My first experience with a turbocharged car took place behind the wheel of a garden-variety VW Rabbit. Shod with 14-inch steel wheels, a broken windshield and faded stickers, it appeared to be the perfect candidate for a demolition derby. Its owner (a genuinely insane person) didn't care about looks, he didn't want to be noticed. He did, however, enjoy humiliating big-block Camaros and Chevelles, the bully-cars of the local high school.
Underneath the VW's rusty hood sat a fully massaged 2.1-liter, solid-lifter, 16-valve shod with a highly modified Callaway turbo system. With some 285 hp, the Rabbit snapped driveshafts with frightening regularity; there were always a few spares rolling around the stripped-out trunk.
"Get a good grip on the steering wheel," said the madman. "No... tighter. It'll rip the skin from your girly-man hands."
This dude was getting annoying. I know how to drive. I don't need anyone questioning the firmness of my grip. I thought wrong.
The first five seconds of acceleration was laughable-a John Deere tractor would have smoked us. And then something happened. It felt like God's golf club batting us across Arizona, this monumental impact of forward thrust, snapping my head back like a melting Gumby figurine. The steering wheel came alive; it was an animal hell-bent on escape. I could feel the car hopping, hear the turbo shrieking, the front tires spewing great gobs of asphalt and smoke.
After several adrenaline-soaked seconds, I managed to get the car somewhat straight and shifted up a gear. Pfffft... nothing. The Rabbit all but stopped, its big turbo gasping for breath. Bam It started all over again, a death-duel with the steering wheel, a car on the edge of control.
I went back and forth across the open desert road. After a while, I learned to counter the torque-steer before it became a problem. However, keeping up the psi was beyond my grasp-each shift was punctuated by a disappointing lull.
Later that night, we consulted the master of turbo cars, Hans Stuck. We watched a grainy video of him driving an Audi Sport Quattro, watched in awe as his feet danced between the brake, gas and clutch pedals. Stuck was keeping the Audi on boost, careful to retain as much pressure as possible to avoid the inherent lag of that era's turbocharging technology.
I tried emulating the dance, using my feet to keep it on the boil. It didn't work out. Shod with rear drums and tiny front disc brakes, the turbo's torque ate through whatever stopping power the pathetic binders had. The madman hadn't built the car to stop, he built it to go. Good times.
Those days are gone, absolutely blown away by today's technology. Modern turbo systems are so good, so quiet, it's virtually impossible to tell a boosted car from a naturally aspirated one.
Do I miss those 'old' days? About as much as I miss bias-ply tires. Sure, driving an old-school turbo car is a riot-for about an hour. And then you become exhausted from simply trying to stay alive. I remember someone describing our Shelby Daytona Project Car (Popular Hotrodding, Feb, 1990) as "the Molotov cocktail of sports cars." Yeah, not exactly a glowing endorsement.
It's a forgone conclusion that the future will hold more turbocharged vehicles than ever. Small-displacement engines (diesels too) fitted with an efficient turbo (or turbos) is the direction we need to go. Europe is there already and it seems to be working quite well.
Despite what you may hear, the future for performance vehicles is very bright. We just need to think smarter, think smaller, think lighter.Good times indeed.