Join the Wankel Party

A bogged down revolution.

Do you feel lucky, шпана*? Image:

Apart from its compactness, free-revving nature and modest number of parts, the Wankel engine is of course known for its smoothness. This is not the first trait that comes to mind when one thinks of Russia but, on the other hand, no Wankel engine has ever been averse to enjoying a drink.

Although Russia was a bit of a latecomer when it comes to the Wankel engine, it was, for a period of roughly twenty-five years, quite seriously involved with the concept, resulting in close to forty different rotary engines being developed within that timespan. Development of the rotary engine started in 1974 at VAZ, better known in the West as manufacturers of the Fiat 124-based Lada saloon and Niva 4WD off-roader. Unlike NSU, Citroën, General Motors and Mazda, the Russians’ reason for developing rotary engines was of a somewhat sinister nature: they were initially designed to be fitted to special government and Communist Party vehicles used by the police, Ministry of Internal Affairs and KGB in order to provide them with a performance advantage over the bread-and-butter vehicles driven by the general population.

Cars such as these were known as ‘dogonyalka’ which roughly translates to ‘chaser’. Special Volgas fitted with the big and heavy 5.5-litre V8 from the Chaika limousine instead of the standard four-cylinder engine were already in use but, needless to remark, they had tricky handling characteristics and were very thirsty.

With that in mind, it made sense for VAZ to explore the possibilities of using rotary engines as they were much lighter and more compact. The Wankel was not exactly frugal either, of course, but as these cars were property of the Communist Party, the fuel bills would be paid by the state. Another advantage of the rotary was that its performance was less affected by poor quality low-octane fuel, which was often the only thing served by Russian filling stations at the time.

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Having apparently no appetite to pay licensing fees, the Russians imported a few Wankel engined cars (reports differ on whether these were NSU Ro80s or Mazda RX-2s) and simply disassembled and analysed the powerplants to see what was what.

The resulting first Russian Wankel that appeared in 1978, known as the VAZ-311, was a single-rotor engine which delivered 71bhp. The first batch of fifty engines was installed in the familar Lada saloon and this was given the model name VAZ-21018. They were distributed amongst police and some party officials for real-world trials. The results were not good: only one of the engines lasted longer than six months and the average lifespan of the VAZ-311 rotary was around 12,000 miles. Seals and bearing failures were legion and the engine was voraciously fuel-thirsty.

A feature unique to the Russian rotary engine was an anti-freeze injection system to aid starting in the notoriously cold eastern winters. An anti-freeze liquid could be injected to de-ice the plug electrodes. The instruction manual warned, however, that this should be tried no more than twice in succession, to avoid flooding the engine with the liquid.

The sub-standard durability of the first Russian rotary notwithstanding, in 1982 about 250 more VAZ-21018 models were produced and, surprisingly, these were made available for sale to the general public. As they were expensive, fragile and, with just 71bhp, not that much faster than a standard Lada, the VAZ-21018 flopped and only a few have survived in their original form as the vast majority have been converted to the standard piston engine.

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A return to the drawing board was clearly necessary for the VAZ rotary design team. It was decided to go with a twin-rotor design this time in the interest of more power. The twin-rotor engine developed by VAZ was ready in 1982 and existed in two versions: the VAZ-411 with a rotor width of 70mm and the VAZ-413 with 80mm. These delivered 115 and 140bhp respectively and thus, when installed in the VAZ-21019,the romantic new name for the rotary Lada, offered considerably better performance when compared to the standard car.

Unfortunately, the VAZ-21019 was made available for police and KGB duties only. A few black Volga sedans run by the KGB also received the same twin-rotor engines. These engines were also fitted to the  later, facelifted VAZ-21059 and VAZ 21079 (better known in the West as the Lada 2105). Like their predecessors, they were off limits to the public. These rotaries did prove to be a bit more durable and longer lasting than the VAZ-311 and offered a definite speed advantage in pursuit situations, but still consumed about twice as much fuel as the piston engines they replaced.

