Both the supercharger and turbo are responsible for serious power gains in combustion engines, but is there a method for choosing one over the other? We’ve lined up a two-part segment that gives a snapshot of their historical significance and aims to answer that age-old question of which one is better.
While superchargers and turbos may have a clear performance image today, they actually received their start more than a century ago and doing some rather humble work. In 1860, Philander Higley and Francis Marion Roots of Connersville, Indiana patented the Roots-Type supercharger (i.e., a supercharger with two separate lobes that mesh together). But it was known as an air mover back then and was employed to pump and circulate air in places like mines and blast furnaces. It wasn’t until around the turn of the 20th century that such a pump was used for automotive applications.
Around the year 1900, Gottlieb Daimler (who founded Daimler-Benz, of Mercedes-Benz fame, with business partner Karl Benz in 1885) patented the first internal combustion engine with the Roots supercharger. Within a couple decades, superchargers began to reach their real automotive performance potential. In 1921, carmaker DMG (Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft) introduced the first supercharged car for sale. Besides the traditional Root-Type superchargers, there are also Centrifugal superchargers (introduced by Robert Paxton McCulloch in 1937), which feature a single impeller to create boost. And lest we forget the Twin-Screw supercharger invented by Swedish inventor Alf Lysholm in the 1930s, which produces pressure via two worm gears that mesh together when rotated. Throughout the years, superchargers increased power in machines ranging from classic Duesenbergs and Bugattis to modern Shelby Mustangs.
Turbochargers were invented around the same time as superchargers and were initially used in industrial and marine applications. Swiss engineer Alfred Büchi designed the first turbo system to receive a patent in 1905. This invention, however, took time to reach its peak just like its rival supercharger. It wasn’t until around the time World War I in 1914 that turbos were used in aviation engines for better performance at higher altitudes where the air is thin.
Since turbos produce a lot of heat, which can affect engine reliability, it took some time for commercially viable turbocharged vehicles to be developed. And it took until 1962 for the first turbocharged cars to go to market in the form of General Motors’ Oldsmobile F-85 Jetfire and Chevrolet Corvair Monza. It would be another decade before BMW introduced its 2002 turbo for 1973 and Porsche introduced its 911 turbo for 1975, at which time turbochargers began developing their more contemporary reputation for outstanding performance. Turbos have increased output in cars ranging from Porsche 911s and the Ferrari F40 supercar to current Subaru WRXs and Formula One cars.
What’s evident is that both the supercharger and turbo are viable power boosters for automotive enthusiasts. Next time, we’ll be breaking down the setups side-by-side to determine which one is better as it applies to your personal needs. Make sure to check back in a couple weeks!