Two engineering autobiographies

Posted on September 22nd, 2015 in automotive history,Engine Management,Turbocharging by Julian Edgar

I have recently been reading some engineering autobiographies relating to the early years of piston and jet engine development.

The first, The Ricardo Story: the Autobiography of Sir Harry Ricardo, Pioneer of Engine Research, is the story of the early years of life of a man who, working outside of the major automotive and aircraft engine manufacturers, made a huge contribution to the development of piston engines.

The autobiography, which covers the period between about 1900 and 1930, is especially interesting in the technical area of fuel octane and detonation. In fact, Harry Ricardo invented the concept of fuel octane rating – the resistance that a fuel has to detonation. In those days, what made a fuel effective was not much understood – to the degree that Shell was burning off, as waste, high octane fuels! Why? Because the measured specific gravity of these fuels didn’t match what was then regarded as the requirement for internal combustion engines…

Ricardo was able to physically observe detonation occurring, using windows into the combustion chamber and a moving shutter. He was the first to realise the positive implications of high-swirl combustion chambers, the first to use water injection (unfortunately not much covered in the book), and the first to build an experimental variable compression engine.

The book is written in a flowing, readable style and – for those interested in the technical aspects of his career – doesn’t get bogged-down in personal life meanderings. It’s probably best a book for those who already know something about those early days of motoring (and aircraft – the engine technology was not much different) and want to see more into a world when so much was unknown.

Another book that I have been reading is Engine Revolutions: the Autobiography of Max Bentele. As I write this, I am part way through the book – and what a fascinating treatise it is.

Bentele, a German, started his working career in the late 1930s on turbochargers. Turbos? Yes, the world’s first. He then went on to German jet engines – along with the UK’s Frank Whittle designs, again the world’s first – before the world of German engineers came crashing down in 1945 with the end of WWII.

He then migrated to the UK and then the US, working in the latter country on – among other engines – the Wankel rotary engine. It’s now not so much remembered, but US industry was very serious about the rotary engine and did much development on this design.

As I say, I am currently only part way through this book – but it is already enthralling. The non-English native language of Bentele shows a little in his prose; at times it is a bit stilted and the text more uneasily mixes the personal and professional. On the plus side, the technical detail is very high and these aspects are also well explained.

Harry Ricardo was born in 1885 and died in 1974, while Max Bentele was born in 1909 and died in 2006. Ricardo’s name lives on in the engineering consulting company that he began, but Bentele’s name is much less well known.

Two fascinating books.

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Four weeks in Germany

Posted on January 20th, 2014 in automotive history,AutoSpeed,BMW,classics,Driving Emotion,Opinion by Julian Edgar

So as I write this, I am just back from our four-week trip to Germany.

It was a trip made with the express intention of seeing as many fabulous technical, automotive and aeronautical sights as possible, and also seeing as many 1930s and 1940s historic sites as possible!

The trip was fascinating – and often rather surprising.

The revered Porsche museum is a self-indulgent wank, with history airbrushed and obfuscated to suit only Porsche and its created mystique.

The BMW museum is in the same mould: brush any commercial difficulties aside (the unsuccessful ETA engines? Never heard of them!) and just plonk cars into a space with almost zero context.

The Mercedes museum? Oh my gosh – what a stunner. Fabulous cars, lots of honesty, and lots of and lots of automotive history expressed in a cultural and technological context. The Mercedes museum is surely one of the best one-make car museums in the world – and boy, do they ever show BMW and Porsche how it should be done.

Another fantastic place to visit is the Sinsheim technic museum. It’s got cars (try some stuff like a Cord, lots of Bugattis, lots and lots of 1930s Mercedes, 1950s bubble cars, American cars of the 1960s – and on and on) and some aircraft (try a Concorde and Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-144) – and also  a whole bunch of military hardware.

Travelling as we did in winter, there’s barely a soul to be seen – so you can take your time, completely unhindered by others. It was so quiet that when looking at the outside military hardware at the Sinsheim museum, a friendly stray cat came up to visit!

Another absolute stunner is the Deutsches technical museum in Munich. I thought that the Science Museum we visited in London last year was good but the Deutsches is in another – even better – league. I defy anyone reading this to get through the content of the Deutsches technical museum in less than a full day. From the pile of Mercedes alloy V12 engine blocks in the section on metal casting, to the aeronautical display showing early aircraft wing sections as they were measured in contemporary wind tunnels, to the display on locks and keys, to the room full of machine tools of the 1800s and 1900s, to the full size stationary steam engines, the cutaway submarine (yep a real one) – it just went on and on and on.

And then when you’ve overloaded there, go to the specialised transport Deutsches museum, also in Munich….. that is also outstanding.

But we didn’t just go to museums. Going with my wife and 9-year-old son, we also visited the Lego Discovery centre in Berlin (pretty weak I thought), the Miniature Wonderland in Hamburg (the world’s largest model railway and quite fantastic), lots and lots of shops, went for  ferry ride on Lake Constance in the south – and also stayed at Zinnowitz on the Baltic Sea in the north.

Then there were the incredibly sobering Nazi-era concentration camps at Dachau and Mittelbau-Dora, the amazing architecture and feel of the Nuremberg Nazi party rally grounds – and a bunch of other stuff.

