This Day In History: August 13

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The German engineer Felix Wankel, inventor of a rotary engine that will be used in race cars, is born on August 13, 1902, in Lahr, Germany.

Wankel reportedly came up with the basic idea for a new type of internal combustion gasoline engine when he was only 17 years old. In 1924, Wankel set up a small laboratory where he began the research and development of his dream engine, which would be able to attain intake, compression, combustion and exhaust, all while rotating. He brought his knowledge of rotary valves to his work with the German Aeronautical Research Establishment during World War II, and to a leading German motorcycle company, NSU Motorenwerk AG, beginning in 1951. Wankel completed his first design of a rotary-piston engine in 1954, and the first unit was tested in 1957.

In other internal-combustion engines, moving pistons did the work of getting the combustion process started; in the Wankel rotary engine, an orbiting rotor in the shape of a curved equilateral triangle served this purpose. Fewer moving parts created a smoothly performing engine that was lightweight, compact, low-cost and required fewer repairs. After NSU officially announced the completion of the Wankel rotary engine in late 1959, some 100 companies around the world rushed to propose partnerships that would get the engine inside their products. Mazda, the Japanese automaker, signed a formal contract with NSU in July 1961, after receiving approval from the Japanese government.

In an attempt to experiment with the rotary engine and perfect it for use in its vehicles, Mazda formed an RE (Rotary Engine) Research Department in 1963. The Cosmo Sport, which Mazda released in May 1967, was the planet’s first dual-rotor rotary engine car. With futuristic styling and superior performance, the Cosmo wowed car enthusiasts worldwide. Mazda began installing rotary engines in its sedans and coupes in 1968, and the vehicles hit the U.S. market in 1971. In the wake of a global oil crisis in 1973-74, Mazda continually worked on improving its rotary engines to improve fuel efficiency, and by the end of that decade its sports cars had become popular in both Europe and the United States In addition to Mazda, a number of other companies licensed the Wankel engine during the 1960s and 1970s, including Daimler-Benz, Alfa Romeo, Rolls Royce, Porsche, General Motors, Suzuki and Toyota.

Meanwhile, Wankel continued his own work with the rotary piston engine, forming his own research establishment in Lindau, Germany, in the mid-1970s. In 1986, he sold the institute for 100 million Deutschmarks (around $41 million) to Daimler Benz, maker of the Mercedes. Wankel filed a new patent as late as 1987; the following year, he died after a long illness.