Five Air-Cooled Icons


By Chris Pollitt

The air-cooled engine is one we associate with cars from Porsche and of course, Volkswagen. And rightly so, because the Beetle and the 911 for example, were and still are automotive icons. However, the air-cooled engine had a reach far further than just cars from Germany. It was a hugely popular engine all around the globe. It was quite literally at the front of the aviation revolution, and it even found its way into heavy good vehicles. It was and still is a versatile, clever engine configuration that offers reliability and simplicity for the most part. 

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Any engine, air or water cooled, disperses most of its heat through the exhaust and also through the oil. The remaining heat is taken care of via the cooling system which for most cars, is liquid-based. However, some do away with the liquid in favour of cooling fins which increase surface area and are then cooled by ambient air. And while it’s a good system, it’s not quite as effective as water cooling, and thus has largely been forgotten by the modern motoring world. Which is, of course, something of a shame. But rather than be upset about their demise, let’s instead celebrate the air-cooled engine by looking at five of the greatest cars to ever be powered by one.

1) The Porsche 911

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It may be cliché to put the Porsche 911 in a list like this, but that’s with good reason. The 911 is arguably the car that put the air-cooled engine on the map. Yes, there was the Beetle from Volkswagen before it, which brought the engine to the people. But it was the 911 that showed what the air-cooled engine could do. It was the 911 that made the air-cooled engine a performance icon. And not only that, the 911 was also responsible, single-handedly, for the longevity of the air-cooled engine in production terms. Porsche only moved the 911 to water cooling in the mid 1990s. That’s a hell of a run. 

2) The Franklin Olympic 

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The thing about air-cooled engines is that they are, broadly speaking, extremely reliable. This was especially the case in the 1930s, before things like antifreeze had been popularised. Instead, people would just use water in water-cooled cars. But as well we all know, water corrodes, water freezes and water boils. As such, the Franklin Automobile Company based out of Syracuse, New York, made a killing with its air-cooled cars like the Olympic. The engine didn’t freeze up. This made them a desirable option in cold states. Powered by large, straight-six air-cooled engines, they were fast for the time, too, with over 80bhp on tap. 

3) The Citroën GS

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It would be easy to simply drop the 2CV into this list, but instead we’re going to focus on the GS. This car was important, as it stepped into the gap between the ‘bare bones’ 2CV and luxury DS. It was, for Citroën, a car that they hoped would please the people. As such, it was a car that made the air-cooled engine a more acceptable prospect. The GS, with its clever hydropneumatic suspension, sharp looks and comfortable interior was a huge success for Citroën. It was also proof that the quirky, bold ideas of the 2CV’s underpinnings could have more widespread appeal. 

4) The Chevrolet Corvair 

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As yes, the Chevrolet Corvair. The car Ralph Nader hated, and the car that was the subject of more rumours than a crowd around the office water cooler. In reality, the Corvair wasn’t ‘unsafe at any speed’ and was in fact just a bit misunderstood. It was a car that required some input from the driver, like making sure the tyres had the right amount of air in them. And furthermore, it was a car Chevrolet improved, with better suspension, thicker anti-roll bars and other tweaks, making it perfectly safe in the process. Powered by an air-cooled flat-six engine, the Corvair was a characterful car to drive, and is still fondly sought after today. 

5) The Tatra 603 

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Czechoslovakian company, Tatra, was never one to do things by halves. So, when charged with the task of building some sort of luxury machine that would be perfectly suited to shuffling dignitaries around, they went to town. The resulting car was the 603. Air-cooled made sense, as this meant no liquid to freeze up and lock the engine. A very real concern in that part of the world. But Tatra didn’t want something conventional, so instead slotted an air-cooled V8 in the back of the 603. Not only that, it was also a hemi, given the hemispherical innards of the cylinder heads. So it was basically a Soviet muscle car, kind of.

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