I’ll be covering a lot of it – with a huge number of pics – in a Germany Diary series we’ll be shortly running in AutoSpeed.

A seminal paper… published in 1956

Posted on November 2nd, 2011 in automotive history,pedal power,Suspension by Julian Edgar

Back here I described my search for the lightest possible springs for a lightweight human-powered vehicle. Although I didn’t say so at the time, it had been my desire to use rubber – light, cheap and readily available.

However, as that article describes, I found it impossible to find a rubber (or elastomer) approach that allowed high spring deflections without overstressing the rubber. High suspension deflections were possible with rubber, but in turn that required high motion ratios (ie leverage) that resulted in large stresses in the suspension arms and spring seats.

However, since writing that article in 2007, I have been reading everything I can find on using rubber as suspension springs – and I have to tell you, there’s not a lot around.

But today I found a paper that I think is worth sharing with you. I can’t share the content – it’s copyright – but I can say it’s the best treatment of using rubber as vehicle springs that I have seen. It was published in 1956 and the author is Alex Moulton, the man who later developed the rubber springing used in the Mini, and the rubber-and-fluid suspension used in the Mini, Austin 1800, Morris 1100 and other vehicles.

You can buy the paper from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers Proceedings Archive here – it will cost you US$30.

If you are interested in lightweight vehicles with sophisticated suspension design, I think it’s a must-read.


Designing a unique vehicle

Posted on February 4th, 2010 in Aerodynamics,automotive history,Materials,Safety,Suspension,testing by Julian Edgar

Recently I read Thrust, the book by Richard Noble on his life in breaking land speed records, culminating in the development of the ThrustSSC car – the current world land speed record holder. The record was achieved in 1997.

thrust ssc


The book is outstanding on a number of levels, including its honesty and clarity. The section where driver Any Green describes his techniques for steering the car is just amazing, as is the constant battle for funds that occurred every day of the project.

But one small part of the book particularly interested me: the section where the primary designer Ron Ayers describes how he went about designing the car.

The text is reproduced here:

How do you start designing a vehicle that is totally unique? Here are the characteristics of the problem that faced us:

1. By travelling supersonically on land we would be exploring a region where no-one had ventured, where even the problems could only be guessed at, so there were no known solutions.

2. As the aerodynamic forces involved were so enormous, any accident was likely to be fatal.

3. The project would always be underfunded, short of people and time.

4. There would be only one chance. The final car was also the first prototype. The first lines drawn on paper could well be the ones that are made. The very first assumptions and decisions, if incorrect, could put the project on the wrong track and there would be no chance of starting again.

Problem: how do you make those crucial first decisions when so much is uncertain?

First, every decision had to be a robust one. That meant it couldn’t be invalidated by subsequent decisions.

Second, we could only use technology we were very confident with. This militated against using the very latest technology in some cases.

Third, although direct experience of supersonic travel on land did not exist, we consulted widely, with aviation and automobile experts in industry, universities and research establishments. Experience with Thrust2 was invaluable, particularly in pinpoint¬ing practical and environmental problems that might otherwise be overlooked.

Fourth, where possible we left room for adjust¬ment or change, so we could incorporate knowledge acquired subsequently. Nothing was “hard wired”. One reason for using a steel chassis was that it could be modified if necessary.

Fifth, we didn’t try too hard to integrate the systems. If we needed to change one of them, we didn’t want to be forced to change them all.

Sixth, our choice of a twin-engined car made the design massively overpowered. Thus weight was not a critical factor.

The design resulting from such an approach must necessarily be “sub-optimum”. A second attempt, incorporating the lessons learned, would undoubtedly be better. But the design was proved in practice, and there was little about the basic concept that would need to be changed.

The more you read those notes, the more you realise the clarity of thought being employed: it’s also food for thought for anyone building a unique design of anything.

Noble and Green are currently involved with another land speed record car bid – the Bloodhound SSC.

An extraordinary man – and his car

Posted on May 12th, 2009 in automotive history,Opinion by Julian Edgar

I am not usually one to read business or financial thrillers; there’s too much I simply don’t understand. But Delorean, written by Ivan Fallon and James Strodes and published in 1983, is simply a helluva book.

The history of the Delorean DMC12 car is widely known – we’ve done a fairly typical story ourselves (see here) – but it’s the background financial and personal shenanigans that make for fascinating reading. 

The authors are ungenerous of John Z Delorean, but any feeling that they’re being mean just for sensationalism quickly goes out the window when we start learning about the financial approaches taken within the company.

The company – funded effectively by the British taxpayer – threw money around with an indefensible largesse, while Delorean himself appeared to have delusions of grandeur (the latter perhaps required of someone propping up a house of cards). 

Also rather interesting is the skeleton company set up to apparently channel tax-free money to Colin Chapman of Lotus (Lotus did most of the development work on the car) and to Delorean himself.

Used to dealing with ethical and sober companies, the British government – and its agencies – simply couldn’t believe what they were seeing happening to their money. But, caught in a political bind, they kept handing Delorean more and more!

The authors are financial experts – not automotive writers – and there a few automotive technology errors and shortcomings.  Tech detail on the development of the car itself is also only briefly covered (although even that coverage is often interesting).

But if you want to read a book that shows how one man can manipulate situations to his advantage – or, perhaps more generously, a book about the burning ambition of a man who would do anything to succeed – this is an amazing read.