A century ago, Swiss engineer Alfred Buchi was studying steam turbines when inspiration struck: Why not spin the wheel with exhaust from an internal combustion engine and use the recovered energy to force-feed the intake side? It was a brilliant concept, since roughly a third of the energy in fuel is normally squandered out the tailpipe. Buchi applied for a patent to cover his invention in 1905.
The first applications were for airplanes, and the results were promising. In an early experiment conducted after World War I, General Electric engineer Sanford Moss mounted a turbo to a Liberty V-12 aircraft engine and shipped his experiment to Colorado, for high-altitude testing on Pikes Peak. Without the turbo, the V-12’s 354 hp at sea level dropped to 230 hp at altitude. Boosted by a ten-inch-diameter turbo, the blown Liberty cranked out 377 hp at 14,000 feet.
G.E.’s timing was late for the First World War but perfect for the next global conflict. Vastly improved turbochargers gave American bombers and fighters major range and altitude advantages throughout World War II. More than 300,000 were manufactured by G.E. and Ford.
Diesel ship and locomotive applications began in the 1920s. Turbo-diesels are an ideal marriage, because there’s no throttle to stall the air delivered by the compressor.Turbochargers hit the road in diesel trucks beginning in Europe in 1949. A year later, Cummins added turbos designed by Buchi-then in his seventies-to American-made diesels. Cummins also sponsored turbocharging’s racing debut. In 1952, a turbo-diesel roadster driven by Fred Agabashian qualified on the Indy 500 pole and led for 100 miles before dropping out when tire debris clogged the blower.
Oldsmobile offered the world’s first turbocharged production automobile, the 1962 F-85 Jetfire V-8. The F-85 arrived just ahead of Chevrolet‘s Corvair Monza Spyder (later Corsa), but the Corvair demonstrated more staying power. Nearly 50,000 turbo Corvairs were sold during five model years versus fewer than 10,000 Jetfires delivered in its two-year run.
The Turbo Offy attacked Indy in 1966 and started winning two years later. At its peak in 1973, it generated 1000-plus hp for qualifying, or more than 6 hp per cubic inch. Concurrently, Porsche blew the Can Am series into the history books with its 1100-hp 917/30. Turbos dominated Le Mans beginning in 1976 and one year later invaded Formula 1.
Inevitably, success on the track triggered the modern era of turbocharged production models. BMW launched a 2002 Turbo for Europe in 1973. Porsche presented the first 911 Turbo at the 1974 Paris Motor Show. Buick joined the throng in 1977, Mercedes-Benz (diesel) and Saab in 1978, followed by Pontiac in 1980 and Volvo in 1981.
During the last quarter-century, the list of those who’ve turboed is longer than the tally of those who haven’t. From backyard tuners to luxury limousine manufacturers, they’ve all relied on Buchi’s turbocharger, the handiest horsepower helper ever invented.