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RIP: The Wankel Rotary

Simon Charlesworth June 29, 2012 1 Comment on RIP: The Wankel Rotary

Last Friday – a whole week ago – the Mazda plant at Hiroshima built its last rotary engine, bringing an end to Felix Wankel’s superb alternative to the familiar four-stroke piston plodder.

Mazda Cosmo Sport 110

(Now, I’ll just give you a minute or two to either think about its loss or, to get over tittering at Herr Wankel’s surname…)

Its cleverness is its elegant simplicity. An engine which has one convex-faced triangular ‘piston’ that spins in one direction, instead of the awkward reciprocating manner that its more complicated piston alternative has to endure. Like a group of chunky drunken cockneys doing the hokey cokey in comparison with a pirouetting Olympic ice-dancer. It produced more power yet was more compact and it could rev higher yet was smoother.

Mazda RENESIS rotary internals

Incredibly, this engine was envisioned by Wankel when just 17 years old, as an engine that would be part reciprocating and part turbine. However, he would have to wait until 1951 when he signed a development deal with NSU, eventually seeing production in the NSU Wankel Spider in 1964. I’ve driven one and yes, it’s as slow as a sloth on incapacity benefit but that little single-rotor unit is so smooth and boy, does it howl. Little wonder then, that the multi-rotor Wankel in all manner of forms – naturally aspirated or forced induction – has bitten deeply into rev-head culture.

The rotary’s death though, largely unmentioned, largely unmourned, highlights everything that is wrong with the modern motor industry. They just don’t do progress like they used to.

Of course, the early rotaries weren’t perfect. Mention the Wankel engine (come on now, please…) and the nearest automotive dullard won’t be able to resist mentioning ‘rotor tips’, ‘oil consumption’ or ‘heavy on the juice’. Okay, yes, the NSU Ro80 did fall victim to the units shortfalls, as did Citroën’s plans to commercially utilise the Comotor unit in the GS and the CX – but Mazda did make a convincing case for it.

Mazda RX-2/Capella

Even now, the 238bhp Mazda Renesis-engined RX-8 R3 remains one of my favourite coupes to drive (despite the terrible wet-weather grip of its OE Bridgestone Potenzas). It’s fast, connected, full of information and immensely adjustable. Indeed, that rotary revs so beautifully, it makes an iVTEC seem like an old diesel. Revs though, were not enough to save the Rotary from the grip reaper and his Euro 5 emissions regulations.

Although the Wankel will survive outside the motor industry, I remain convinced that if it had been enjoyed just 10% of the piston engine’s R&D, then it would have been a vastly superior unit. Yet sadly, most companies – from automotive to aeronautical – which had undertaken initial research into this brave new hope, ended up walking away. Even Rolls-Royce and its fascinating diesel variant…

2002 Mazda RX-7

I don’t blame the motor industry for its lack of risk-taking, because it has enough to do just keeping its head – or should that be ‘heads’ – above the waves in the sea of red tape. Political interference, legislation and constant pressure from self-appointed ill-informed lobby groups, all add to the needless cost and complexity of modern cars. Seat belts, crumple zone and airbags were a good idea, but when you see bureaucrats dictating the size of door mirrors or specifying dazzling ‘running lights’ then you know all that they are up to is blatant job justification.

In 2012 innovation, research and development, whatever, just doesn’t pay dividends because its cheaper to let some else swallow the cost and then buy a licence – but the problem the industry hasn’t foreseen with this safe option is that if it sticks to the same old same old, people’s interest will wane. Just as mine has.

Mazda RX-4/Luce

So for now, I shall bid an au revoir to the Wankel rotary, but I hope it will be back, because it’s just too good an idea to scrap.

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