Thursday, May 28, 2020

Plastic Performance: The Story of the Innovative Polimotor Engine

Photo Credit: Jack Webster



The engine compartment for a traditional fuel-burning automobile is one of the most incredible storms regularly occurring on this planet. Intense heat of the combustion process combines with a stunning electrical storms and powerful mechanical forces to create the momentum we take for granted. Harnessing and managing this essential storm to generate optimum performance relies on the ability to engineer the best possible engine. 
Among one of the aspects carefully considered towards the construction of a traditional internal combustion gasoline engine is material selection. Performance, durability and importantly cost factors into how to produce a powerplant. For a long time, cast iron was favoured for the construction of engine blocks for most production automobiles while other components utilized alloys such as stainless steel. Previously existing in high performance or more expensive vehicles, aluminum has gained wider acceptance in recent years as usage of the material has become cost effective. Aluminum’s performance in engine construction functions competitively with the materials it replaces but has the additional advantage of being lighter weight. While aluminum is currently popular in automotive construction (with usage spanning throughout new vehicles), there was also realistic effort put forth to investigate building powerplant using more unorthodox methods during the late 1970s into the 1980s using polymers and composites to achieve a significantly lower weight.


Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company


Originally developing engine parts for racing, mechanical engineer Matthew “Matti” Holtzberg began envisioning the use of polymers (generally referred as plastics) for the manufacturing of high performance components. Establishing Polimotor Research Incorporated in 1974, Holtzberg’s started to experiment on materials and construction methods. Composite-constructed connecting rods, valve springs and push rods were some of the first engine parts he was able to create beginning to sell the components for use in motorsports. By the end of the 1970s, Holtzberg had loftier plans to exploit the benefits of alternative materials on a greater scale. Though not the only time a plastic or non-metal internal combustion engine was conceived, this development and later testing represented a major effort to determine such an application in real-world motoring.


A Plastic Dream Coming True


Meeting with employees of the Ford Motor Company, Matti Holtzberg was encouraged in 1979 to create an engine made entirely out of polymers or composite materials. In pursuit to prove the merits of the innovative powerplant components, Holtzberg utilized the design of Ford’s 2.3-liter four-cylinder Lima engine. Not as celebrated as Ford’s larger power units, the Lima engine design impressively served from 1974 to 2001 on a wide range of the automaker’s vehicles. The naturally-aspirated and turbocharged versions of the 2.3-liter powerplant would propel the Ford Mustang starting in 1979 model year demonstrating some (if limited) performance viability ahead of Polimotor’s development on the composite engine. 


Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company



Due to the extreme heat and stresses involved in an internal combustion engine, Polimotor quickly realized there were some technical restrictions that would make an entirely polymer-based power unit impossible with a half-melted plastic piston reflecting the situation. Instead, an experimental engine would include steel and aluminum components where required. The crankshaft and camshaft were sourced from the Ford production engine while the exhaust valves and valve springs were also metal. Several other parts applied to the Polimotor engine build utilized hybrid polymers/metal construction. The intake valve and pistons were assembled by a combination of aluminum with a highly heat resistant polymer called Torlon. Marketed by Amoco Chemicals through the 1980s, Torlon has a multitude of attractive properties. Capable of withstanding temperatures greater than 500 degrees Fahrenheit (260 degrees Celsius), the primary benefit of the reinforced polymer is the ability to create low weight parts.  

Through the use of a block made from a fiber-reinforced polymer, Torlon and the sparing space of metals, the experimental engine based on Ford’s 412-pound Lima four-cylinder powerplant weighed approximately 160 pounds (some published accounts listed between 152 and 168 pounds). Some components contained in the Polimotor engine were remarkably lighter than conventional parts. Intake valves would weigh 79 percent less using a combination of aluminum/Torlon construction compared to steel pieces tipping the scale at just 30 grams. A weight decrease of roughly 60 percent was achieved with the adoption of valve spring retainers and tappets made completely out of Torlon. The engine’s pistons were also formed using the high performance polymer but the extreme heat of the combustion chamber would immediately be observed (Matti Holtzberg kept a melted prototype piston in his office). An aluminum crown was applied to the top of the piston that also would be surrounded by a steel wall in order to handle standard combustion temperatures. Despite the compromise needed, a piston in the four-cylinder engine was about 109 grams less than a fully aluminum counterpart. 


