being faced with an oil shortage, with sky-high fuel prices forcing the development of super-eco engines which, by the time they got there, nobody wanted because the engines were awful to drive or fuel was already cheap again.

See, once Peugeot rolled out its L5 in 1913, with twin overhead cams, four valves per cylinder, gear-driven camshafts and a ball-bearing crankshaft, the optimal layout had been more or less finalized, so the next century was spent doing everything that engine did, but better.

That’s not how it worked with turbo motors. There have been exceptions, but it more or less went like this: big performance-car surge in the late 1970s before a slide into irrelevance in the late 1980s, a constant trickle here and there, and then a seemingly unstoppable assault starting about five years ago.

That’s simplistic, so let’s un-generalize a bit. First, there was my favorite turbo time, with the World Rally Championship’s Group B and Group A eras forcing competitors to engineer some wicked and legendary road cars. In my fantasy garage there would
be a couple of modern sports cars, a couple of historic sports cars and then a Lancia Delta S4, a Peugeot 205 T16, a Ford RS200, an Audi S1 Quattro (alright, go ahead and toss in an Ur Quattro, too), a Mitsubishi Lancer Evo III and VI and a couple of STi Imprezas. In blue, with gold alloys, naturally.

Even the word ‘turbo’ once had a mystery to it; people didn’t know how it worked or what it did exactly, but they knew a ‘turbo’ made an ordinary thing better, faster and more powerful. Which is why the word got stuck onto everything from vacuum cleaners to hair dryers and even printers. Today, however, ‘turbo’ no longer automatically denotes more gristle and prestige.

First there was the diesel ubiquity
of turbos and now there’s the coming gasoline ubiquity. The surge in the turbocharger has come on so hard and fast, and so mainstream, that it has even caught governments off-guard. As recently as last year, it was still illegal, in the Australian state of New South Wales for a learner, provisional or young driver to drive a turbocharged car. The bureaucrats were still working from the older hymn book of turbo = faster.

Most of the key developments in turbocharging have happened in the past 10 years. BMW has probably pushed harder than anybody else and now it doesn’t sell a car without one. And if BMW has gone there, so have Mercedes-Benz and Audi. And if they’ve gone there, so will Opel, VW (and all its brands), Ford, Renault and PSA. And if they go there, so will everybody else (except, it insists, Toyota).

And since that’s where all the IC engine development money is headed (for now), there’s not much point providing a list of the best turbo engines of all time. Because I’ve got a funny feeling they’re all about to arrive.

 

30 June 2015

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