A bogged down revolution.
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.
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.
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.
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.