Welcome To The Revolution - The Turbo Revolution

The turbocharger is taking over, exterminating natural aspiration. We are children of the turbo revolution...

3y ago

Turbo-lag: the name given to the period of time between when the exhaust gases begin to spool a turbo, and when the turbo pulls sufficient air into the engine, resulting in more speed. This exciting experience has now found itself to be a dreaded sensation in modern machinery. Amazingly however, the actual lag itself is something I can relate to. 

Sometimes I see something happening - like a cup falling, for instance - and there’s an alarming gap between my eyes relaying that information to my brain, and my brain actually making my limbs react. I hereby call this brain-lag.

At first inspection, you may think brain-lag is a sign of unintelligence - but looking into it further, you realise that isn't true.

Theoretically, the bigger the turbo, the more lag; therefore, large amounts of brain-lag must be a sign of great intellect! So if reading that teaches you that you’re actually a genius - perhaps a minute or so after the words enter your mind - you’re welcome! 

No wonder Isaac Newton didn't catch the proverbial falling Apple; with the size of his brain, he must've suffered from monumental lag! Einstein must’ve found himself unable to react to something until a week after it happened! And Joey Essex…well, he’s probably got lightning quick reactions! 

Us petrol-heads can be sharp to react too - but instead of being a sign of dimness, it is instead a signal that a favoured normally aspirated car has received turbo treatment. Our reaction is usually a succinct barrage of profanity directed at the manufacturer for being forced to go with the flow of the automotive current, and will normally be concluded with the self-righteous and capitalised words "RANT OVER". But once upon a time, turbos weren’t viewed with the abhorrence they are today. So where did everything go wrong? 

Picture yourself in 1962 America. You and your Happy Days, greasy haired family find yourself sitting in an Oldsmobile dealership, ordering a brand new Cutlass. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, the salesperson asks you a startling question that catches you agog: “would you like the regular Cutlass sir, or the JetFire?” 

Your eyes fill with curiosity; your offspring pounces with such vim his hair grease almost fails him. His face paints with pure wondrous excitement; his sweaty little fingers grab onto the desk, as his little voice lets out the obvious one-worded question: "JETFIRE?” And if that word didn't spark enough of a hullabaloo, the answer had every chance of making your entire family burst: “Yes…the one with the Turbo Rocket engine”.

JetFire, Turbo, and Rocket: 3 words anyone with even a shred of puerility floating about their being would want to be associated with their car. Alone they sound stirring; put together to describe the same thing, they conjure truly electrifying emotions. And it was embroiled in this graphic terminology that the turbocharger found its debut on a road car. 

Turbocharging never featured on a road car again until 11 years later, in the 1973 BMW 2002 Turbo. As exciting as it was however, the 70’s were the decade where turbocharging found itself falling into the hands of something much, much more arresting: Formula 1.

The turbocharger's influence on F1 can only be likened to a nuclear explosion's influence on your suntan. It elevated the cars from the already pretty hairy world of 500bhp, to the morbidly insane realms of up to 1500bhp. And due to the regulations that prevailed at the time, all this power was produced by engines of a microscopically small 1.5L - roughly a third of the capacity of Charlie Sheen's old Hip Flask. All thanks to the turbocharger. 

- The Brabham BT55 F1 car used BMW's M12 turbo engine.

- The Brabham BT55 F1 car used BMW's M12 turbo engine.

Formula 1’s crazy turbo era lasted from 1977 until 1988 - an 11 year period in which turbo-fever flourished in road cars. From the supercar royalty of the Ferrari F40, to the more humble MG Montego Turbo - turbocharging was available across the automotive spectrum. And because turbocharging was such a prominent feature on the very fastest cars around, if you had the opportunity to buy a turbo version of your average humdrum-mobile, you wouldn't think twice!

This was an era where the word "turbo" was marketing spiel for "the best", and therefore was used in products that had absolutely nothing to do with cars just to make them seem more desirable. All of a sudden, vacuums were called "turbo cleaners"; sunglasses were called "turbo aviators"; the word "turbo" was even affiliated with pens, bicycle saddles, and golf clubs. The world was turbo mad!

Zero effort was made by the manufacturers to disguise forced induction. If anything, turbo-lag was part of the experience you purchased: a clear side effect that separated you from the mere mortals.

If you were down the pub one night, you needed to make merely a single descriptive effort to be the envy of all your friends: "that thump in the back you get when the turbo kicks in is unreal!" Nowadays however, people's attitude towards the turbocharger has…gone sour.

What was once a symbol of premium exclusivity and performance has now found itself to be, in some applications, the complete opposite. Turbos are everywhere: they're on basic Fords, Vauxhalls, Hyundais, and most of your average workhorses. And this is all because, whilst turbochargers boost performance, they also lower emissions (apparently).

