History of the choo-choo - the first turbo production cars were deathtraps

History of the choo-choo - the first turbo production cars were deathtraps

Turbo cars are maaaad, and that's a fact. MOOG has taken his slow-but-sporty BRZ and made it a beaut street car with the addition of the Gen2 Garrett GTX2864 turbocharger bolted to the SME kit he fitted IN THE LATEST EPISODE

However, while turbos are everywhere today that wasn't the case in the Back In The Day Times of yesteryear. Settle in with a hot cup of Milo, kids, as Uncle Workshop Manuel takes you back to the scary days before turbochargers were everywhere and everyone knew how rad they are. 

Turbochargers, or turbosuperchargers as they used to be known, were first patented around 1905 by a Swiss fella named Alfred, but it wasn't until 1962 that we saw the first production car with a turbocharger fitted. Today turbos are most well-known as fitted to Japanese or European cars, but it was actually American brands Oldsmobile and Chevrolet who beat every other manufacturer to releasing turbo road cars. 

Oldsmobile's turbocharged Jetfire coupe was launched in 1962 just a few weeks ahead of Chevy's Corvair Spyder Turbo. The Oldsmobile was sold with an optional Turbo-Rocket 3.5-litre (215ci) V8 wearing a Garrett T5 pushing 5psi to 215hp compared to 155hp from the NA model. Unfortunately detonation (knock) was a problem with the carburettor-fed forced-induction so Oldsmobile offered Turbo-Rocket Fluid which was a water-alcohol mix injected into the intake charge air as intercooling wasn't invented yet.

While the Oldsmobile was a fairly conventional car packing newfound turbo power many owners forgot to fill up their Turbo-Rocket Fluid and therefore toasted their engines and turbochargers. Chevrolet's turbo-fed Corvairs also suffered, but this was more from bad PR in the face of Ralph Nader's book Unsafe At Any Speed rather than poor engineering of the radical rear-engined air-cooled boxer engine.

In 1973 BMW stunned the world by launching the 2002 Turbo at the Frankfurt Motor Show. While the 1602 and 2002 models had already found fame around the world, and particularly in the USA as they ushered in a new era of small car appreciation, the Turbo offered genuine supercar speed. 

With a KK&K turbocharger strapped to the side of the 2002 Tii's Kugelfischer mechanically fuel-injected two-litre four-cylinder engine the Turbo made 170hp, or approximately 70hp more than the base model 2002 and 40hp more than the Tii it was based on.

However, with just 6.9:1 compression ratio (to prevent detonation) and the primitive injection turbo lag was a problem. And then the 1973 Oil Crisis hit and the model was killed off after only 1672 were built.

In the early 1970s a little German company called Porsche took their monstrous 917 race car to America to battle the 600hp big-block V8s in the Can-Am racing series. While their injected flat-12 was capable of well over 250mph at Le Mans the Germans decided to cut the roof off and add turbochargers, which culminated with 1973's epic 917/30 model that could make 1600hp in qualifying trim - still regarded as the most powerful closed-wheel racing car to ever take to the track. 

And it had a direct effect on one of the most legendary turbo road cars to ever be built...

Porsche's 930 Turbo is arguably the first truly modern turbocharged performance car, appearing in 1974 with Ernst Fuhrmann responsible for taking the turbo technology off the all-conquering 917/30 and jamming it onto the three-litre flat-six 911 model to create the 930.

Porsche did this because they wanted to enter Group 4 and Group 5 racing with their 934 and 935 models, respectively, and so had to sell 400 road-going homologation models in a 24-month period for their race cars to be eligible to race. However, car enthusiasts quickly realised the 930 Turbo was a devastatingly fast machine, with even the early 260hp models passing 250km/h and doing 0-100km/h in a mind-bending (for the time) 5.2-seconds. 

The model was revised several times through its life, arguably starting the 1980s Supercar War with its brutal top speed and accelerative performance against traditional Italian V12 models from Lamborghini and Ferrari. It wasn't without fault, though, as it suffered from terrible lag that would bite inexperienced drivers mid-corner, earning turbo Porsches the nickname "Widowmakers". 

Saab's 99 Turbo hit the market in 1977, starting a legacy of turbocharged models that lasted right up to the marque's demise in 2012. While the 145hp output wasn't a massive tar-burning amount the 99 Turbo set many technological trends with its Bosch fuel-injection and Garrett turbocharger providing the 99 a 200km/h top speed and making it a formidable rally car. 

So these are the great-granddaddys of the turbocharged cars we enjoy and love today. While their performance isn't mind-bending by today's standards they're pieces of history and each are worth serious buckaroonies if you can find one in good condition, which isn't always easy.



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