Emissions and Wankel Engines

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Last time we talked about the huge pile of Road & Tracks I’m reading, we were in 1988, a year in which cars were finally getting better after nearly two decades of regulatory hell.

The next two, the ones I’m going to talk about today, give us the early portion of the crusade to make cars worse.  We will do this by immersing ourselves in two Road & Track magazines from the early 70’s, the January and February 1971 issues.

Road & Track January 1971.jpeg

These are not optimistic magazines, and a good portion of the writing is aimed at trying to justify why, to get cleaner air, you need to burn more fuel.  In a nutshell, the reason for this is that the automotive industry was not technologically prepared for the emissions legislation that was forced upon them.  Do-gooder lawmakers, of course, simply said: “The auto companies just don’t want to invest in this, we should regulate it anyway.”  And they did.

The upshot is that fuel economy went to hell because cars actually had to burn MORE gas to lower emissions (thermodynamics make this necessary).  This means carbon dioxide emissions (greenhouse gasses, anyone?) went up, and contributed to our current global warming mess.  Overeager and under-informed legislators, as usual, proving once again that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions.

Road & Track February 1971

But all of that was in the future.  In 1971, even the extremely well-informed automotive press had no idea what the consequences might be.  Their technical editors were more concerned with whether the internal combustion engine would be viable beyond 1975 when the new laws took full effect.  Yes, that was a real concern.  In the end, as we know, the engine survived, but at a horrific cost to consumers… and now to the environment.

That situation actually gave birth to the most interesting parts of these magazines.  While it’s fun to read about the launch of cars that either went on to make no mark whatsoever on the marketplace or, to the contrary see what the press were saying about vehicles that are now classics, it’s absolutely fascinating to read about the new technology which could power cars if the Otto engine did bite the dust.

The two big alternatives, as seen in 1971 were the gas turbine and the Wankel.  Though the Wankel was, at that time, worse in emissions, it controlled oxides of nitrogen (NOx) better than the internal combustion engine… and these were tougher to engineer out of the Otto engine than other pollutants were for the Wankel.  So maybe…

The most memorable article of this pair is a long piece explaining the Wankel engine.  Good stuff.

Another thing that I enjoyed about these two is that the “& Track” portion of the magazine was much meatier than in the eighties, and it’s wonderful to read about the Can Am as a series that was taking place even then as opposed to looking back at it from our nostalgia as something unique and awesome the likes of which we’ll never, sadly see again.

Finally, the weird notes to my reading.  These mags are nearly fifty years old, so it’s interesting to see what kind of lives they’ve led.  While in decent condition, my copies have had the classified section carefully cut away by some earlier owner as well as one article: a piece about the 1971 Duesenberg replica.  Which is probably the strangest article to remove.  Why that piece, when there is so much stuff about original cars in there? I’ll probably never know.

Finally, the strangest thing of all is that these editions have the price in Swedish Krone on the cover.  That, the UK and US currency.  Why Krone?  Maybe because it was a big market… but no Deutsch Marks, French Francs or Lire… Weird.

All in all, it’s very fun to read these, especially to see what the world was like fifty years ago, and to compare this mature magazine with the early ones where you got maybe thirty pages of articles copied from other publications.

 

Gustavo Bondoni’s latest book is Jungle Lab Terror, a thriller set in the most dangerous place in the Western Hemisphere, the Darien gap.  If you dare, you can buy it here.

Has it really been more than 30 years?

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I started reading Road & Track as a teenager in 1989.  That pretty much means that I have a complete run into the 2000’s, but that everything before 1988 was blank.  So I’m filling in those blanks slowly.  I have a few of the earliest ones, and also some 1988s.

I recently found a guy here in Argentina selling a large lot of mainly 1970s and 1980s R&Ts, so I bought them and have finally had the time to read through the missing 1988s (all except for the March issue, which I will have to track down…).

Road & Track - January 1988.jpg

As I have said in earlier posts, 1988 was a vintage year for this magazine.  Firing on all cylinders, hitting their stride, almost mature from a design point of view (that would come in 1989) and with subject matter that actually gave hope.

For non-auto enthusiasts, that last sentence needs a little clarification.  In the 70s and early 80s, the automotive industry was reeling.  Smog controls and safety crusades made the cars mechanically inferior to the ones in 1969 as well as more complicated to work on, uglier and generally less interesting tow write about.  There was a fuel crisis in there, too, so regulators imposed a corporate average fuel economy.  Ralph Nader’s biased and unfortunate Unsafe at Any Speed, published in 1966, was also a factor.

The speed limit was an imbecilic 55 miles an hour.

Many manufacturers closed or left the US market (R&T, being US-based, tended to concentrate on the American scene), AMC died, and even the surviving big three were in trouble.  Economy car companies, particularly Japanese companies who didn’t have a reputation to uphold, did well.  Layoffs abounded.

It was a grim time to be in the car business, even as a magazine.

But by 1988, the industry was recovering, and manufacturers, having gotten a grasp of emissions technology were actually building cars that people wanted to drive again.  Horsepower numbers were rising, convertibles reappeared (Nader must have been distracted, probably off annoying some other industry) and it was a good time to be alive.

Road & Track reflected this.  1988 was a vivacious, optimistic year for the magazine, exuding confidence in the wake of the launches of the brash Ferrari Testarossa, the glorious GTO and F40 and the Porsche 959.  Cars, it appeared, were exciting again.

Over the course of the year, this played out again and again.  Performance cars were given the nod over family sedans.  The first wave of the 4WD revolution in passenger cars was studied.

Life was good.

Good enough, in fact that their standout article of the year was among the ballsiest that I’ve ever seen from a car magazine. In an era when the specialist press was proudly displayed on every supermarket magazine rack and newsstand in the US, they openly re-analyzed the Audi unintended acceleration case and concluded that Sixty Minutes was wrong, sensationalist and journalistically compromised.  While that is often true for Sixty Minutes, it is unusual for a car magazine to shout it out.

Even more unusual is that a magazine conclude that the operators (drivers) were to blame.  While the public was out for corporate blood, having a major media outlet come out and say that the public itself is to blame, essentially because they don’t know how to drive correctly (which anyone who has driven in the US will be unsurprised by), and that the lawsuits should all be dismissed was an act of sheer integrity, not to mention courage.

Things like this are why R&T was the class of the automotive magazine field for decades, and why I still read back issues thirty years out of date.

 

Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and all around media opinionologist (he does read or watch the stuff he has opinions about, first, if that’s any consolation) whose latest book is Jungle Lab Terror.  You can buy it here.