Those pesky Green people of the EU dictate that car manufacturers must bring their average CO2 down across their entire range. The only way this is possible is for engines to shrink and gain a turbo or four to supplement the power lost from the downsizing, and to make the cars more efficient. But despite how prolific they are in everyday workhorses, this isn't what gets us petrol-heads furiously cursing! For that happens when our favourite normally aspirated performance car receives forced induction.

Over the past few years, we've been spoilt with some of the most delicious atmospheric engines that offer incredible noise, response, and linearity - 3 precious traits that are about as synonymous with turbocharged engines as sobriety is synonymous with Lindsey Lohan. And, predictably, we simply don't want the purity to end. The manufacturers know this, but they also know they've got to meet EU keep-the-leaves-happy legislation, so they've all been trying to come up with their own little ways in which they can make their turbocharged cars behave in a manner akin to that of their normally aspirated predecessors.

Mercedes AMG use what's known as a "Hot-V" layout in their M178 Twin-Turbo 4L V8, meaning the turbos are housed within the V of the pistons, resulting in shorter inlets, greatly improving response; BMW's S55 3L Straight-6 engine in the M3 and M4 utilises 2 small Twin-Scroll turbochargers and an electronically actuated waste-gate for improved response over the rev-range; Aston Martin have done pretty much the same thing in their 5.2L, Twin-Turbo DB11; Porsche have used an ignition timing delay (and not to great effect) in their new Twin-Turbo 3L Flat-6 991.2 Carreras, and they've used a variable geometry turbo in the new 2.5L Flat-4 718 Boxster S; and as for Ferrari's system in the Portofino, 488, and GTC4Lusso T...well, it's slightly more complicated than Nuclear Fission! But, all things considered, Ferrari's system is the best there is. With the exception of the odd whisper of turbo induction and waste-gate whistle, modern Ferrari turbos perform an indistinguishable impersonation of naturally aspirated engines.

If none of that technical jargon made any sense, then YouTube teachings are available. The current generations of all the cars I've mentioned in the above list are all the latest victims of the turbo revolution. The Ferraris, and the Mercedes' have embraced this progression and transitioned over to their turbocharged future as painlessly as possible, and as a result are victories to this unwanted EU intervention. At the moment, they require no worrying or turgid obscenities. Where turbocharging befalls next however may call for that.

At the moment, normally aspirated engines are still alive (just) in performance cars. Ferrari still produce NA V12's; Lamborghini still uses NA V10's and V12's; the Audi R8 still borrows Lamborghini's NA V10; Porsche's GT department cars still sing an atmospheric tune; and American Muscle cars are still growling their fearsome bark under normal aspiration. But this won't last forever. Ferrari stated that their normally aspirated V12 will - mercifully - be sticking around for 1 more generation: that generation being the 812 Superfast. After this however, their V12s will succumb to either turbocharging or hybridity. Even though we know that forced induction is nothing to fear when Ferrari are concerned, there's little quite as beautiful as a naturally aspirated Ferrari V12. One day, Lamborghini will have to bite the bullet and use turbocharging for the first time in its history. Porsche claim that their GT cars will always be normally aspirated - but it has since been stated that the next generation 911 GT cars will use both turbocharging and hybridity. And as for American Muscle cars, they will have to bin their legendary V8's for turbocharged V6's.

That last one in particular is deeply distressing. The defining facet of the American Muscle genre has always been the glorious V8's burbling away beneath their 'hood'. Having an American Muscle car with a turbocharged V6 seems almost as unthinkable as having the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel repainted in a blanket of magnolia. It's just...wrong!

Some lower-level American Muscle cars have already begun their integration into the turbo revolution. Cadillac's ATS-V already uses a 3.6L Twin-Turbo V6, and the entry level Ford Mustang houses a 2.3L EcoBoost 4-Cylinder Turbo - an engine which suits the Mustang like Katie Price would suit a convent.

The future of the naturally aspirated engine seems grim, then. Engines will continue to get smaller, as turbocharging will feature even more heavily than it does currently. In this vast ocean of pessimism however, there is one little glimmer of hope for the future of the normally aspirated engine. Due to the fact that EU law dictates that CO2 emissions must be pushed down as an average across a manufacturer's entire range, the future of the pure and loved NA motor could possibly lie in low volume specials. If a company makes and sells lots of turbocharged keep-the-green-people-happy-mobiles to sell to clientele that couldn't care less about the turbo revolution, then - presuming certain companies will remember us purists - we may be treated to some limited edition, normally aspirated specialness. As unreliable and useless as hope is, it's all we have to live by.

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Written by: Angelo Uccello

Twitter: @AngeloUccello

Tribe: Speed Machines

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Comments (2)

  • Porsche's turbo systems work beautifully

      3 years ago
  • The Chevy Corvair was also turbocharged in the sixties, before the BMW 2002

      3 years ago