The Garrett Turbo Turned the Tides of WWII, and Now One Powers Your Civic
A Brief History of the Garrett Turbo and Some Awesome Turbocharged Cars
Updated May 21, 2018
We have all heard of a Garrett turbo. They’re powerful, they’re sometimes expensive, but what’s in the name? When there are literally hundreds of companies making turbochargers, why are these turbos so popular?
The answer is quality, and the reason is experience. The Garrett turbo has been around longer than anyone reading this has been alive (unless you’re really, really cool). And, just as you can buy a badass engine, you can throw a Garrett turbo on damn-near anything you want.
Look, I’m not here to sell you something. If you want to buy that turbo kit on eBay that comes with a turbo, intercooler, BOV, wastegate, lines, boost gauge, and all the hardware for under $500, go right ahead. Just be ready to walk the rest of the way to Taco Bell when it blows your motor. The durability you get from a name brand is well worth the investment – as the saying goes, when you buy quality, you only cry once.
In a lot of ways, the history of Garrett turbochargers is shared with the history of turbocharged cars. We’re going to look at the most significant cars to ever sport a Garrett turbo and some awesome modern cars that are following in their footsteps. First, let’s dive into the fascinating history of the man whose name is cast on the side.
In 1936, an auspicious 28-year-old called Cliff Garrett came to realize that some new-fangled inventions, like the internal combustion engine, might be sticking around for a while. Airplanes that utilized this technology probably would be too, and a new innovation called the turbocharger was proving successful in counteracting the loss in engine pressure experienced at altitude. For the uninitiated, a turbo is a device that forces pressurized air into the engine, which boosts power levels. Garrett founded a business to mass-produce turbos for airplanes, and he named it ‘Aircraft Tool and Supply Company’, which kind of reads like a fake sign on the door to a speakeasy.
An early model of Garrett turbo took to the air over Europe in the late 1930s… you see where this is going.
Like any successful businessperson, Cliff Garrett had a little help from his friends to get his dreams off the ground.
Fighter with a Garrett turbo flies over Miami in 1941
One of those friends was Jack Northrop, founder of Grumman Aerospace – now called Northrop Grumman – which built the F-16, the F-18, the Apollo Lunar Module, and some of the wildest experimental aircraft ever made. Jack Northrop was a good friend to have if your business was making turbos for airplanes; by 1938 the rebranded Garrett Corporation was producing Garrett turbos for the war effort while also pioneering research in the new field of Avionics – the electronic systems found on aircraft. World War II historians credit airplanes equipped with a Garrett turbo and hardware with tipping the air war in favor of the Allies. That’s not a bad line to have on your resume.
Use of the Garrett turbo expanded to land vehicles in the 1950s, when the AiResearch arm of Garrett Corp began building turbos for industrial applications including tractors, locomotives, and Caterpillar construction implements. They were even used on oil and sewage pumping stations, which is a great fact to share with your friends! “Bro, did you know turbos are sometimes used to pump shit? Yeah, like the one in your STI!” Burn.
A Garrett Turbo Powered the First Turbocharged Car
The Garrett Corporation developed its first automotive turbocharger in 1960 for use in heavy trucks. Around that time, GM elected to combine a Garrett turbo with the all-aluminum 215 V8 found in the Olds F-85, to make a new high-performance model – the Oldsmobile Jetfire. The 215 was the size of a period small-block Chevy and had wedge-shaped combustion chambers with flat-top pistons. It was a high-compression mill that could be spec’d up to 10.75:1. With a four-barrel carb and no turbo, it made 195 horsepower and 235 pound-feet of torque.
It’s worth noting that hot rodders and shadetree aircraft mechanics had been outfitting turbos to cars for years, but a turbo car had never been sold new. Until now.
