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Good Enough For The Spitfire…

Did you know that the most iconic aircraft of all time (In my humble opinion) was powered by a supercharged engine? It meant that the 27-litre Rolls-Royce Merlin V12 made its rated power of about 1 350 kW (in later versions) at some 5 800 metres above sea level – a useful advantage for a fighter such as the Supermarine Spitfire…


Being supercharged also meant that an intercooler (a liquid-cooled one) was needed, to prevent the compressed air/fuel mixture from becoming too hot, which could lead to uncontrolled ignition and potential engine damage.

Sounds a bit like what RGMotorsport does to ensure high-altitude performance even in Gauteng’s mid-Summer, a combination which can seriously erode the performance of forced induction cars with undersized intercoolers. In fact, it reminds me of a Nissan 200SX I owned, which was a completely different car on cool Winter’s morning and a hot Summer’s afternoon…

Supercharging of car engines was pioneered by Mercedes-Benz in the 1920s, using a Roots-type blower. A Roots-type blower (which is what we opt for on the Mustangs and other V-configuration motors) is actually a pair of interlocking rotors inside an enclosed housing with an intake and outlet. On the straight sixes we usually use a centrifugal supercharger which has the snail-type look normally associated with a turbocharger and uses a similar turbine arrangement to compress the intake gases.

Nevertheless, the difference between a turbocharger and a supercharger is in the fundamental operating principal even though they both use a compressor to increase the density of the intake air. Superchargers use a mechanical linkage – normally a belt - to drive the compressor while a turbo uses spent exhaust gas to spin the compressor. Because a supercharger is operating permanently, there is no delay in accelerating everything to a point at which it can begin to ‘squeeze’ the air before it is sent on its way to the inlet valves…this is the dreaded turbo lag which is followed by a sometimes-unpleasant surge as the boost increases exponentially.


A supercharger, on the other hand, generates boost directly in relation to rpm but the downside is that the mechanical drive absorbs power (while a turbo uses exhaust gas pressure which would otherwise to go waste).

They act of compressing the air generates heat so to enjoy maximum benefits both approaches require some kind of cooling device through which the air passes. Intercoolers in themselves bring a number of challenges in terms of packaging and cost. But if due care isn’t given to this aspect of a forced induction conversion or upgrade, reliability and efficiency will be severely compromised.    

As anyone with an interest in cars will know, forced induction is an increasingly common solution to getting impressive power out of a small engine, but the engineering tolerances are high so it isn’t something just anybody can undertake…



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