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Ideas That've Come and Gone

The ideas that didn't make it past a few models...

By Michael Knowling

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This article was first published in 2006.

Car manufacturers have a tough job coming up with new technologies and ideas. And once they have an idea, it needs to make it past the bean counters, durability tests, market testing and a bunch of other hurdles. But despite this, there are quite a few technologies and ideas that make their way into production - only to fail. In this article we’ll look at some innovations that have died in the marketplace - or are taking their last gasp for air...

Pop-Up Headlights

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Porsche helped push the idea with the late ‘70s release of the 928, but pop-up headlights really starting appearing in numbers during the ‘80s. The idea of pop-ups is simple – to achieve a sporty look along with reduced aerodynamic drag. But what happens at night-time when those aero-concealed headlights need to step up? Hmmm. Well, let’s just say we’ve never seen any aero drag figures with the headlights deployed – only with them retracted...

Oh, and we haven’t even mentioned the added, weight, complexity, cost and crash testing considerations. It’s no surprise pop-ups are now very rare in new cars.

Rotary Engine

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Nearly all major car manufacturers took out licences for rotary engine technology, but there was only one – Mazda – with the courage to take Felix Wankel’s design into mass production. (NSU produced rotary powered vehicle as well, but not in such huge numbers - and only until they effectively went broke.)

Unlike a conventional engine with a reciprocating piston and conrod assembly, the rotary is much more efficient in that it achieves intake, compression, combustion and exhaust with a spinning rotor. The rotary engine has advantages in terms of compactness, weight, vibration and power production. In Australia we saw the 12A and 13B twin-rotor engines in a range of vehicles and in the ultimate twin-turbo guise, the rotary cranked out 187kW.

Unfortunately, the rotary engine suffers relatively high fuel consumption and emissions and – as a result – it was withdrawn from sale in 2002. Only recently, with the release of the RX-8 powered by the massively redesigned RENESIS engine, has the rotary survived. It’s a far cry from the days when the rotary engine was going to ‘take over the world’...

Miller-cycle Engine

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Another engine principle pedalled by Mazda is the Miller-cycle. The Miller-cycle engine debuted in the luxury-spec Mazda/Eunos 800M of 1994.

The 800M’s 2.3-litre Miller-cycle engine is unique in that it closes its intake valves much later than in a conventional Otto cycle engine - the inlet valves are kept open for the first 20 percent of the compression stroke. This approach reduces pumping losses when the mixture is being squeezed during the compression stroke. However, the efficiency of the Miller-cycle engine must be maintained by adding forced induction because without it, the mixture could reverse-flow out of the inlet valves. It’s for this reason the Miller-cycle employs a Lysholm-type twin-screw supercharger with twin air-to-air intercoolers.

So what are the advantages of this engine? Well, Mazda claimed 3-litre engine performance (149kW) with the fuel economy of an engine that’s 23 percent smaller. Unfortunately, production costs and complexity were against it – and now we’re also starting to see some reliability issues (such as supercharger problems).

Technically interesting – but it never really got off the ground - except of course in hybrid cars like the Prius, which use much the same principal in their engines.

Four-Wheel-Steering

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Another feature popular through the ‘80s was four-wheel-steering. Again, Mazda got heavily involved in electro-hydraulic 4WS systems (take a look under an upmarket MX6, 626, 929 or Eunos 800M), although many other manufacturers incorporated less sophisticated approaches.

It’s interesting reading material from the time of Mazda’s 4WS release – there are numerous claims of improvements in lane-change stability and manoeuvrability. But today the buzz of 4WS has died away and it’s become fashionable to poke fun at the idea; technology for the sake of it is a common opinion.

The reality? Well, it’s probably somewhere in between...

Oscillating Vents

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It’s an obscure feature but one that works surprisingly well – oscillating dashboard vents!

Appearing in upmarket Mazdas in the ‘80s (and their Ford equivalents), oscillating vents are an effective way of ensuring even airflow distribution throughout the cabin without resorting to cranking up the fan speed to MAX and sitting inside a virtual wind tunnel. Much more civilised to touch a button and have the vents oscillate left to right like an ol’ pedestal fan you’ve got at home.

A feature that’s never really taken off – but one that does have some merit.

Climate Control

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And here’s an idea that has survived despite some truly shocking early systems.

Climate control was once regarded as the height of luxury – you just set the temperature and forget operating the HVAC system. Incredible. But, in many early systems, it’s not as easy as that... In Nissans especially, the digital climate control systems can be your worst enemy – the most irritating aspect of the entire car. You see, when you return to a car that’s been sitting in the sun and start the engine, you’ll be hit in the face with a hot air cyclone; the climate control system realises it needs to work hard to bring down the temperature and it cranks up the fan speed before the air-con system can effectively cool the air coming out the vents...

Add to this erratic fan speed and a dopey user interface and it’s amazing climate control systems kept being produced...

Clutch-less Manual Gearbox

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A technology that seems to be hanging on by a thread is clutch-less manual gearboxes.

These are nothing new – the Saab 900 turbo had it in the mid ‘90s, the Merc A-class had it since its late ‘90s release and the current Toyota MR-2 has it as well – but we can’t help question the logic. Good systems will let you blip the throttle during your (clutch-less) down-changes and it’s a sure way to freak out passengers – but, really, what’s the advantage? If you don’t like to drive a manual wouldn’t you opt for an auto trans? And if you are perfectly happy to change gears by yourself wouldn’t using a clutch now be second nature? Doesn’t make sense. The Toyota MR-2 system is also set back by its relatively slow gear engagement – incredibly frustrating when you’ve got the otherwise likable combination of 975kg and 103kW pushed near its limit.

It’s no wonder these systems survive only in small numbers.

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