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In spite of the persistent durability issues and the fact that, by that time, only Mazda continued to make cars powered by a rotary engine, VAZ built a whole series of different rotaries in the 1980s, not only for use in cars but also for helicopters, airplanes and boats. The pinnacle of VAZ rotary design was probably the VAZ-513, a three-rotor powerplant that reportedly put out over 280bhp and was installed in one or two limousines belonging to high-ranking party officials.

The last Russian rotary installed in any significant numbers was the fuel-injected, twin-rotor VAZ-415 that delivered 140bhp. In the early 1990s, this made its way into the front-wheel drive Samara. Powered by this engine the VAZ-2108/91 reached a top speed of 124mph (200km/h) and sprinted to 62mph (100km/h) in eight seconds. It was theoretically available to the public, but most ended up with the police, party officials and those with the requisite connections.

Given the engine’s fuel consumption, a useful optional extra was a second fuel reservoir for an increased range. Oddly enough, a rev-counter was not fitted to the rotary Samara, nor were its brakes or suspension uprated in any way to cope with the substantial power increase.

Reliability remained problematic and very few 2108/91s found their way into private individuals’ hands. This would be the last appearance of a rotary engine in any Russian car to date and the Wankel engine is frankly not expected to surface in one ever again.

* Punk

Author: brrrruno

Car brochure collector, Thai food lover, not a morning person before my first cup of coffee

17 thoughts on “Join the Wankel Party”

  1. Morning! Thank you for this enlightening article, I had absolutely no idea the Soviets dabbled with rotary engines!

  2. Good morning Bruno. Another great formerly untold story, thank you. I’m trying to imagine the driving experience of that 140bhp Samara with no suspension or braking upgrades. Yikes! 😲

    I wonder how (or if) the Soviet engineers solved the problem of rotor seal wear, the traditional Achilles’ heel of Wankel engines?

    1. From the build quality of my mother’s brand new Lada Wagon, I doubt they did anything. By the time the engine wore out, everything else had.

  3. Big?


    The 5.5 litre V-8 to which the article refers was neither. It had an open deck, wet liner cylinder block cast in aluminium. It had aluminium cylinder heads with pushrod operated valve gear (hence much more compact than an sohc or dohc design, as well as being lighter and having a lower centre of gravity). The manifolding was aluminium. It made around 200bhp at modest rpm and could consume low octane fuels safely. It could start and run at very low temperatures, as well as in dry and hot dusty conditions. The cars it powered could be driven at speed on rough roads, unsealed roads and even across open country. Sure, they were under-steerers, pretty much a normal trait for nearly everything at the time* .

    Did you know that this Russian V-8 engine** went into production in 1958 and was fitted to cars from 1959? Even in the USA they did not put aluminium V-8s into production until well into the 1960s (for example, BOP V-8).

    Now a word of warning. For generations there has been a low smear against Russia and Russian people which goes along the lines of how primitive their industry, how everything they have is an inferior copy to a Western equivalent, how backward they are and so on. It pays not to underestimate. Always remember that Western European invasions of Russia end with Russian soldiers marching right into the capitals of the outfits that invaded Russian territory in the first place (some most excellent advice about avoiding this fate was delivered by General George Patton) and meting out terrible punishment. Remember also that the old Soviet Union was capable of conquering all Europe in under three months (it was estimated that under ideal conditions the Soviet ground forces would arrive at the English Channel in around five weeks from the outbreak of hostilities, hence the decision to post Pershing 2 nuclear armed missiles in Western Europe- thought to be the only way to stop a massive Soviet armoured drive across the European peninsula). The USSR was vilified in the West as being low tech, stupid, backward, populated by a people without a worthwhile culture etc. etc. etc. and yet it kept all of the Western Alliance at bay in an uneasy equilibrium for decades. Not bad for an outfit of such backward primitives. Not bad at all. Funny how they were able to achieve that. Perhaps they are not so inferior after all. Finally, never, ever forget the 26-million casualties suffered by the Russian people during WW2. They remember. Everyone else ought to.

    Keeping that in mind let’s refocus on the 5.5 litre V-8. It isn’t heavy. It isn’t big or bulky***. It was advanced for the time it was introduced and for a long time afterwards. Think about what was being produced around the World in 1959 and compare. This engine was quite an achievement.

