Bad Beetle’s Radical Radial

Article by Rick Jensen. Video courtesy of Mike Nieman on YouTube.

The circular, odd-looking contraption being birthed by this VW Beetle is a radial engine. Radials have been powering flying machines since the early 1900s, and some of America’s biggest war birds were radial equipped.

Unlike the V-, straight- and flat-type engine configurations we’re used to seeing in cardom, a radial is a unique internal combustion engine. The cylinders of a radial engine point outward from a central crankshaft like spokes on a wagon wheel, and the pistons are attached to the crank by way of a master and articulating rod assembly. That sounds pretty complex, but the truth is that it’s an ingenious design that produces impressive power.

Speaking of impressive, watching one start up is a real treat for aviation lovers: The big wagon wheel whines, shudders and belches smoke as it warms up. Then it starts to settle into a rhythmic rumble that’s both hypnotizing and ground shaking.

And this radial-powered Beetle video lets us car lovers enjoy it, too. This Beetle, like millions of its brethren, left the factory powered by an air-cooled flat 4. It was ubiquitous and quite underpowered, but it nevertheless got someone where they wanted to go. However, the creative gent in this clip clearly didn’t want to go there, as he was having none of that flat 4 nonsense. So he yanked that reliable little mill out and replaced it with a comically large radial engine. Its protruding white fan makes it look even more ridiculous, like a windup toy.

But if you see this thing on the road, laugh at your own peril; with its ungodly rear weight bias it may very well wheelie itself onto its back. But remember that this is the piston-driven equivalent to strapping a JATO rocket to your ride. The driver may not live to tell the tale, but he’ll outrun your heap before checking out!


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Rick Jensen (Turboguy)

Rick's a Turbo Buick and EFI GM nut who was born in Nebraska, then reborn on the mean streets of Queens, NYC. Spent high school and college wrenching and racing before moving to NYC and spending 13 years as the editor-in-chief, editor, and writer for some of America's best automotive magazines, websites, and ad agencies. Favorite moments include running low 10s in my Turbo Buick, Exposing GM's weak-assed early CTS-V drivetrains, road racing Corvettes and Camaros, and doing high-boost launches to make my kid laugh.
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