Alfa Romeo's Secret Wankel Project
The Wankel rotary engine once seemed to be the future of automobile propulsion, and the long list of companies that bought a Wankel license includes Alfa Romeo.
Little over a decade since the last rotary-powered car was built and heading fast into an all-electric future, it's hard to believe the Wankel engine was once considered the future of automobile propulsion.
Yet throughout the 1960s and into the early 70s, the rotary engine invented by Felix Wankel and developed by the German automaker NSU has been the auto industry's darling, with no self-respecting automaker wanting to risk being left behind.
Made of fewer moving parts, compact yet powerful, high-revving yet free of vibrations, the Wankel rotary engine held great promise compared to period automobile powerplants, and the long list of companies that bought a Wankel license from NSU includes Alfa Romeo.
Contacts between Alfa and NSU began as early as 1962, but even though the Italian company was quite an early adopter, the small size of Alfa's business meant its research and development budget could only stretch so far.
At any given time, the experimental department at the Portello could only dedicate up to two engine test rooms and a handful of engineers to tackle the considerable technical challenges posed by the Wankel engine, the main one being the durability (or lack thereof) of the rotor's apex seals.
These components were crucial to maintaining compression and burning the fuel mixture efficiently but pushed the materials and technology available at the time to their limits.
Nevertheless, by the late 60s, Alfa's Wankel engines began road testing under the hoods of a Spider and a 1750 Berlina. The Spider was equipped with a single-rotor 500cc engine good for about 65 HP, while the 1750 received a 1000cc twin-rotor engine that produced around 130 HP.
Both cars are long gone, but the twin-rotor engine has been preserved for the Alfa Romeo museum, still mated to its Giulia five-speed gearbox and double-choke Weber carburetor.
The Milanese company's Wankel engine program never went beyond the experimental stage and was ultimately shut down in 1973.
Alfa Romeo at the time was so confident in its classic twin-cam four-cylinder engines to cover them with a 100.000 Km warranty, a distance none of its Wankel prototypes could cover reliably.
Then there was the introduction of the first tailpipe emissions regulations in the USA in 1967, which shifted Alfa's development priorities towards fuel injection and electronic engine management systems.
But the final blow to Alfa's Wankel project was the oil crisis in late 1973. The sudden 400% spike in crude oil prices shook the automobile industry and made the notoriously thirsty Wankel engine a much less attractive proposition.
With that, the Alfa rotary's fate was sealed forever: like every other automaker except Mazda, the Milanese company quietly closed the Wankel chapter and moved on.