Image taken from Amoco Chemicals Torlon Brochure of
engine components created by the material.


The Polimotor engine also exhibited two additional benefits afforded through use of the lighter components. Able to run up to 30 percent quieter than a cast iron engine, the most impressive advantage was improved performance. The lower weight of moving parts contributed to the creation of an engine producing 318 horsepower with a maximum redline of 14,000 rpms. While Ford Motor Company’s Special Vehicles Operations tested and researched the potential of a production variant of the Polimotor engine, the worth of the powerplant would also be trialed in the more public arena of motorsports.


Fitting the Racing Mold


Matti Holtzberg had sights set on auto racing throughout the time he worked with the notion of a plastic engine. While open wheel racing was seen as a possibility, sports car racing proved to be the primary showcase for the unique powerplant.



Photo Credit: Jack Webster


Creating a 2-liter version of their experimental four-cylinder engine, Polimotor’s technology was field tested on sports car circuits. A #8 Polimotor Research entry based on a Lola T616 chassis was entered in a pair of IMSA sports car races during both the 1984 and 1985 seasons. Racing twice at Watkins Glen in 1984 in the GTP-class category, the Polimotor entry driven by Peter Kuhn failed to finish the 6-Hour event in July but was able to complete September’s shorter 500-kilometer race taking the checkered flag in 35th place overall. The #8 car also ran at Road America finishing 56th overall in the 59-car field. The following season, the car was entered into three more events in the IMSA’s Camel GT Lights category returning to Road America as well as participating in events at Mid-Ohio and Lime Rock. Wearing Amoco Chemicals sponsorship through all but one of their outings, the Polimotor race program was short-lived and produced limited success finishing half the events it was entered in but was not in contention for overall or class wins. During the mid 1990s, the Polimotor engine would race again in a different of motorsport. In the British Hillclimb Championship, the power unit proved formidable against other 2-liter racing engines.


The Reality of a Composite Engine


Roughly 35 years since the last IMSA race for the Polimotor engine, we are obviously not driving road vehicles using the innovative construction technology. So, what were and currently exist as obstacles for plastic-based powerplants? 
One of the major drawbacks to the concept of the Polimotor engine concept related to the price of materials. In 1983, the price of carbon fiber was projected between $20 and $40 per pound. Although price for the same amount of carbon fiber material today is estimated at around $10, the cost is much greater than aluminum currently rated at roughly $0.80 per pound. In a 1980 article from the Chilton’s Automotive industries periodical, Matty Holtzberg claimed to have orders for more than 100 early examples of the four-cylinder Polimotor engine listed at a price of $28,000 for companies seeking to evaluate the technology. At that time, a mass-produced Polimotor’s cost would have been estimated at $2,500 a piece. A similar designed engine using traditional construction was priced at around $1,000 for a vehicle retailing for about $5,500 in 1980. The cost effectiveness of composite or polymer-based engines has not likely improved to the extent that meaningful production is possible. 


Photo Credit: Ford Motor Company



The long-term endurance of the Polimotor engine technology can also be viewed as a question mark. Although it demonstrated durability in IMSA sports car competition in the 1980s, there’s not a great deal of information identifying how well such a powerplant would survive challenges of everyday driving for years. During the early development of the Polimotor engine, Matti Holtzberg explained there were complications in fastening components as threaded bolts were prone to separating too easily and adhesives lacked the heat resistence needed in the application. Though one method was found for the 1980s Polimotor engines, new adhesives or assembly procedures may be available today assuring greater performance. More extensive testing of a polymer or composite based engine might deliver clear answers. 


The Present and Future of Composites in Engines


Though composite or fiber reinforced polymers may not be used for extensively for engines, this material technology has been employed in a limited extent in modern passenger vehicles. Since the 1990s, several automakers have engineered composite polymer construction into air intake manifolds. Subjected to lower temperatures within the engine compartment, the intake manifold has been a suitable candidate for being made of plastic allowing for weight savings of up to 40 percent compared to an aluminum conforming to the same design. Ford, General Motors and Toyota have all sold vehicles equipped with polymer-based intake manifolds for several decades.
A major sports car builder has recently expressed a desire of using composite components in a more active position inside a production car engine. Lamborghini made news in 2016 stating an intention to create carbon fiber connecting rods for a future V-12 engine being developed to power the successor for the Aventador. Already used in Lamborghini’s patented Forged Composite material has demonstrated incredible strength as well as lightweight properties. Originally planned for the replacement of their flagship supercar in 2021 or 2022 but the release date deeper into 2024.