Thanks to the 5 psi of boost provided by the Garrett turbo, output was raised to 215 hp and 300 lb-ft of torque, despite the use of a single-barrel carb and lower 10.25:1 compression. The real problem was heat; to overcome knock, Olds implemented a water injection system to cool the incoming air. That meant owners had to keep refilling a tank of “Turbo Rocket Fluid” aka water + methanol + corrosion inhibitors to keep their cars going. And of course, people didn’t do it. Without the mixture, the fail-safe, which used butterflies to cut the boost when there was no water, often failed.
Plus, if you never get into boost and the turbo is never lubricated, it freezes up. Does that look like a car driven by people who want to “get into boost”? I don’t think so.
So many people took their Jetfires back and said “give me a four-barrel instead” that GM started doing it for free, and as a result, it was made for only two years – 1963 and 1964. Despite their problems, Jetfires with a Garrett turbo were the first turbocharged cars ever sold.
Except, according to some, they weren’t.
The (Other) First Turbocharged Car
This one didn’t use a Garrett turbo but bear with me here. At the same time, Chevrolet was working on a turbocharged version of the Corvair Monza Spyder. The Corvair was already massively popular – it was the first American car with a rear engine as well as the first American car to feature four-wheel independent suspension. GM thought it should also wear the title of first turbocharged car, but for some reason they released both the Monza and the Jeftire in the same month. Ever since, people have argued over which one came first.
This is one of the greatest debates in automotive history. So the next time someone asks you “What was the first turbo car ever made?”, you can now confidently say “See, uh, what had happened was…”
Turbocharged Corvairs continued for years, but because turbos of the 60s were less graceful than the turbos of today, many ended up getting binned by drivers who couldn’t handle the peaky nature of their power. But that wasn’t where they went wrong. For reasons I can’t get into here but you should totally read about, the Corvair’s reputation as a performance car was short-lived.
Even though neither of those cars really worked, a new buzzword was born: Turbo.
Increasingly strict federal emissions standards gave major OEMs incentive to turbocharge new cars, often using a Garrett turbo. In 1978 there were only 8 turbocharged cars on sale; by 1988, there were over 100. Today, you can find a Garrett turbo under the hood of many new Volkswagen, BMW, Ford, Chevrolet, Mercedes, and other models.
Sadly, Cliff Garrett died in 1963 – just short of seeing his name change the car world forever.
Europe’s First Turbocharged Car
Car culture in the mid-1900s went like this: if Europe did something, then the rest of the world followed suit. In this case things were a little different. These weren’t powered by a Garrett turbo either, but without the limited success of the Corvair and the Jetfire, BMW may not have taken a stab at it.
Feast your eyes on Europe’s first turbocharged car: the BMW 2002 Turbo.
Where those other cars went wrong, the 2002 went right. All 1660 production examples had the same engine: a 2-liter fuel-injected inline four with a turbo from a truck, made by a company called KKK (how long before that’s offensive?). Power output was 170 horsepower and 181 torques, and compression was 9.5:1. Turbo lag meant the power kicked in suddenly, violently, at 4000 rpm – so, like the Corvair, many 2002 Turbos were crashed, making them exceedingly rare today.
It was sold in 1974 and 1975, and just 1660 production examples were made. They were all left-hand-drive, and they could all do 0 to 60 in seven seconds on their way to 130 miles per hour. A five-speed transmission was optional – at a time when many people still thought that was two gears too many. The concept car had that mirror script on the front spoiler so that slower cars would know what was about to blow past them.
The German government thought that was too excessive, so they asked BMW to leave it off the production models. You know your car is making waves when your own government calls and says, “hey, take it down a notch”.
But no matter. This is the car that thrust the word Turbo onto the world stage. It’s the one Porsche (1975), Datsun (1981), and even Ferrari (1982) laid eyes on and said “yeah, let’s do that”. This is the magnum opus of the Neue Klasse, the stuff of bedroom posters the world over. It began a revolution.
Saab 99 Turbo
All the cars from here out use a Garrett turbo, including the loved-or-hated Saab 99.