    * some fun exceptions include Ledwinka’s mighty Tatras and, of course, VW’s Beetle.
    ** the original automotive version is ZMZ-13, variants were used for trucks, vans, marine applications and even armoured cars.
    *** it was small enough to fit to chassis originally designed for four cylinder engines.

    1. 1.
      There were no 26-million casualties suffered by the Russian people during WW2. In fact, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians, Georgians and so on suffered very many casualties.
      The USSR supplied Nazi Germany’s military campaigns to Western and Northern Europe and the Balkans and Africa after they jointly invaded Poland and celebrated the victory over it with a joint parade.
      The USSR did not fulfill Potsdam Agreement and did not let the Poland free vote, in 1953 bloodily suppressed the workers’ revolt in the EastEast Germany and Hungary Revolution in 1956 and occupied Czechoslowakia after the 1968.
      These states were kept at bay by the USSR for decades.
      The 5.5 V-8 is heavier, bigger and bulkier than the original 2.5 litre Volga engine.

    2. Wow, the famed internet Russian fanboys have even made it to Driven to Write!!

      100 crocodiles will keep a rocket science at bay too, that doesn’t mean the crocodile isn’t a primitive, stupid, unpleasant creature.

  4. There even were Wankel motorcycles under the name of Wnii Motoprom.
    First prototypes were based on the Dnepr/Cossack bike, later examples looked like precise copies of the BSA/NVT/Norton wankel bike

  5. I like hearing the vehicles mentioned in action, so I found a short video showing many of the rotary cars produced by manufacturers over the years, including Lada. I had forgotten that Mercedes-Benz had a go.

    Given that a rotary engine sounds like a wasp on speed, I’m amazed that SAAB were never tempted to develop one to replace the fairly similar-sounding two-stroke. You even get the same plume of oil following you around, if you rev them hard enough.

  6. In the mid 1970s I bought out the long-closed Allied Light Cars in Washington DC, one of the importers of NSU cars. As part of the hoard were various cars, including the first and last examples of the Wankel Spyder imported into the USA.

    I was never able to get the Spyder Wankels running due to a lack of engine parts, especially rotor seals. Neither engine was able to hold compression, probably due to broken seals. Having lived in central Germany until 1975, even my friends in Germany were of no help in getting ANY seals for the single rotor Spyder engines. They kept saying NSU claimed nothing was available, no seals or engine rebuild parts, and NSU dealers were no help. I was in discussion with the engineering department at John Deere, as they were seriously working on rotary engines for use by the US military, and they promised to make me several sets of rotor seals, but the program was shut down before that happened.

    I ended up selling both cars to a well-known car collector in Ohio, along with a 1958 DKW Munga 4X4.

    Of note is the dual spark plugs on the Russian engines. As far as I can remember, neither the Spyder or the RO-80 engines had dual spark plugs for each rotor, but the Mazda engines did. The Spyder motor doesn’t look like the Russian versions, so I suspect they might have been basing their designs on the Japanese versions.

    Now about the GAZ-13 Chaika 5.5 V8. Some people have suggested the 5.5 was a Chrysler Corp engine design, but having owned one of these cars for a brief time in the late 1980s, I can assure people it’s not a MoPaR engine. That said, my 1965 Chaika had a MoPaR generator with the power steering pump driven from the back of the generator. The Power brake bellows and cylinder were MoPaR-Bendix. Even the power brake vacuum tank on the left fender was identical to the one on my 1959 Imperial. These items had SAE hardware, not metric!

    As to the GAZ 13 interior items, the instruments were actual King-Seeley instruments* for V8 Packard Clippers, and I know Packard had a load of KPH speedos when they closed. The power window switches are 100% 1955-56 Packard as well, I took one off the door panel and checked the back side, and found the same casting number as used on the Packard switches!

    Logic says that the GAZ spare parts division was likely using “straw buyers” to buy leftover car parts from various Detroit scrap dealers. 40 years ago while buying Packard parts at one of the Carlisle PA flea market events, a scrap dealer who had barrels filled with obsolete Packard trim pieces told me they sold all the power window switches right after buying them about 1957.

