Felix Wankel

Felix Heinrich Wankel (Lahr, Germany, August 13, 1902 – Heidelberg, October 9, 1988) was a German engineer, inventor of the Wankel rotary engine, a design- internal combustion engine without cylinders which represents a significant improvement over traditional designs , but has hardly been used in the automotive industry.

He was gifted since childhood with an ingenous spatial imagination, and became interested in the world of machines, especially combustion engines. After his mother was widowed, Wankel could not afford university education or even an apprenticeship; however, he was able to teach himself technical subjects. At age 17, he told friends that he had dreamt of constructing a car with “a new type of engine, half turbine, half reciprocating. It is my invention!”. True to this prediction, he conceived the Wankel engine in 1924 and opened a shop in Heidelberg to develop the idea, winning his first patent in 1929

Wankel was a complete self-taught, and never mastered mathematics, the idea of the rotary engine was conceived early in the course of experiments to produce a domestic internal combustion engine. His wit won him some fame, and during the 40s and doors designed valves for submarines of the German navy. His work for the army took him to prison after the war ended.

During World War II, Wankel developed seals and rotary valves for German air force aircraft and navy torpedoes, for BMW and Daimler-Benz. After the war, in 1945, he was imprisoned by France for some months, his laboratory was closed by French occupation troops, his work was confiscated, and he was prohibited from doing more work.  However, by 1951, he got funding from the Goetze AG company to furnish the new Technical Development Center in his private house in Lindau on Lake Constance. He began development of the engine at NSU (NSU Motorenwerke AG), leading to the first running prototype on February 1, 1957.  Unlike modern Wankel engines, this version had both the rotor and housing rotating. It developed 21 horsepower.His engine design was first licensed by Curtiss-Wright in New Jersey, US.

On January 19, 1960 the rotary engine was presented for the first time to specialists and the press in a meeting of the German Engineers’ Union at the Deutsches Museum in Munich. In the same year, with the KKM 250, the first practical rotary engine was presented in a converted NSU Prinz. At this time the “Wankel engine” became synonymous with the rotary engine, whereas previously it was called the “Motor nach System NSU/Wankel”. At the 1963 IAA, the NSU company presented the NSU Wankel-Spider, the first consumer vehicle, which went into production in 1964. Great attention was received by the NSU in August 1967 for the very modern NSU Ro 80, which had a 115 horsepower engine with two rotors. It was the first German car selected as “Car of the Year” in 1968.

In Japan, the manufacturer Mazda solved the engine’s chatter marks problem. The engine has been successfully used by Mazda in several generations of their RX-series of coupés and sedans, including the R100, the RX-7 and more recently the RX-8.

Wankel became a success in business by securing license agreements around the world. By 1958 Wankel and partners had founded the “Wankel GmbH” company, providing Wankel with a share of the profits for marketing the engine. Among the licensees were Daimler-Benz since 1961, General Motors since 1970, Toyota since 1971. Royalties for the Wankel GmbH for licensure were 40%, later 36%. In 1971 Wankel sold his share of the license royalties for 50 million Deutschmarks to the English conglomerate Lonrho. The following year he got his Technical Development Center back from the Frauenhofer Society.

From 1986 the Felix Wankel Institute cooperated with Daimler Benz AG. Daimler Benz provided the operating costs in return for the research rights. He sold the Institute to Daimer Benz for 100 million Marks.

Since 1936, Wankel was married for life to Emma “Mi” Kirn. They had no children. His grave may be found in the Bergfriedhof of Heidelberg.

He never had a driver’s license, because he was extremely near-sighted. He was, however, the owner of an NSU Ro 80 with a Wankel engine, which was chauffeured for him.

In 1969, Wankel was granted an honorary Doctorate of Engineering from Munich’s technical university. He was known for his championing of animal rights and opposition to the use of animals in testing.

Wankel died in Heidelberg, aged 86. After his death, the Felix Wankel Foundation sold its real estate property to Volkswagen AG. The Heidelberg Fire Department showcases his last workshop. Wankel’s papers are archived in the Technomuseum in Mannheim. Furthermore, there is an exhibition “AUTOVISION · Tradition & Forum” in Altlußheim, a permanent showing of over 80 rotary engines and many cars equipped with Wankel motors.

In 1970 Wankel established the foundation that bears his name, through which is dedicated to promoting animal rights. Wankel never obtained a driver’s license, suffering from myopia. He died in Heidelberg in 1988.


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