Tales from futures past: the Alfa Romeo engine you’ve never heard about.
During the entire Sixties decade, the rotary engine as conceptualized by the German inventor Felix Wankel and developed by NSU became something of the auto industry’s darling: compact, light, powerful yet smooth, and made of few moving parts, it looked like the future.
No car company wanted to risk being left behind, so pretty much every automaker licensed the Wankel and NSU patents to start their own experiments with rotary engines. Including Alfa Romeo.
A few weeks ago, the retired engineer Giorgio Figliozzi was invited by the Alfa Romeo Museum’s curator, Lorenzo Ardizio, to shed light upon a piece of the Milanese marque’s history hardly anyone ever heard about: of course, Yours Truly wasn’t going to let this opportunity slip away…
The first contact between Alfa Romeo and NSU dates back to 1962, and the engineers from the two companies regularly exchanged information and experiences they made while tacking the Wankel’s main issue: the durability (or lack thereof) of the rotor’s apex seals. These crucial components of the Wankel engine design are subjected to extreme changes in temperature and pushed the material technology of the ’60s beyond its limits.
Mr. Figliozzi recalled that he and his colleagues tried a huge variety of possible materials, from graphite (which worked well but didn’t last nearly long enough) to even the good old cast iron (whose weight would cause the apex seals to actually ‘consume’ the stator due to their high centrifugal force).
By the late Sixties the Alfa Romeo experimental department had converted two cars to use as development ‘mules’: a Spider, fitted with a single-rotor 500cc engine good for 65 HP, and a 1750 saloon equipped with a bi-rotor 1000cc engine rated at 130 HP. In both cases the rotary engines were bolted to the normal production gearbox of the respective donor car: that 1750’s gearbox is still attached to the prototype bi-rotor engine today, as it can be seen in these pictures.
Neither car would survive the end of the Wankel experimental program in 1973: the experimental engines were taken away and stored, while the Spider and 1750 were crushed. At this point, it must be pointed out that Alfa Romeo was a small company and the budget allocated to the Wankel program was tiny: only a handful of engineers and two engine test rooms. Had there ever been a serious production intent? As Mr. Figliozzi plainly stated, no.
Albeit while the research program wasn’t fully cancelled until 1973, by the time Neil Armstrong had set foot on the Moon, the Alfa Wankel engine was doomed. At the time Alfa Romeo covered its production twin-cam engines with a 100,000 Km warranty, a distance its Wankel prototypes couldn’t even get close to.
The limited human and material resources Alfa Romeo could dedicate to its Wankel program became even more limited once the first anti-pollution laws were enacted in the USA: work on fuel injection and electronic engine management systems was then a far more pressing issue.
The oil crisis of late 1973 was then just the final nail in the programme’s coffin: it disappeared into the company’s archives, never to be seen again. Until now…