History originally published in AutoWeek June 4, 1984
A little-known chapter in American automotive history began in 1958 in a small white building on the Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, grounds of Curtiss-Wright, the aeronautical firm with roots dating back to the air pioneers of America. In that building, Dr. Max Bentele and Charles Jones made America’s first rotary engine.
It was Bentele who went over to Germany to inspect the NSU rotary and decided that something worthwhile might be made of it.
“He had known me,” Jones recalls, “and he had asked me if I would work with him. The two of us worked alone in a little white building called the White House, to which only he and I had the key.”
Jones did most of the original feasibility analysis. When he and Bentele decided that a stationary housing engine – Wankel’s original design had a rotating housing with the charge entering through the shaft – had potential, Bentele asked Jones to design one. “I brought a few other people on board and opened up the group to half a dozen. Within that little secret project, and before we get any license, we designed the RC1-60.”
The RC1-60 was a single rotor engine: “RC” for rotating combustion, “1” for single rotor, “60” for displacement in cubic inches. It was eight times as big as the NSU experimental stationary-housing engine Bentele had seen, but it was the size which seemed to offer the most potential for practical use in aircraft and automobiles.
A license from NSU was taken out in November 1958, and the first 60 CID engine ran in March 1959. Before the end of that year, 100 hour tests at wide open throttle had been run.
Over the next few years, the crew at Curtiss-Wright developed its rotary engine, experimenting with configuration, seals, and housing materials, finally settling on a cast-iron rotor in an aluminum housing within 88 percent tungsten carbide, 12 percent cobalt coating.
One change and configuration came in 1962. The automobile industry showed an interest in the C-W rotary, but found the road-load fuel consumption to be, to use Jones word, “horrible,” about twice as high as comparable automotive engines. The chief culprit was Curtiss-Wright’s aeronautical orientation, for which maximum power was the primary objective.
Nevertheless, Chrysler was intrigued and gave C-W three months to come up with a version with fuel economy comparable with its equivalent piston engines. “We worked feverishly for three months on that same RC1-60,” remembers Jones.
The changes that were made sufficiently improved low-and fuel economy with no high rpm loss, so Chrysler gave the go-ahead on a development project. In January 1963 the Curtiss-Wright rotary group began work on a two-rotor engine based on the RC1-60, using as many Chrysler accessories as possible and matching it to a 1964 Dodge Dart transmission.
“We put it in a Dodge Dart, and nine months after the project started – in September – it was running on our test stand. In October it was on the John Lodge Freeway. It jumped all the hoops, its performance was comparable (to a conventional engine), and nobody really tuned it. We simply took a Carter carburetor right off the Dart engine and put it right on our engine without any adjustment or scheduling or anything else, and it worked just fine.”
Jones remembers it running like a V-8. Test showed that it matched eight-cylinder acceleration with the economy of a six. Chrysler determined that it was an acceptable automobile, but the concept was stillborn. Jones attributed this to a misreading of the future emission requirements, which Chrysler believed could be met by simple carburetor and timing adjustments and the whole thing would go away. If downstream add-on devices would be necessary, the rotary had a future. But in the early ‘60s, nobody but nobody for saw anything like catalytic converters or thermal reactors. As a result, the rotary, with hydrocarbons two to three times the piston engine’s (though still good for a fuel-economy rotary) was shelved at Chrysler.
In the period of ‘63 through ‘66, other car companies tested Curtiss-Wright’s rotary as well. Ford first evaluated the engine in a Galaxie and found it lacking: Too much car and Jones thinks there were some computational error in there, too.
Anyway the rotary found no immediate takers. The crew at Curtiss-Wright, though, wanted a tool with which to demonstrate rotary engines as an acceptable automotive power plant, smooth and powerful. What better vehicle than the new Mustang? It was small – and sexy. While one suspects that there may have been some pride at work in the decision, it was not an entirely idle project. The license that C-W had acquired in 1958 was exclusive for the US, with relicensing provisions, and the virtual steal at $2 million. If American automakers decided to build rotary powered cars, C-W stood to regain that many times over in licensing fees.
“Don’t forget that this was before the Mazda was on the scene,” cautions Jones. The only automobile that was available (with the rotary) was the NSU Spyder which, for all its merits, was a very “particular and specialized automobile. It couldn’t get across the message we were going to convey.””
So the Mustang project began. A red ‘65 fastback was purchased, and the conversion was carried out in the automobile body shop belonging to the father of one of the rotary project engineers. Though some C-W staff assisted, Jones confesses the engine swap was still largely a backyard-shop kind of thing. “We had neither the facilities nor the knowledge to do the kind of job that an automotive company could do. It was a very crude installation in every sense of the word, but it did demonstrate that at that time that someone could get in and tromp on the accelerator and she’d take off.”
The twin rotor engine, the RC2-60, was mated to the stock torque converter and Cruise-O-Matic transmission, with no adjustment for the rotary engine’s different characteristics. A Rochester two-barrel carburetor from a Buick 401 was used and the exhaust from the peripheral exhaust ports was routed into the stock Mustang single exhaust system.
Typically rotary, the RC2-60 was a light engine, weighing in at 237 pounds, including alternator and other accessories (compared to about 600 pounds for compatible V-8) it was compact as well. When installed, there was a 15-inch gap between the fan and the radiator, and a plastic shroud was fitted so that it could be seen that there was nothing in between. Power output was 185 BHP, compared to 200 for the engine it replaced.
The car was more than just a showpiece, however, with the sheet-metal panel for accessory gauges installed below the dash on the passenger side, including two recording pyrometers. A small knob under the driver side dash controlled which of several pickups were to be monitored. The Mustang would also give long-term real-world experience.
But, of course, Curtiss-Wright had no intention of getting into the automobile industry. Rather, the company preferred to serve as a research center and to license its technology. The rotary Mustang was last registered in 1973, and when the company sold the rotary branch and license to John Deere in February 1984, a garage sale of goodies put the rotary Mustang into the hands of Jim Barricella, owner of Mazda 17, an Upper Saddle River, New Jersey, dealership.
It was that Barricella’s dealership that AutoWeek had the opportunity to drive this one-of-a-kind automobile, and to be honest, it was anything but impressive in appearance. The 20-year-old paint was faded, and there were accumulated bumps and dings that only honest miles can bring. Fender badges proclaim the engine to be an RC2-6, the zero having been lost. And the front sat high, a result, no doubt, of the much lighter power plant and no changes to bring it back down.
Inside, except for the gauge panel and a “Curtiss-Wright Rotating Combustion Engine—A New Shape in Power” sticker, it was all Mustang.
There wasn’t much sense in tossing the Mustang around very much, so we returned to Barricella’s Mazda dealership, pulling inside the overhead door to the service area, planning a few more under-hood photos in hopes of showing a glimpse of the actual engine. However, like most rotaries, this one could hide almost completely under its accessories, the engine lost in the suddenly cavernous Mustang engine bay.
We were met by Barricella and the conversation turned immediately to the car’s future. He said he might reinstall the original 289, which had come with the car, and sell it to a restoration buff.
But the car deserves more than that. For although research continues at John Deere – Jones hold great promise for the direct injection stratified charge rotaries – there needs to be some monument to those early days at the Wood-Ridge White House and the American rotating combustion engine.
Think of it that way, Barricella, and keep America’s rotary humming.