This is one of the most polarizing car designs of all time. I mean, just look at it. The windshield is super convex. The nose is square but has round headlights. The body is long and wide in all the wrong places. The wheels and decal have some sort of avant-garde-meets-80s-tech styling, and despite the engine being at the front, there are louvers at the back – for defogging the rear window. It’s a moving catastrophe of mismatched parts yet somehow, when you add it all together, it’s beautiful.
As Saab’s last rally car and one of the first “family cars” to sport a turbo, some say it was the fastest five-seater in the world when it launched in 1978.
Of course, Saab started off building airplanes for the Swedish Air Force. Cliff Garrett would be proud of a car inspired by avionics and powered by a turbo. Saab actually did use a Garrett turbo – I like to think that’s why.
If that looks crazy, it’s because it is. It’s a mid-engine, four-wheel-drive rally car based on a Group B racer and built specifically to satisfy the FIA’s homologation requirements. Those rules state that for a car to be raced in a rally there must be 200 road legal examples that have been sold to the public. All 200 used 1.8L four-cylinder engines breathed on by a Garrett turbo – and most of them saw racing action.
I say “most” because at least one RS200 has never seen the light of day. It’s at the Ford Heritage Museum in Dagenham, UK, a place which should be promptly renamed the Museum of Sadness and Neglect. How can you just let one of these sit in a museum with its hoses cracking, its bearings freezing up?? It needs to be out getting fresh air, romping around in mud puddles, chasing butterflies in a field or at the very least, being properly enjoyed. The plot of National Treasure 3 needs to be Nicholas Cage boosting it out of captivity before showing that car the time of its life in two hours of ass-hauling, hill-jumping, handbrake-turning goodness. Honestly, I’d watch the shit out of that.
Nissan Skyline R34 GT-R
All rise for the Tuner’s National Anthem, as sung by an RB26DE fed by two Garret turbos. Unless you’re a hater, you love the GT-R, and it’s not hard to see why this car was legendary from day one way back in 1998. The 2.6-liter inline six delivered 276 horsepower (in air quotes) and 293 lb-ft standard, but could be milked for 200 more with the easy addition of exhaust, intercooler, and a bit more boost pressure.
You can break 600 horsepower on stock internals, and push 1000 if you want to go crazy. It’s probably the cheapest thousand-horsepower car you can build, save for the cost of buying the actual car. We’re one year closer to importing them legally into the United States, but if you want a modified one, or better yet a factory limited edition (which still used a Garret turbo), prepare to pay big money.
The earlier R32 GTR earned international acclaim after winning races historically won by V8s, like the Bathurst 1000. The R34 shaved length, width, and weight from the larger R33, and earned its own international fame by setting the production car track record at the Nurburgring.
We’ve arrived at the modern day – and a car that Cliff Garrett would be giddy for. This barely even counts as a car at all, what with its insane ride height and copious lack of DOT-legal front reflectors. R18s use a Garrett turbo in a hot valley configuration to force air into the 3.7L V6 diesel engine, resulting in over 550 horsepower and a top speed of over 200 mph. And since it weighs only 2000 pounds, it can get to 60 in 1.3 seconds. That’s faster than you can say 1.3 seconds. Try it!
Today a Garrett turbo comes stock on everything from Honda Civics to just about any Volkswagen. But what if you want 600 horsepower, and you don’t actually want to drive fast?
What business does an SUV have making 600 horsepower and 664 pound-feet of torque? I have no idea, but the Bentayga does it anyway thanks to two unnecessary Garrett turbos slapped on top of an even more unnecessary, borderline offensive, 6.0L W12 engine. An eight-speed automatic delivers power to all four wheels, which propels this massive car to 60 miles per hour in just 3.6 seconds and drains the gas tank about five seconds later. That’s faster than a Lamborghini Gallardo, a car we should probably stop comparing things to because it’s 14 years old and we should really just move on for a change.
