Going Where No Car Has Gone… Before

When I was a kid I was sure that by the end of the century we would all be driving cars that would not only look like rocket ships, but could fly. In the early ‘80s, Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner (set in 2020) showed flying police cars but by that point in my life I wasn’t so sure that we would see this happen in my lifetime.


Today’s post asks the question: What’s happened to automotive innovation? Sure, ABS and air bags are technical advances but today’s cars are powered by the same kind of engine my Uncle Harry’s 1948 Buick convertible used. During the 1950’s, Chrysler built limited edition gas turbine cars for several years. And only a few (two) are left. Jay Leno has one. Legendary automotive journalist, the late Tom McCahill was sure we would be driving them in the near future but it never happened. In the sixties, Mazda licensed German NSU’s patents for the Wankel engine and both companies built rotary engine-powered cars — at least for a while— but not anymore. Not so long ago, Mazda announced the last RX8 to be built with a Wankel engine.

In the seventies, Diesel-power was hyped as the way to get us out from under the thumb of mid-East oil cartels but poorly conceived products like GM’s converted diesel engines never caught on with American buyers.  Up until recently diesel cars were popular,—diesel trucks have always been popular— but here in the USA the higher cost of the fuel seems to offset the better fuel economy. It’s one of the reasons I sold my ML320 Mercedes. (Yeah, I know its cheaper now…but will it stay that way?) And now VW’s Dieselgate scandal may have driven the spike in the heart of these engines.

By the time the eighties got here, auto engineers seemed to had given up on real innovations. The Dodge Viper is powered by a V-10 truck engine! (There is some dispute of this.) Sure it’s fast, but Enzo Ferrari must be spinning in his grave at the though of that engine in a sports car. Instead of radically changing the powerplants of our cars, automotive engineers seem to have fallen in love with electronics and gadgets, like in-dash Navigation systems and goofy automatic transmission controls like the one in my now departed Range Rover.

Am I the only person that thinks having computer-controlled internal combustion engines is like having laser-guided buggy whips. One of the appeals of the engines in classic sports cars, like old my catalytic converter-less Porsche 924, was its simple engine design—OK, it was an Audi truck engie—that’s not only powerful but easily passes this state’s emissions tests. Is that too much to ask of tomorrow’s powerplant?


Chrysler turbine car photo: By Karrmann (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons