Turbos Used to be Fun

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Leave it to government to suck the joy out of everything. Like turbos, for instance.

Turbochargers were something special. If you saw a car – it was once always a high-performance car – with a “turbo” badge on its fenders, you knew it was packing something extra. The whole point of the thing was to add power to an already powerful engine.

A Porsche 911 turbo, for instance.

Or a Buick Regal Grand National.

They were boosted – and you felt it. The turbo kicked in – and the surge of additional power applied g forces to your backside, usually accompanied by a high-pitched whistle and then a delightfully menacing pop as the wastegate dumped open to relieve the pressure – before it built to another spectacular crescendo of acceleration. If you hit the gas hard from a rolling start, the boost surge would often be enough to overwhelm traction and the tires would slip and smoke as you counter-steered to correct and held on for dear life.

Then along came Uncle to pee in the punchbowl.

Turbos became a replacement for lost displacement; a Band-Aid to make up for the power lost by replacing reasonably-sized engines with too-small engines that used a bit less gas – if you didn’t use the turbo bolted to them to make up for their lack of power.

And, of course, it all cost extra. You paid more – for less.

Buyers of mid-sized luxury sedans like the BMW 5 Series and Mercedes E-Class did not clamor for turbocharged four cylinder engines under the hoods of their $50,000 cars. V6 engines have not all-but-disappeared from under the hoods of family sedans – even as  extra-cost optional engines – because buyers of such cars did not want them. Ford didn’t build the Expedition – a full-size SUV based on a full-size truck – without a V8 because people didn’t want one.

No. The sixes that used to be givens in $50,000 luxury sedans and at least available in $30,000 family sedans – and the V8s that were once assumed standards in anything full-sized – have been regulated off the market by Uncle. Or rather – to be clear and specific – the small army of Little Uncles who constitute “the government.” The people who regard themselves as anointed – and who are anointed with muscle, that of the state – to decree what shall be and what shall not be.

Only they have become less obvious about their totalitarianism, which is probably why so many people do not see it and so it never occurs to them to object to it.

The Little Uncles did not outlaw V6 and V8 engines, nor mandate their replacement with  undersized four cylinder engines, boosted by turbocharging to make up for it. There is is no law forbidding the installation of V8s in large SUVs or pick-ups; nor that six cylinder engines are verboten. Technically, they are still available – though in fewer and fewer vehicles – at higher and higher cost.

What the Little Uncles – the people you never voted for who inhabit bureaucracies such as the EPA, NHTSA and DOT – did do was write regulations that have the effect of laws, without the hassle of having to actually pass them and without the restraining pressure of the ballot box to impede them.

What happens is that Congress passes a vague law, as for example one to the effect that “conserving energy” is a grand idea. It is then left to the bureaucrats to impose the law via regulations, which the voters never get to vote on except vaguely – and indirectly – by voting for or against their supposed representative, who wrote or voted for the vague law endowing bureaucrats with power to impose regulations according to their interpretation of the law.

That is how Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards – the regulations decreeing how many miles-per-gallon every new vehicle must achieve else its manufacture and sale be made progressively more expensive, via fines for “noncompliance” – arose from a law called the Energy Policy and Conservation Act (EPCA) which was  passed by Congress in 1975.

EPCA empowered the bureaucrats at the NHTSA – the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – to “promulgate” (i.e., to decree) mandatory MPG minimums, ongoing and escalating. These “standards”- as the bureaucrats style them – escalated from around 20 MPG initially to the current  almost 36 MPG, on track – per the (s)election of El Presidente Biden – to ascend to nearly 50 MPG by the year 2030.

Which not even turbocharging will be able to Band-Aid.

The Little Uncles have effectively regulated all engines off the market. To be replaced by motors – as in electric – as that is the only way to meet the “standards” “promulgated” by the Little Uncles no one ever voted for.

In the meanwhile, we are expected to be content with tiny turbocharged fours that don’t even feel turbocharged, the surge of boost being unwanted in family sedans and SUVs. There is no sense of anything special. No whistle or pop. Most don’t even have a badge to tell there’s a turbo. No one is supposed to notice being the whole point. The little turbo fours are engineered to behave like the sixes they have replaced.

Until they themselves are also replaced.