Perhaps a better way to envision this car is that it’s just 0.3 seconds slower to 60 than an AMG GTS, a 488, a 12C, or a 911 GT3 RS. And it can move you into your next apartment, climb the side of a mountain, or get valet parking at the local golf course. Guess which ones it’ll never do.
And now, the polar opposite.
It turns out the world’s smallest turbo isn’t the one on your friend’s Civic – it’s on the Tata Nano, and it’s a Garrett turbo. This is an example of a Garrett turbo being used not for performance, but for fuel economy. You see, the Nano is the world’s cheapest car at about $3375 new. When it launched in 2008 it was just $2000. Adjusted for inflation, the Ford Model T would cost over $23,000 today, the old Beetle would be about $5300, and the Briggs & Stratton Flyer, the cheapest car of all time, would be about $1800. The Nano is the second-cheapest car ever made.
Not bad considering the Nano has many things the Flyer does not, like a body, and windows. What’s that you say? 12-inch wheels aren’t big enough for you? That’s quite alright because our next vehicle’s wheels are so damn big, you could probably park a few Nanos in each tire.
How about tires ten feet tall that weigh 10,000 pounds? This beast can carry 360 tons – or 514 Tata Nanos. You could fit at least ten of them in the dump bed fully assembled. It could move the Statue of Liberty, which weighs in at a scant 225 tons, and 50 Ford F-150s, at the same time. The whole thing is 23 feet tall, 30 feet wide, and 47 feet long. This rig costs a monumental 3.4 million dollars – that’s because despite weighing 560,000 pounds empty, it will still do 40 miles per hour. That’s thanks to a 117-liter V24 engine boosted by four 60mm Garrett turbos, making over 3200 horsepower.
And that’s not 40 miles per hour empty, that’s when it’s full and weighs 1.28 million pounds. And in the world of big mining trucks, the 797 is a middleweight. Holy cow.
What uses bigger turbos than a dump truck, you ask?
Old Smokey F1
Old Smokey started life as a Craigslist Special at only $225. But the owner didn’t turn it into some yard decoration or hang the patina’d parts on his garage walls. That’s because Scott Birdsall of Chuckles Garage in Santa Rosa, California makes full-custom race machines that double as rolling art.
This beast packs uses not one Garrett turbo, but two: an 80mm and a 94mm, which feed a total of 106 PSI to a 5.9-liter Cummins diesel engine from a Freightliner semi. Mahle pistons, Carillo rods, 250 over injectors, 5-inch exhaust, a full custom chassis, and that’s all backed by a 375 shot of nitrous. Translation: 1,233 horsepower, over 2,000 lb/ft of torque, and a supposed top speed of over 200 miles per hour. 200. Miles. Per. Hour.
Follow Old Smokey on Instagram.
Ken Block’s Hoonicorn V2
This might be the most famous car to ever a Garrett turbo, and like we saw on Old Smokey, two is better than one. It’s one of the fastest Fords of all time. It’s the same badass car we all watched drift up Pikes Peak last year. I say “we all” but the other day I actually met one of the 5 car people who hasn’t seen this video yet. I asked for an autograph. They were confused.
All that tire-melting, heart-pounding awesomeness is brought to you in part by two Garrett turbos that stick out through the hood atop a 6.7-liter Roush V8. Methanol injection has come a long way from the days of the Oldsmobile Jetfire, and discerning enthusiasts don’t mind filling a water tank now and then if it means pumping out 1,400 horsepower and 1,250 torques. Ken’s car puts it all to the ground with an advanced four-wheel-drive system, which is what allows him to play within the boundaries of physics. For the most part.
Congratulations! You now know the history of the turbocharged automobile, the history of the Garrett turbo, and some of the awesome modern cars that proudly sport the name Garrett under the hood. You know who Cliff Garrett was, and you know why the next time you consider an eBay turbo setup, it might be wise to spend a little extra dough on something with a good name behind it. Ken Block would approve.
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