The Nazi SS officer who reinvented the modern car engine

You spin me right round: Felix Wankel’s design brought rotary engines to life, but does the design have a future?

Felix Wankel was not a nice man. Oh, I'm sure he was nice to his wife and kids, and probably loved dogs or budgies or hamsters or some such. Maybe he kept his lawn neatly trimmed and his bins were polished to a shine. But he was a Nazi. Not a Nazi in the sense of what you call some nasty right-wing troll on Twitter, but an actual Obersturmbahnfurher (roughly equivalent to a lieutenant colonel) in the SS, and a close friend of Wilhelm Keppler, the senior economic advisor to a certain jumped-up Austrian corporal with a Charlie Chaplin moustache.

Still, in even the most evil of lives, one supposes a little light must shine, and Wankel, quite aside from his schoolboy-sniggers surname, did at least leave a worthwhile legacy behind – he invented and developed the modern rotary engine, that made its way into several modern cars.

That’s quite some achievement. Ever since someone decided that engines should work by having round cylinders pumped up and down by petrol explosions in metal tubes, that has been the religious creed of virtually every car built, and will continue to be so until electric motors finally, totally take over.

Wankel’s rotary, which uses a triangular-shaped rotor spinning in an oval chamber, is the only other type of engine to achieve widespread production, putting it one up on the gas turbine jet engines that were briefly in vogue through the fifties and sixties, but which never really made it out of the lab or the occasional racing car.


NSU, a small German maker of motorcycles and cars which would eventually be folded into Audi and then VW, pushed hard on the rotary path for a while, creating the gorgeous, still-contemporary-looking Ro80, but unreliable engines bankrupted it. Citroen too had a go, sticking a BiRotor engine into the as-if-it-wasn't-mad-enough-already GS but it faded quickly from sales charts.

Only Mazda, then, has really stuck by the rotary, buying a licence from NSU to develop their design and, 50 years ago this year, creating the first Cosmo 110S Coupe, powered by a tiny 110hp twin-rotor engine. It was the start of a rotary love affair for the brand from Hiroshima, which would stuff rotaries into everything from pickup trucks to minibuses to a stunning coupe called the Luce, designed by a young Giorgetto Giugiaro.

The Cosmo was the first, though, and it's a fascinating thing to drive. Mazda later decided that turbocharging was the way to get around the rotary's slow-and-steady low rpm acceleration, but the 1967 original doesn't have one of those, so it's a gentle wind up, with the little 982cc engine whirring away with an almost jet-style whine. What's lovely about the Cosmo coupe is that it's a pastiche, and I mean that in the kindest sense possible. Like so many Japanese creations of the sixties, seventies and even eighties, it's half-copied from European and American designs, and kind of looks like the front of a Marcos Coupe conjoined with the back-end of a mid-sixties Ford Thunderbird, with an interior that's half Italian, half American. You sit, low and stretched out, fondling a huge wood-rimmed steering wheel with heavily hooded instruments hung in front of you in the style of Alfa Romeo. Everything feels light and delicate, from the tiny chrome door handles to the stubby gear lever, but like a true Japanese car, it also feels solidly built.

Phil Blake, professional DJ and owner of the immaculate 110S Cosmo coupe that we're driving, doesn't treat the car with kid gloves. "Oh no, it likes to go a bit. It's just not happy pottering around. You've got to give it some." All the way to 7,000rpm – unheard of at the time outside of a race track.

A race track was where Mazda's rotaries would have their greatest starring role, two decades after the Cosmo. The engines had fallen out of favour during the seventies oil crisis (too thirsty, and they needed constant lubricant top ups), but by the eighties, Mazda had the gorgeous, fast, and fun RC-7 rotary coupe on sale. Seeing as it was a ringer for the Porsche 924 in style terms, Mazda decided to go one better and take on the might of Porsche at the Le Mans 24hrs.