Photo Credit: Chris Nagy/ CAR FYI



It’s also worth noting that the idea for an engine made largely of plastic components has not died in the heart of Matti Holtzberg. Through his current research, the Polimotor engine concept continues to present itself with innovative potential. With Polimotor 2 and Polimotor 3 designs, Holtzberg has been utilizing modern fiber reinforced polymers and dives deeper into realm of experimentation. The creation of polymer and metal components is now being envisioned as constructed with 3D printing. According to the website for Holtzberg’s Polimotor LLC company, plans are to run a sport prototype car in the Florida-based FARA racing series in 2020 and has ambition to compete in hill climbing for the 2021 season. 
As automotive engineers continue to develop stronger, lighter, better performing engines, evolution will lead to the ongoing exploration of new ideas or the possible revisiting of previous ideas with the benefits of updated understanding. 


References:

Keebler, Jack "Ford's Impossible Plastic Engine." Popular Science September 1982

Szigethy, Neil M. "What...A Plastic Engine?" Chilton's Automotive Industries December 1980 



Saturday, March 7, 2020

IndyCar/Sportsnet Announces Expanded TV Race Coverage for 2020

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy


The 2020 NTT IndyCar Series promises to be a richly contended auto racing organization consisting of 17 rounds. A season set to start later this month, the top open wheel competition in North America has the opportunity to deliver some exciting, new possibilities for what viewers may see on track. Although many IndyCar fans will likely prepare to attend at least one race for 2020, television remains the most obtainable way to catch the racing action between drivers including defending series champion Josef Newgarden, Scott Dixon, Will Power as well as Canadians James Hinchcliffe and series newcomer Dalton Kellett. For 2020, the racing tour’s loyal fans in Canada are being granted the chance to follow the NTT IndyCar Series with greater access compared to a much-loathed 2019 TV package.

On February 28th, the IndyCar Series announced they have re-entered an agreement with Sportsnet to be the exclusive Canadian broadcaster for the 2020 season. The eighth consecutive year that Sportsnet will serve in the capacity to share the sport with audiences in Canada, the 2020 schedule for a second year comprises of full season coverage on their premium SN World channel as well as with the SN NOW+ streaming service. A refreshing improvement to the NTT IndyCar Series’ Canadian TV package is the addition of races on the more accessible sports channel within the Sportsnet network family. A total of 10 of the 17 events will air on Sportsnet 360 including the opening round at St. Petersburg, Florida as well as the Indianapolis 500 and the Honda Indy Toronto.

The IndyCar/Sportsnet 2020 Canadian TV schedule appears to go to great lengths to atone for the unfavourable broadcast package that existed last year. Intended to air almost exclusively through SN World and the SN NOW+ service, the 2019 broadcast agreement for the open wheel racing series alienated a large share of the Canadian fan base. With each premium sports service requiring audiences to pay roughly $20 per month for the opportunity to watch the 2019 IndyCar Series tour, the scheme was viewed as financially predatory. Only the Indianapolis 500 and the Honda Indy Toronto were offered on Sportsnet’s more widely-viewed channels.

Making matters worse, last year’s broadcast package’s announcement came in less than a week before the start of the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series’ season opener. Sportsnet ultimately allowed Canadian fans to watch the St. Petersburg street race via a free live-stream when it was revealed the race would have been aired on a tape delay telecast in SN World. Allegations were made shortly after the announcement of the less than fan-friendly 2019 TV deal pointing at both Sportsnet executives being disinterested in auto racing coverage as well as the failings of IndyCar’s new in-house media branch that was setup in late 2018.

For 2020, Canadian race fans with a basic cable package will likely be able to watch numerous IndyCar broadcasts on the American NBC channels. Of the 17 races, eight will air on the conventional NBC networks that includes the 104th running of the Indianapolis 500. For Canadians receive Sportsnet 360, only three races will be inaccessible counting for the event airing on NBC.

SN NOW+ in Canada and NBC Sports Gold in the United States offer streaming of 2020 IndyCar Series events. Both streaming services can be ordered independently of a paid TV packages. Pricing for SN NOW+ is $27.99 per month or can be ordered on an annual basis for $249.96 (equating to $20.83 per month). 