By Little Uncles who have managed to achieve it without most people even being aware of it.

. . .

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  1. I recently saw a video of a new hot-rodded Wrangler. 4.5 seconds to 60. They were nailing it off-road and it was really something to see. Of course that 4 cylinder is a big advantage in an off-road vehicle.

    I was watching Matt Winders channel the other day. A guy had taken 8 lug axles, put them in a short bed frame with a hoist and winch on back on an old square body pickup since he needed the shortest, lightest recovery vehicle he could find but a bit more heavy duty than a Jeep. Somebody hollered at him what kind of engine it had and I said “a 383” before he could. It’s easy to hear the difference. I love the sound of a short throw crank and large pistons.

  2. Lee Iacocca put turbos in minivans. My parents had one. I think the thing was bolted to the muffler given the turbo lag. But if you spun it up when the cross traffic light went to yellow you could get off the line pretty quickly, at least for a minivan. Dad never keeps vehicles much past 90K so can’t say much about the longevity.

  3. The word “bureaucracy” has been incorrectly used for some time. It is no longer just a part of government, it has become the form of government, replacing “democracy”, also misapplied, or republic. There is practically no human endeavor that is not controlled by a gang of bureaucrats, none of whom can even be fired, much less voted out of office. A few years ago, an interesting statistic was published. That a government employee was more likely to die during their employment than be fired. Your elected representatives/senators are a bunch of lazy bums who can’t be bothered with actually doing their jobs and write law. They prefer to hand it off to the bureaucratic government, which you have no influence over, much less control. If they had to write each and every law, there would be a LOT fewer of them.

    • It’s not about being lazy. They want to have it both ways. If a constituent likes a rule enacted by the bureaucrats, the politician can take credit, saying he voted for the law that created the bureaucracy. If a constituent complains about the rule, the critter can say that it’s not his fault, it’s those darn out-of-control bureaucrats.

  4. I grew up in the F&F tuner era, I write about modded cars, 2 of my past and my current sedan (That I’m trying to sell) are Turbo 4bangers, and they had character.

    2.0t used to be Silvia’s, Evo’s and JDM WRX’s, VW/Audi’s, and other tuner cars, where you knew with some mods you can have a beast on your hands for a fraction of the cost of comparable V8’s, along with weight savings.

    Now every Rich clover with a Benz, Beemer and other fancy schmancy lux car or even little econo cars have turbos that are hardly pushed, lugged to death and are wishing they’d be tuned for that extra power, breaks my cold dead heart to see them driven like grannies ’93 corolla

  5. Absolutely Eric. Turbos are great for performance cars. No objection there. Especially with technology, it’s amazing at what is being done. 1000hp is the new 500hp of not that long ago. All great in a car that I’m going to go drive for the fun of it, and not put many miles on. When I bought my truck though, naturally aspirated V8 was a necessity. I am not dealing with turbo related failures. You’re previous post about the old mechanical diesel trucks is even more spot on.

    • I also forgot to mention that many of these new weed whacker turbo engines require premium to get anything resembling the performance promised. That’s also a big deal when comparing a normal V6 in the average family sedan.

  6. > the army of Uncles still regularly seem to roam around in Suburbans – the biggest SUV known to man

    They do that because they’re “special,” of course. (“Special” in the same sense as “special education,” perhaps, but still “special.”)

    • Trabants for thee (after a 10 year wait!), ZILs for me! Ever notice how Erich Honecker and Yurii Andropov never rode in a Trabant or a ZAZ, either? Now our elite “betters” are in the same category as those commie thugs of old.

      • Ding, ding ding. We have a winner.

        That’s exactly it. The rules only apply to the proletariat. The choosen elites get to jet around on private jets just to go to dinner.

  7. Hi Eric,

    I agree with your main premise. But remove your rose colored glasses when you look at those “back in the day” turbos. They weren’t completely fun.

    Two words….”turbo lag.”

    • Hi Mike,

      Ach, but that was part of the fun! The essence of it, even. Ever drive an old Saab with the turbo 2.0? That little beast would rip asphalt when the boost came online!

      • My first real turbo experience was about 84 in a brand new 300ZX turbo which came in to my garage. On the test drive, I put my foot down, and remember being disappointed sorely- for about a second, when all hell broke loose and I started channeling Han Solo going into hyperdrive. Big grin when I came back from that one.