It should never have worked. But it did. In 1991, Mazda put together a team which included Irish racer David Kennedy. "We got hold of Nigel Stroud, who had been a designer at Porsche, and had had a hand in the dominant 956 racer, and had unique experience in building cars from aluminium honeycomb," Kennedy told The Irish Times. "The other cornerstone of the operation was a guy called Kio, who had been my mechanic in Formula 3, and between them they both bridged the gap in communication and culture between Japan and Europe, which was quite significant."

Still, beating not only Porsche but Jaguar and Sauber as well was going to be no easy task for Mazda's orange-and-green 787B. "These cars were 800bhp, 230mph projectiles, they were fantastic to drive and unbelievable to see, hurtling down the Mulsanne at 230mph, slipstreaming each other. But we were a very tight, very cost-effective organisation. A pure motor racing group, where as some of the other teams were maybe manufacturer heavy," says Kennedy. "As for the engine, the rotary was unique, and it had its advantages and disadvantages. One of the disadvantages, it never gave you engine braking, so at the end of the Mulsanne, there was no help. But we managed to get carbon brakes on the car, so then it was a benefit because no engine braking means better fuel consumption. And because it was so smooth, it was like riding a magic carpet, and very good in the wet, with very progressive power. It felt like it would go on for ever. Against the turbos, they would accelerate off the corner faster, but you'd catch them at the end of the straight."

There was another advantage, born of the rotary's compact size and displacement. Weight. The 787B was actually running in a slightly different rule class to its rivals, meaning it could carry around 150kg less weight. A crucial factor. As was the main Mazda driver trio of Johnny Herbert, Bertrand Gachot and Volker Weidler. Despite both Herbert and Weidler still recovering from massive F3000 accidents, all three drove magnificently.

And as the Porsche, Mercedes and Jaguar challenges faded all around them, the shocking-looking (that wild orange and green paint job), shocking sounding (David relates that he couldn't sleep in-between his driving stints because he kept listening to the distinctive rotary engine wail, heard above all the other engine noises. Herbert says much the same.) 787B worked its way up steadily through the field until, with just a few hours left, the leading Mercedes, driven by Jo Schlesser, Jochen Mass and Alain Ferte, pitted with an overheating engine, and suddenly car no. 55 was in the lead.

Famously, Johnny Herbert’s final to-the-flag two-hour stint in the baking hot cockpit pretty much finished him off. He brought the car home to the chequered flag, then promptly collapsed from heat exhaustion, leaving Gachot and Weidler to take to the top step of the podium without their comrade. We caught up with Herbert two years ago at the Goodwood Festival Of Speed, when Mazda was the featured brand and a 787B was on a lofty plinth above the crowds. “I’m just glad it’s up there,” Herbert told us. “Because it means I don’t have to drive the effing thing…”

"There was a Japanese report done by Mazda, and as ever Japanese reports aren't small," says Kennedy. "It was of biblical proportions, on the reasons why we had won. And on the last page it said, 'maybe it was because the car was blessed by a Bhuddist monk at the foothills of the snow-capped Mt Fuji. ' I was there for that blessing, it was a fabulous ceremony. And sometimes you scratch your head and say who knows?" It's still the only Japanese brand to win at Le Mans, and still the only car with anything other than a piston engine to do so.

Sadly, rotary power could do with a bit of divine intervention now. Since the RX-8 coupe, successor to three generations of RX-7, went out of production in 2012, all car engines have been up-and-down, not round-and-round. Even though Mazda sorted pretty much all of the reliability issues that so plagued NSU, a combination of thirst for petrol, thirst for oil, and sky-high emissions killed the layout, and attempts to revive rotary with hydrogen fuel, or as a range-extender for electric cars, have come to naught. Mazda, sole guardian of the rotary flame for so long, has blown hot and cold on the subject, showing concept cars, and promising production, but never finally completely crossing the line.

A Mazda statement has recently said that "from the company that solved the infamous devil's claw marks and put rotaries on the world automotive map, who would rule anything out?" and the company has just paired with a German family of Mazda collectors to open a museum in Augsburg, Germany, much of which is dedicated to rotary models. But still we wait, wait for the final, the last spin of a rotor before the batteries drive combustion away altogether. Here's hoping that the good side of Felix Wankel has one last chance to shine.