With the first race 2020 NTT IndyCar Series season set to receive the green flag on March 15th, the improved television deal with Sportsnet comes with the mixed blessing of Canada’s own James Hinchcliffe contributing to the NBC broadcast. Losing his full-time ride as his previous race team was absorbed into McLaren SP, Hinchcliffe is set to run just three events for 2020 with Andretti Autosport. The Oakville native will serve as an analyst for much of this season and will also contribute his personality to Indy Lights, IMSA and the NASCAR race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway during the fourth of July weekend.




Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Look Back at the Forward-Thinking 2020 Canadian International AutoShow

Photo Credit: Chris Nagy


The recently concluded 2020 edition of the Canadian International AutoShow wraps as a grand celebration of wheels and the motors that propel them. More than just a gathering for vehicle manufacturers to impress us with their latest designs and technologies, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre played host to a multitude of ideas lined to the classic, modern and futuristic automotive genre. Within the massive gathering space was a chance to amuse yourself with various types of interactivity. Branded with the theme of “Transformative Times”, the 2020 Canadian International AutoShow acted in an attempt to shed light along the many crossroads the automobile industry faces while also reminding us of the delight of more than 100 years of motoring.


Volkswagen's 2020 CIAS Press Conference
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

In recent years, the Canadian International AutoShow has benefited from a high-profile lead-in that was held in Detroit. Previously a staple for January, the North American International Auto Show had provided a relatively fresh complement of captivating new cars and concepts that often made the trip across the border. The rescheduling of the North American International Auto Show for June this year is obviously resulting a restructuring of industry plans to exhibit their vehicles.

Did the realignment of the Detroit auto show mean the Toronto show was lacking vehicle star importance for 2020? I experience would indicate the selection of motoring masterpieces felt consistent with recent years. I’ve been attending the Canadian International AutoShow annually since 2009 and I remembered a rather subdued version of the event in 2010 when they stopped using the Skydome (Rogers Centre) as an event place. Although the show has not used the baseball stadium since 2009, the Metro Toronto Convention Centre has remained packed.


Elevated Shot of 2020 CIAS Floor Space
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

However, having previously mentioned the word star, it does bring up one notable absence at this year’s auto show. Amongst all the brands, Mercedes-Benz chose not to attend the 2020 Canadian International AutoShow. A statement made by Mercedes-Benz Canada’s Vice President of Marketing Virginie Aubert explains the decision in length. “Mercedes-Benz Canada continuously evaluates our events portfolio to ensure that each of our initiatives provides the best opportunities to fulfil our strategic priorities. After careful consideration, we decided to no longer participate in Canadian auto shows as of 2020. Mercedes-Benz Canada is hard at work preparing a series of programs in 2020 that will showcase our exceptional vehicle lineup and excite both Mercedes-Benz fans and new audiences. We look forward to sharing these events in the near future.”. An automaker that has been known to organize a fairly large exhibition in Toronto every year, the German brand’s election to sit out for the event did not go without notice. Fortunately, there were several other luxury car companies eager to gain the attention of a Canadian crowd.

Bugatti La Voiture Noire Supercar
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy


Containing a full complement of Canadian premieres as is typical, the Toronto auto show hosted the first appearance of the all-new Land Rover Defender, Audi RSQ8, Aston Martin DBX, MINI John Cooper Works GP and the eighth generation Chevrolet Corvette convertible. Being there on Media Preview Day held prior to the event opening to the public, I’m granted the special opportunity to experience the pomp of a manufacturer projecting their company’s best prospects for 2020 and beyond. With speeches from vibrant representatives, almost every press conference involves a speech preaching recent successes and/or brand strategy prior to the introduction of a vehicle concealed under a cover. Since almost every vehicle was previous unveiled at another auto show or online, the premiere ceremonies were like a Christmas morning where you know what’s in all the presents. However, attendees of this year’s Canadian International AutoShow were the first to behold the luxury wonder of the mammoth 2021 Cadillac Escalade sport utility vehicle in person witnessing firsthand its curved OLED display panel.