    It’s always been my theory that on the small-production luxury cars like the ZIS/ZIL, the Gaz 12 and the GAZ 13 Chaika, rather than tool up to manufacture various components, it was easier and cheaper to have buyers source them in the USA.

    * During a visit to the big Hanover, Germany Techno-Classic car show in the mid 1990s, I had an opportunity to closely examine 3 different ZIS 110 and 115 [armored] limousines, the car wrongly said to have been made from 1942 Packard body dies.

    The ZIS vehicles not only had King-Seeley pre-WW2 Packard gauges [with different faces installed], the cars even had the Packard radios, one still had the Philco tag attached to the case, the other 2 had evidence of the tag being removed. I could go on and on about the various Packard parts I found on these cars, and the differences between the Packard 180 and the ZIS 110, but perhaps that’s best said another time.

    1. The NSU Ro80 engine started with twin spark plugs (of a special design), went to single plug only to revert to twin plugs at the end of production.
      Rotor tip seals made by John Deere most probably would not have been of much help for NSU engines. The material combination of tip seal and trochoid surface is very critical and must be selected carefully. Mazda used sintered carbon for the seals and hard chrome for the trochoid, NSU used sintered steel for the seals and Nikasil for the trochoid.
      I don’t know what John Deere was developing but most probably it would have left chatter marks on the trochoid’s surface, the end of an wankel engine.
      In almost all cases it wasn’t the actual rotor tip seals themselves that were at fault but the small leaf springs behind them that could lose tension in seconds when they were overheated. But at least a wankel engine in this condition will run, albeit with not much power whereas a piston engine will not run at all – a reason why wankels were loved by the snow mobile community.
      Wankel engines can be very reliable as was shown by the Fichte & Sachs engine which was made in millions. It had a small size of 200 to 300 cc, had an air cooled rather than oil cooled rotor – the price you pay is that the engine has to be run on petroil – and because in most applications it had a membrane carburettor it could be run in any orientation you liked which made it popular for large (Stihl) chainsaws where the absence of vibrations took much stress off the users. You got Hovercraft-style lawnmovers – anyone remember the Flymo? – and snow mobiles powered by this engine and it formed the starting point for the BSA-turned-Norton motorcycle wankel experiment (for which it was definitely most unsuited).

  7. Good afternoon, Bruno. I’m late to the party today. I’ve heard of the VAZ Wankel engine, but never knew much about them. I would imagine these engines have the same issues as all other Wankel engines, so I can imagine these were replaced with piston engines.

    Speaking of Wankel engined cars that have there engines replaced: here’s a shot of an LS-1 swapped RX7 FD I encountered last Saturday.

    1. Looks as if it was made to go there…

      There are few cars ever made which cannot be improved by that engine.

      I’m already thinking RO80 with a ZF 8HP70 in a K70-type arrangement.

  8. The CCCP organisations mentioned in this article reminded my of an experience that made clear the difference in perception between there and here.
    In the early Nineties I was involed in a consulting project whoch partnered EU and Russian Ministry of Transport, an organisation of then more than 40,000e people. Some very high ranking guy from them came over for a discussion and it was impressive to see their level of education, particularly their command of the English (as opposed to American) languge.
    In a coffee break I was standing next to one of then, we were looking out of the window when a paramedic ambulance was driving past the building with lights flashing and sirens on full power.
    “Ah, Milizija”
    “We don’t have something like a Milizija over here. That’s a paramedic”
    “What’s a paramedic”
    “An ambulance that gets you into hospital as quickly as possible”

  9. The Wankel engine is proof positive that very few automotive people had a clue about proper combustion in an ICE engine in the 1950s. Except, the gas turbine was studied to death, and brought to a fine state of affairs for aircraft use, which was not the same duty cycle at all as automotive use required. But the combustion chamber shape was fixed and invariable, just like those old pump-up paint removers.

