WANKEL ROTARY ENGINE (1957-PRESENT)
Despite being over 60 years old, the Wankel rotary engine is not only rarely understood, but is actually by far the newest form of internal combustion engine – the piston engine has been around for well over a century. Rotaries have a somewhat undeserved reputation for unreliability, partly caused by poor tuning and maintenance, and partly because in the early days the engines really didn’t last very long.
First appearing in a couple of cars from defunct German manufacturer NSU, the rotary engine got rave reviews, and the Ro80 model even won
European Car of the Year in 1968, but unreliability soon gave the Ro80 a bad reputation that effectively put its manufacturer out of business.
At around the same time, Mazda launched their much more successful range of rotaries, which were fitted to everything from sports cars to saloons and pick-up trucks to buses.
Other companies took note: Alfa Romeo, Citroën, Ford, Lada, Mercedes, Nissan, Porsche, Rolls- Royce and many more all developed their own versions, while Russian manufacturer VAZ made rotaries with up to 280bhp for the KGB, but none of these companies have stuck with rotaries to the present day.
Mazda’s rotary engines have gone from strength to strength, and are famed for being the first Japanese engine to both finish and win at Le Mans, winning more American IMSA sports car races than any other and holding countless drag- racing records.
Away from cars, due to their lightness, smoothness, power potential and strength, rotary engines are used in everything from model planes to chainsaws, go-karts, full-size aircraft and military drones, right up to enormous 82ltr, 1100bhp industrial engines with huge, one-metre rotors. Yes, really!