2021 Cadillac Esscalade at 2020 CIAS
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

For 2020, a focus of performance being central in the appearance of many new cars shown at the Canadian International AutoShow was somewhat amusing. Despite almost every automaker placing emphasis on electrification in their production lineups, some of the event’s main attraction with the all-new Corvettes, a 542-horsepower crossover vehicle from Aston Martin as well as the Canadian-only McLaren Senna Can-Am special edition supercar. Even as the Porsche’s Taycan’s fully electric vehicle was present in the German sports car builder’s display, the company prominently showcased their modernized 935 track car. The prized vehicle of the 2020 auto show was the Bugatti La Voiture Noire was among the most lavish example of high-performance excellence. Propelled by a 16-cylinder engine engineered to generate more than 1,400 horsepower, the one of a kind hypercar is priced at 16.1-million Canadian dollars. With the presence of the Land Rover Defender, the Jeep Gladiator Mojave as well as General Motors large full-sized sport utility vehicles, utility performance was also given a platform in the Toronto show. 


2020 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible at 2020 CIAS
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy


Does the apparent desire for gasoline-powered, high-performance machines distract from the trend for electric motoring? Electrified vehicles did enjoy part of the spotlight at the 2020 Canadian International AutoShow. The most powerful car in this year’s exhibition was the Pininfarina Battista outfitted with a powerplant capable of producing 1,900 horsepower. The Battista can accelerate from 0 to 100 kilometers per hour (62 miles per hour) in just two seconds and have a maximum top speed potential of 350 kilometers per hour (217.47 miles per hour). Audi and Volkswagen both extensively promoted electric vehicles with the German luxury brand showing greater depth with their e-tron lineup. Volkswagen showed off their MEB chassis platform that will serve as the basis for the company’s upcoming ID. Electric vehicle family. The third and final electrified attraction in Toronto was the Ford Mustang Mach E. Through Ford didn’t organize a press conference on media day, the all-electric vehicle still drew a crowd.

Ford Mustang Mach E at 2020 CIAS
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy
Guests attending this year’s auto show were also greeted by a wide array of fun, interactive experiences. Kia’s exhibit had large tables with touchscreen surfaces for table hockey while other, vehicle-related multimedia components were located with Nissan and Acura. Among the most impressively themed interactive presentations I partook in was positioned with Infiniti. Fashioned in the shape of classic arcade cabinets, Infiniti’s Fast Forward provided a simple yet amusing video game as well as a homage to the luxury brand’s 30 years of vehicles and safety innovations.

Beyond the scope of new cars, the 2020 Canadian International AutoShow also contained several special areas. For attendees interested in antique vehicles, The Cobble Beach Classics: The Disruptors display included a 1904 Curved Dash Oldsmobile, a 1938 Mercedes-Benz 540K and a Lamborghini Miura. Positioned outside of the Cobble Beach Classics exhibition was a 1959 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray concept car. Alongside the sensational Auto Exotica display containing some of the world’s most exclusive vehicles, other major showcase contains some memorable race cars representing McLaren Racing who was being inducted into the Canadian Motorsport Hall of Fame prior to the Media Preview Day.


Johnny Rutherford's 1975 McLaren M16E Gatorade IndyCar
Photo Credit: Chris Nagy

Military vehicles supplied by the Ontario Regiment Museum as well as the Oblivion display combining a handful 1980s and 1990s vehicles (including a replica of Knight Rider’s KITT) paired with classic nostalgia items along with vintage arcade cabinets. During the public days of the event, there was also an assortment of child-friendly activities and contests as well as a $20,000 professional Forza Motorsport 7 competition hosted by the WorldGaming Network.

When I have to sum up this year’s Canadian International AutoShow, all I can say is I was left conflicted in a delightful way. For a long time, we have accepted these exhibitions of the automobile as simply a showcase of vehicles. We are used to seeing the latest vehicles, concept cars and even displays of classic automobiles providing both a source of information as well as entertainment as we connect to our personal desires to explore the frontiers of motoring. Recently, the auto industry is embracing so many different technologies and ideas causing us to greatly reassess what transportation is becoming. Electrification, in-car connectivity and even the manner for how new car ownership is evolving the perception of the automobile at a pace not seen since following the second world war. A mid-engined Chevrolet Corvette and a four-door, fully electric crossover vehicle wearing Ford’s Mustang nameplate is some of the most visible examples of a changing automotive universe shown in Toronto. The complex nature for the modern automobile in 2020 was so properly represented at the Canadian International AutoShow as we look behind at the great moments created by the great piece of machinery as well as ahead envisioning with uncertainty what memories we will experience with the automobile. Indeed, we are entering into transformative times.


Slideshow presentation of 2020 Canadian International AutoShow
2020 Canadian International AutoShow