    • Sort of like the automotive equivalent of the Kawasaki KH500…twist, wait till those three two stroke cylinders come on the pipes, and WOOHOOSTEERLIKEMADANDHOPEYOUDONTHITSOMETHING!

      Omni GHLS, another whizz-bang ring-tailed tooter. Turbo lag, but at least no torque steer to go with it. Yeah, CAFE had something to do with the Omni, but Carroll Shelby, BMW and VW (and MoPar owning Simca) had more to do with the GLHS. It was a Scirocco and 320i fighter all right.

      • My dad had a 1976 Suzuki GT750. Three-cylinder, water-cooled. Heavy AF. And I was a 100-pound skinny teenager. I’d plan my route to make sure I didn’t hit any stop lights. Not sure if I could’ve held it up! Quite a rush when you cranked up those three two-stoke cylinders.

    • Had a friend long ago who always asked “But, can it beat a Buick?” when others talked smack about fast cars. GN was the last of the real fast sleeper car deals.

      • A friend had one (well his widowed mom did) when I was in high school, before the GN was official and it was still a Regal. I think he and the sales guy ganged up on her to get it because she would have been better served by a Camry or Honda but you know how that goes. Anyway, he was a terrible driver and managed to take out several hundred feet of guard rail on a tight turn. Boost and oversteer without experience. Since he considered himself a “car guy” he got a lot of crap from us for that.

  8. ‘Little Uncles have managed to achieve it without most people even being aware of it.’ — EP

    Little Uncles, suggests Alistair Crooke, have proliferated far beyond the confines of government:

    “U.S. tech platforms have, for some time, become effectively fused into the ‘Blue State’ – particularly in the realms of intelligence and defence – to the extent that these CEOs no longer see themselves as state ‘partners’ or contractors, but rather, as some higher élite leadership, precisely shaping and directing the future.”


    And it’s not just tech, either. From cities tolerating ‘mostly peaceful protests’ to General Motors trumpeting our EV future to the Nasdaq stock market promoting ‘diversity’ board appointments of ever more obscure self-identifying minorities, the Blue State has recruited willing minions throughout our social institutions.

    Those who don’t comply are summarily banished to the dark side of the Digital Iron Curtain that’s descended on America, where no one can hear them either scream or offer calm, rational assertions.

    So pervasive is the silencing that our understanding of reality, quite aside from our own subjectivity, probably is badly distorted by omission (important events not reported) and deception (one-sided judgments reported as fact or, even better, ‘scientific fact’ that brooks no argument).

    The destruction of free thought and speech by Little Uncles has gone turbo, so to speak. Now we need only await Big Sister to finish the job by revving the sucker till it breaks with a godawful bang.

  9. Spot on Eric. New cars are nothing special. The fun does indeed live on in the aftermarket though where folks are building some damn amazing single and twin turbo street monsters. 1000 hp twin turbo in an MR2, Civic, Evo, Vette, etc. Even the turbo charged cars that are making 300 horsepower in those light chassis are a hoot. My kids keep asking me which “supercar” I’d buy if I could buy any one. I tell them that I’d rather build a twin turbo K24 Civic or MR2 with a dogbox in it with them by my side in the garage passing me the tools and learning as we go!

    • Exactly. It’s the weight, due to safety regulations, that is going to kill the IC engine. It is also the nemesis of EV’s due to energy storage.

      The solution would be to lighten up the vehicles. You could probably easily get 50-55MPG out of a naturally aspirated modern 4-cylinder engine, if the vehicle weighed half as much.

      With EV’s the only way to solve the issue is with a “third rail” or wire, where the vehicles don’t have to carry their own energy around. Think: small streetcars for everyone.

      However, on both sides things seem to be getting heavier and more complicated.

  10. The most pissing off thing about this whole thing is that the army of Uncles still regularly seem to roam around in Suburbans – the biggest SUV known to man, which I think are still standard with V8s!!

    • Uncle still drives his Pimp my Ride Caddy with spinners and lambo doors, he just wants YOU to be efficient and drive a bare bones econobox

      Be nice if one day, someone took away his keys and gave him a Nissan Shitbox


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