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Felix Wankel And The Greatest Forgotten Invention Of The 20th Century

MUNICH (dpa) – If you look under the bonnet of a car in Germany, Mexico or New Zealand, you will generally see the one type of motor – the internal combustion engine. But 30 years ago it seemed possible that it might be superseded by a new invention- the Wankel motor.

The Wankel was seen as simpler, lighter and less noisy. But the revolution in motoring history did not take place.

Felix Wanke would have been 100 years old on August 13. He was an inventor who turned his hobby into a career. He was born in 1902 in the Black Forest town of Lahr and trained as a publisher in Heidelberg. His great interest was biographies of spies who specialised in science and technology.

In the 1920s, Wankel and some friends opened a small workshop and experimented with motors. It was the beginning of an unusual career which was to produce what became one of the great forgotten inventions of the 20th century.

The inventor himself was an oddity in that did not have an engineering background and never even held a driver’s licence.

Wankel’s research came to prominence when the German arms industry expanded during the Nazi era. He was given backing which enabled him to open his own workshop in Lindau, on Lake Constance, and work on developing new motors. The end of the war prevented him from putting some of his valves and seals into mass production. The French forces destroyed the workshop.

He was subsequently able to continue his work with the support of industry. In April 1954, he came across the ingeniously simple idea of a motor which worked practically without valves. It used a triangular-shaped rotor which rotated inside a container shaped like the figure “8”.

The engine differed in four principal ways from the internal- combustion engine: it had rotor instead of piston, a so-called eccentric shaft in place of crankshaft, peripheral housing instead of cylinder and intake and exhaust port instead of valve and camshaft.

The mass-circulation Bild-Zeitung described it as a “Wunder Motor”.

Over the following decades, motor manufacturers who worked with the Wankel included Daimler-Benz, Porsche, Alfa Romeo and Rolls- Royce. But Wankel’s most important partner was the motorcycle maker NSU which in 1963 brought out the first series car with a Wankel motor: the NSU Spider.

Four years later came the Ro 80, which was voted by specialists as the “Car of the Year”.

But the euphoria was short-lived. It was a time of oil crisis and motor manufacturers reluctant to commit investment to a completely new motor. Volkswagen, which by now owned NSU – which had in the meantime merged with Audi – did not want to continue production of the Ro 80 in spite of advances in technology.

Wankel was not able to put together a durable coalition of backers. One contemporary, Dankwart Eiermann, 69, who worked with Wankel for 20 years, said: “That did not interest him. He was always a bit of dreamer.”

In spite of his motor’s lack of commercial success, it did earn him millions. Wankel died in 1988 in Heidelberg.

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