Hot new tech quickly becomes old, but that doesn't make it any less cool. In fact, cool old tech tends to get even cooler when other technologies catch up and let the existing stuff get better. One of those is the turbocharger. Now ubiquitous, it was rare just a decade ago. But 60 years ago, it was almost unheard of and it had the potential to be a game changer.

Turbochargers have been around for nearly 100 years, and in production cars for nearly 60. The idea for forced induction--pushing air into an engine instead of letting the engine suck--is nearly as old as the internal combustion engine. Gottlieb Daimler and Rudolf Diesel were both working on the idea as early as 1885, with Daimler patenting a device at the time.



The first successful exhaust gas turbocharging came from Swiss engineer Alfred Büchi. He patented the idea in 1905, but it took another 20 years for materials and fuel to catch up with the idea. He was able to get it to work on a diesel engine in 1925, boosting efficiency by more than 40 percent. It would take even longer for turbos to make their way under the hood of American production cars. And it would end in failure.

In the 1950s and 1960s, General Motors brands were all trying to out-innovate not just the competition, but other GM brands. They gave everything cool names, like Rocket 88 and F-85. But they also pioneered some cool tech.

Oldsmobile and Chevrolet showed production turbocharged engines within weeks of each other and there are arguments as to which was actually first. This article is going to talk about the Oldsmobile system, though, because it was slightly more complicated and had a way cooler name. The Turbo-Rocket V8.


The Turbo-Rocket V8 started out as a version of the all-aluminum 215 cubic inch (3.5L) V8 that was developed by Buick and used by Olds--and which lived on into the 2000s under the hood of Range Rovers. The Turbo-Rocket V8 was the only engine available in the new Jetfire model (which was really a Cutlass trim level) and Oldsmobile wanted more power from the engine.

The usual way to do that was to add displacement but Oldsmobile decided to do something completely different instead. Why? Because it sounded like something from the future and that's all the reason you needed to get some budget in 1960.

The engine used a Garrett T5 turbo making a deliberately low 5 psi of boost to prevent detonation. That bumped power from 185 hp to 215, and gave the Jetfire a healthy 300 lb-ft of torque.

So how did a turbo work when carburettors were king? Just like a modern one, only less efficiently.


Red Exhaust Turbine Spins and Turns Blue Intake Turbine​

Turbochargers are mounted in the exhaust stream, using the air being forced out of the engine to spin a fan or turbine. Connected to that wheel is another turbine that's mounted in the intake stream. The exhaust gasses spin the exhaust turbine, that turns the intake turbine, which sucks air into the intake and stuffs it into the cylinders.

Five psi of boost means that the turbo can pressurize the cylinder to about 1/3rd more than the air pressure outside. That extra air means that the engine can burn about a third more fuel. That extra fuel burn is what delivers the extra power. Packing more air into a smaller cylinder is why turbos make more power, but don't really save fuel if you have a heavy foot.



Since fuel injection was little more than a Chevrolet party trick at the time, Olds designed its turbo to be a draw through model. That means that the turbocharger is between the carb and the engine. The fuel and air are sucked through the carb then are further mixed when they go through the turbocharger intake turbine.

But there was a big problem with the design. The engine still used the non-turbo V8's 10.5:1 compression ratio. That's high for a turbo, even by modern standards. It means that the intake charge that was already compressed by the turbo was compressed again by the piston. In testing, that lead to extremely high temperatures and pressures in the cylinder. High temperatures and pressures meant that the fuel didn't always ignite the way it was supposed to. That could cause the engines to fail early and violently. So Oldsmobile engineers had another solution to come up with.

"Turbo Rocket Fluid" is what they came up with. It was a mix of methyl alcohol and water that would lower the air temperature inside the cylinder through evaporation. The intake charge was cooler, so it would combust only when it was supposed to. So everything was perfect. More power, more torque, way more super 1960s futuristic awesomeness.



And after all that, what was the biggest complaint owners had with the car? A lack of power.

That's because the Turbo Rocket Fluid tank could run dry in as little as 200 miles. Owners frequently let the reservoir run dry and never filled it up. The engineers expected it to run out on occasion, so they added a valve that cut boost when it happened. But then the car had much less power. Instead of filling it, owners griped.

So the car was not a hit with buyers, who wanted nothing more than to put gas in their car and drive. It was a failure. Just under 10,000 were sold in the two years the car was offered. In 1965, GM responded to complaints with an offer to replace the turbo with a normal intake and carb. Most owners took GM up on the offer, which makes turbo cars extremely rare today. The Corvair turbo would last until 1965, using that car's flat-six air cooled engine. It survived without Rocket Fluid thanks to a much lower 8:1 compression ratio.

Automakers would continue to experiment with the turbocharger and eventually advanced engine management systems would combine with better materials, including better engine oil and intercoolers, to make turbos the new big power go-to. Mainstream turbocharging came to market with the Mercedes 300SD and Saab 99 Turbo in 1978, followed, of course, by the 1980 Turbo Trans Am.