The spell of Arctic weather which is prevailing as I write has made me think of the peace of mind which an aircooled engine can give in terms of its immunity from destruction by frost. I know that modern anti-freeze is claimed to be quite harmless to even the most delicate of power units — although some owners of vintage cars still prefer not to use it, out of caring for aluminium components — but how often do winter temperatures, come upon you before you have put the stuff into Your radiators?
One has evidence of this when cars are seen steaming at the roadside on below-zero mornings, and there is the anxiety of having undrained or unprotected vehicles in the garage on a freezing night, — do you rush out of bed to attend to them or risk it… ? However, the age of aircooIed small cars and the long discussions as to the pros and cons of “natural” or water dispersion of an engine’s heat are well in the past. Except at the practicality of an air-cooled engine is evident in the use made of them by the Beetle, Brigade and those who putter about in those nappy Citroen two-cee-vees. If only the majority of car customers did not insist on central heating and did not object to a certain degree of noise from their cars air-cooling might have survived.
I have to say that I never enjoyed a car more than the MOTOR SPORT VW Beetle that was my regular transport in the mid-1950s and that I found the wuffle-wuffle of its flat-four engine rather pleasant. And look how well air-cooling worked well for Porsche, in much more powerful concepts…
As i freeze and speculate, I have a faint longing and a return of the old VW slogan “It can’t freeze and it can’t boil”. In the long ago Granville Bradshaw, having designed the flat-twin air-cooled ABC — my first car — went on to appease hot cylinders with circulated oil instead of water, even with six of them in one Belsize model: but he would, wouldn’t he? The arguments in those times against air-cooling were that although the weight of radiator and water jackets was saved, finned cylinders increased production costs and there were the alleged disadvantages of overheating and noise to be refuted; as cars did not then have the luxury of interior heaters, that aspects of the subject did not arise.
Universal or even fairly general use of aircooled engines will never return, but I sometimes envy Beetle and 2CV users their immunity from worries about cracked components throughout the winter months. It ended, in effect, after the Austin 7 arrived and swept away the jolly Rover Eight and the cyclecar flock. One day we might examine the 1920s discussions for and against air cooling, but it will be purely academic. However, there was one car which was an advocate for such cooling, in multi-cylinder form and in racing, moreover. It was the S A R A, emanating from Courbevoie in France and persisting into the 1930s. It had a fan-fanned engine, at first of 1.1-litres, later of 1.8-litres, and was made by a company with the rather delightful title of Autos a Refroidissement par Air.
It didn’t do badly in racing either. At Le Mans, where these S A R As were entered for the 24-hour race from 1923, its first year, to 1929 without a break and again in 1933, they finished each time up to and including 1928, Marendet and Lecureul being sixth in 1927 and third in the Index of Performance category, beaten only by a Salmson and an EHP of the same engine size. A year later you could buy a six-cylinder turbine-cooled S A R A. In the Ulster TT the make was less successful, but both those in the 1929 race lasted for five hours before they stopped, not necessarily from coolant consequences. They were described as cornering steadily and having good brakes. And Major Tulloch wrote well of the SARA Six in MOTOR SPORT in 1952, a car he discovered in France. There was another successful, much bigger, air-cooled American car; but I will leave this for a future “Forgotten Makes” item.