    Nobody thought to ask Weslake about what were the odds of having a great combustion chamber when it moved and changed shape a great deal immediately after the fire was lit, which is the Wankel’s Achilles heel thermodynamically. The mechanicals of a piston engine naturally give a much more stable combustion chamber both in terms of size and shape. Anyone who’s handled a model engine with its cylinder head off can see how little the piston moves 15 crank degrees either side of top dead centre. Gives a good place to light a fire and keep it going. The Monogram see-through plastic model of the Wankel showed how poorly that compared to a piston engine in that regard.

    Nope, the mere fact that the Wankel worked, sort of, was enough for automotive engineers worldwide to go off on a wild goose chase, spewing unburned hydrocarbons recklessly. Only Mazda really stuck with it, putting band-aid after band-aid on the silly thing to get it marginally acceptable for consumer use in a consumer durable. Hydrocarbon thermal reactors to burn off unburnt fuel was the biggie. And now they’re still at it, trying to revive it as a range-extender for hybrid EVs. Waste of money, but hey, aspirational for company spirit one supposes. Someone has to be first to solve the age-old problem of how do you strike a match alight on a jelly, and by golly, Mazda wants to be the one who does!

    I own a 2019 Mazda, beautifully made beast, so I don’t denigrate the company overall. But I’m aware that some things are likely not meant to be, and the efficient Wankel rotary is very likely one of them.

    As for Soviet efforts in that regard, they seem to have been as successful as Rolls-Royce, Comotor, Deere and and NSU etc. Which is to say, not at all, really. Quelle surprise. Still, compared to an external combustion steam engine with pistons like rail locomotives for a century, and their 5 to 7 % thermal efficiency, the Wankel was a roaring success. Too bad the diesel engine already existed.

    1. Well it was lightweight, compact and revvy, not sure why you’re comparing it to a diesel engine especially in the context of a usage in sportscars like the rx7. With todays quest for maximum efficiency i think we’ve lost many of these interesting solutions which had their own quirks and character.

  10. Hi Bill

    Now that is interesting.

    re Wankel engine efficiency. It seems the chamber had a high surface area to volume ratio. This let much heat out and hence efficiency went down. Apart from that the earlier models utilised peripheral porting which abbreviated the expansion phase by letting the hot combustion gases out early (peripheral porting was terrible for economy, terrible for part throttle, much nicer at full throttle and elevated rpm).

    I didn’t realise that the moving combustion chamber was a problem of itself. I knew Mazda went to twin spark-plugs, but was under the impression they’d got the combustion stable and under control. Can you elaborate a some more on the Wankel and also on its moving chamber?

    1. The combustion chamber of a Wankel engine is rectangular, very long and very slim when seen from above which prevents any kind of swirl or tumble in the mixture. The ratio of volume to surface is very unfavourable, leading to heating up the rotor which needs to be oil cooled (NSU, Comotor, Mazda) or air cooled by guiding the intake mixture through it (Fichtel & Sachs, Norton). The trochoid also heats up on the part exposed to combustion gases, leading to a ‘cool bow’ which doesn’t get any coolking at all in modern Wankels and a ‘hot bow’ which gets all the cooling effort.
      Here you see the WIeland Blechwankel ‘tin Wankel’ which is completely built from stainless steel sheet metal or tubes and has a troichoid made from a strip of stainless steel rolled/bent into form with a laser welded joint. The holes are the coolant ducts.

      Seen in side view the chamber constantly changes its form (and not only its volume) and it is moving along the trochoid in sync with the rotor. When the spark plug fires the combustion chamber has the form of a very flat ‘B’ and the constriction in the centre prevents an even flame distribution – that’s the reason for the twin spark setup of many Wankel engines. The trailing part of the combustion chamber tends to accumulate unburnt mixture, forming what’s called the ‘rich nucleus’. Every now and then this nucleus fires, leading to uneven running under light load or on the overrun (similar to ‘four stroking’ in two stroke engines) – the Ro80 had a torque converter to filter it out. This behaviour can be reduced by stratified charge of the mixture and by a side inlet which only feeds mixture in the leading part of the B shaped chamber at the cost of less power. Unwanted running characteristics can be minimised by using side inlet and exhaust ports like Mazda did – but even Mazda’s Le Mans winning race Wankel had peripheral inlet and exhaut ports for increased power.

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