Car talk: The Turbocharged Timeline
From the Ford Model T to the Ford Focus, the evolution of consumer cars has been a fascinating journey to witness. The technology we take for granted today was once a distant futuristic dream exclusive to the race track or the imagination of car designers. One particular milestone in consumer technology is the adoption of turbocharged engine technology. In today's blog post we will be taking a brief look at the history of the turbo charger in consumer vehicles and how it has made its way to the forefront of production car technology and into the new and used cars you drive today.
1960s: Testing the waters
Throughout the 1950s there was a continuous development and refinement of turbocharging technology. This progress resulted in an increased integration of turbos in heavy commercial vehicles, such as excavators, bulldozers, and earthmovers, as the decade unfolded.
When the 1960's came around turbocharging was regularly used in commercial vehicles but still in its infancy when it came to passenger vehicles. However it wasn't long before a few automotive pioneers began experimenting with this technology for the masses. Early examples included the Oldsmobile cutlass and its Turbo-rocket V8 engine and the Chevrolet Corvair Monza Spyder that was introduced in 1962. The Corvair featured a turbocharged flat-six engine, showcasing an early attempt to bring forced induction to the mass market.
Despite some success, the vehicles were plagued with reliability issues and required regular repair work. This meant that widespread adoption of turbocharging in the 1960s was limited and the mass market was still a few decades away from embracing it fully. Nevertheless, this period planted the seed for the turbocharged revolution and demonstrated to the world that that forced induction passenger vehicles were a viable option.
1970s: More experimentation
The 1970s witnessed the emergence of a few more turbocharged cars. As manufacturers sought to enhance performance and meet tightening emissions standards, turbocharging technology became a more realistic solution for their consumer vehicles. The iconic Porsche 911 Turbo, introduced in 1975, showcased the potential of turbochargers in sports cars, combining sleek design with exhilarating speed.
Perhaps one of the most pivotal cars in the history of the turbocharger for the consumer however was the Saab 99 Turbo. The Saab 99 Turbo was an early trend setter when it comes to mass production turbos. This is due to the fact that it was a 'proper' 4 door family car and the first production car to use a 4 cylinder turbocharged engine which is a format that continues to be popular today.
Turbocharged engines in consumer cars during the 1970s represented a bold departure from traditional naturally aspirated engines, signalling another step in the pursuit of innovation and experimentation with what was possible. These early turbocharged models continued to lay the foundation for widespread adoption of forced induction technology for consumer cars in the years to come.
The 1980s marked a turbocharged revolution, with forced induction technology gaining widespread popularity with enthusiasts and regular consumers alike. This era saw the convergence of turbocharging and motorsport, particularly in rally racing. Iconic rally cars like the Audi Quattro S1 and the Lancia Delta S4 showcased the capabilities of turbocharged engines in the unforgiving environment of group B rally, forever linking boosted engines with motorsport success.
On the road, models like the Ford Sierra RS Cosworth and the Peugeot 205 Turbo 16 exemplified the synthesis of motorsport technology and everyday driving, making turbocharged cars not just a symbol of speed but also of race-inspired engineering. The 1980s were a golden age for turbocharged cars, with their influence extending beyond the rally stages and race tracks and onto the streets, leaving an enduring legacy in both motorsport history and the hearts of automotive enthusiasts.
It was also during the 1980's that consumers were first introduced to a twin turbo engine with the Maserati Biturbo being released in 1981. Initially this was a success for Maserati who sold over 40,000 units in the first year however popularity began to decline as build quality issues became apparent. It didn't matter though as Maserati had set the blueprint for technology that would later become common place on cars like BMW, Audi and Mercedes.
1990s: The rise of the turbo diesel
It was during the mid 90s that turbo diesels began to gain serious traction in the UK for consumer vehicles. The UK government introduced tax incentives to promote diesel cars. Diesel fuel was taxed at a lower rate than petrol, and diesel cars often enjoyed lower road tax and company car tax rates. The focus on fuel efficiency and lower carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions contributed to the growth of diesel car sales, many of which were using turbo-diesel set ups. Models like the Vauxhall Astra and Ford Escort, equipped with turbo diesel engines, became emblematic of the era's quest for a perfect blend of performance and economy. This was trend that continued well into the 2000s and early 2010s with Diesels being seen as the next great step in automotive transport.
The 1990s also witnessed the emergence of high-performance turbocharged petrol cars, as exemplified by the iconic Subaru Impreza and Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution. These rally-inspired machines not only dominated motorsports but also found a dedicated fan base among British enthusiasts, contributing to the turbocharged fever that defined the UK automotive scene in the '90s. The decade marked a pivotal moment where turbocharging technology played a crucial role in shaping the diverse and dynamic range of cars on British roads.
2000s: The edge of the mainstream.
While naturally aspirated engines were still the most popular engines with the likes of Ford and Vauxhall in the 2000s, there was no ignoring the presence of forced induction in the consumer market. The 2000s witnessed a surge in the popularity of turbocharged cars, marking a significant trend shift in the automotive industry. Turbocharging technology became increasingly widespread, not just in high-performance sports and diesel cars but also in mainstream petrol powered models.
Car manufacturers embraced turbos as a means to achieve a balance between performance and fuel efficiency. From compact hatchbacks to luxury sedans, turbocharged engines became a staple, offering drivers the performance of a bigger engine without sacrificing fuel economy. The 2000s can be seen as a pivotal era that solidified the place of turbocharging in the automotive landscape, shaping the way cars were designed and driven.
2010s: Turbo take-over
In the 2010s, the popularity of turbocharged cars continued to soar, marking a defining chapter in automotive innovation and performance. With an increasing emphasis on fuel efficiency and environmental consciousness, turbocharging became a go-to solution for manufacturers seeking to maintain or enhance power while meeting stringent emission standards. The decade saw a proliferation of downsized engines with turbochargers, combining the best of both worlds – improved fuel economy and a dynamic driving experience.
From sporty hatchbacks to SUVs and everything in between, turbocharged engines became the standard for most manufacturers. The rise of hybrid technologies further propelled the trend, showcasing a commitment to sustainability without compromising on performance. The 2010s cemented turbocharging as a cornerstone of automotive engineering, leaving an indelible mark on the industry's pursuit of powerful, yet eco-friendly, driving solutions.
By the end of the decade almost every manufacturer had downsized their most popular engines and slapped on a good old fashioned turbocharger. Fords 1.0 Eco-boost engine is a prime example of this. Despite being over a 33% smaller in capacity than the 1.6 Zetec engine that it replaced, the Ecoboost produces more horsepower (38hp more in its best trim) and better fuel economy that simply out classes its predecessor. This trend means engines can be smaller, lighter and more efficient than ever thought possible.
2020s: A look to the future
As the automotive industry undergoes a transformative shift toward electric and hybrid propulsion, turbocharging remains an integral component, contributing to a dynamic driving experience while aligning with the global push for greener mobility solutions. The 2020s are witnessing a nuanced fusion of traditional turbocharged power and cutting-edge electrification, shaping the future of automotive performance in a rapidly changing landscape.
With turbo charged cars becoming so common place it is important to remember how crucial regular servicing is for these engines. While they offer huge leaps in performance and sustainability, these engines must be looked after. Do that and they will repay you with years of happy, trouble free motoring.
Words and photos by Dave Tappenden