Want a weapons-grade slice of automotive trivia? Try this for size: pole position for the 1952 Indianapolis 500 was earned by a car powered by a turbo diesel engine. If, as I hope, you did not know this already, you may by now be goggling at the fact that a diesel powered car had ever been the fastest car in a field of top flight single seaters, but to me no less staggering is the fact that it was turbocharged.
Turbocharging as a means of forced induction is perhaps far older than some might think. Some aircraft engineers were playing with the idea in World War 1, and viable turbo engines were in production by the 1920s and used extensively in heavy bombers during World War 2, primarily as a way of maintaining engine power in the thin air at high altitude. But to turbocharge an aircraft engine, designed to run pretty much at a constant speed, is one thing, to make such a device viable for a car where engine speed changes dramatically all the time is quite another. Indeed it was only because of the near flat out design of the Brickyard that a turbo car was able to claim that pole all those years ago.
But don’t let anyone tell you it was the Europeans who first put turbos into road cars – when Porsche showed a concept of a turbocharged 911 at the Frankfurt Motorshow in 1973, it was a full decade after Oldsmobile had offered a turbo option on the Cutlass. Even so, I guess it is fair to say that it was only after the Europeans embraced the idea that it gained global traction and was set on the path to where almost all high performance and diesel-powered cars are turbocharged today.
My introduction to turbocharged cars came, I guess, in around 1977 when my father got bored of tooling around in his quick, capable, but slightly sensible BMW 2002Tii, and traded it for a 2002 Turbo. For a 12-year-old boy, this transformed not only the family wheels, but my image of my father: dad no more, he was a card carry superhero with his own batmobile to suit.
I’d like to say he used to collect me from school in it, me proudly standing there as the 2002, all mad stripes, bolt on wheel arches and, yes, reversed Turbo script on its vast front spoiler, prowled up to the gates while my mates swooned. But that’s not how I remember it. I associate it more with realising my dad possessed an entire lexicon of Anglo Saxon argot I didn’t even know he knew, let alone could deploy with such seamless fluency. In short, the 2002 Turbo was a nightmare. It didn’t break down a lot, it broke down all the time and, living on a little island in the English Channel as we did, there was no-one around who knew how to fix it.
‘Between these undesirable poles came just a little sliver of green paint, a tiny, almost vestigial zone where, if you were lucky enough to keep the needle within it, the car would perform as it should. At least for a little while.’
I didn’t care. I was completely obsessed with it in general and one detail in particular – a strange dial sprouting from the dash. This was the boost gauge. It comprised a needle that swept through an arc which changed colour according to how much boost the car was delivering. The first section, which comprised almost half the dial was, I think, grey and if the needle pointed there the engine was off boost and with a compression ratio of below 7.0:1. It meant you’d be duffed up by the bloke on the Unigate electric milk float. The second half of the scale was almost all red and if the needle pointed there the engine was over boosting and if you didn’t lift at once there’d be a loud bang as something, somewhere in the supply chain, usually the exhaust, gave up the unequal struggle. Between these undesirable poles came just a little sliver of green paint, a tiny, almost vestigial zone where, if you were lucky enough to keep the needle within it, the car would perform as it should. At least for a little while.
He didn’t hang onto it for long, and in more ways than one. The first time he didn’t hang onto it he spun it on a wet roundabout, duped by turbo lag that increased power from nothing to everything in the blink of an eye. The second time the engine consumed itself while being asked to do nothing more dramatic than reverse out of a parking space. We pushed it back into the space and watched my father march off to a telephone box, ring the dealer that had sold it and told him he never wanted to see it again.
I recall just one journey in which all went well. By modern standards I expect it would feel pitifully slow, but 170bhp went a long way in the 1970s when cars were light, especially if you concentrated it all into a powerband about three revs wide. Certainly to a 12-year-old boy with an unhealthy obsession for boost gauges, the anticipation felt while waiting for that needle to flick over to the green zone was almost more than I could bear. When it happened and the 2002 leapt forward, there was not a place in the world I’d have rather been.
About ten-years ago, I got the chance to drive another. I declined, figuring the car would just feel slow, old and awful. I regret that – I think now I could appreciate it for what it is, not for what my 12-year-old brain remembered it to be. If I ever get the chance again, I shall grab it with both hands.
Photography courtesy Nankhon100, Mike Roberts and Lothar Spurzem