If there was any engineer who had an out-of-the-box mindset, Felix Wankel would be king of the pioneering thought process. His rotary engine concept, based on three-sided rotors spinning on a single shaft, was truly innovative, as it used 98 percent fewer moving components than conventional OHV or OHC combustion engines. Its simplicity of function is truly astounding.
Wankel, an engineer in Germany, designed his rotary engine back in the 1920s, receiving a patent in 1929, but it wasn’t until he was employed at the German car company NSU that his engine was developed. In the ensuing years, NSU licensed the Wankel engine design to various car companies around the world, including AMC, Mercedes-Benz, Citroen, General Motors, Nissan, Suzuki, and Toyota, yet it was Mazda that made the Wankel engine a household name.
Before most of these car companies dipped their toes in the Wankel water, the American aircraft company Curtiss-Wright signed a joint agreement with NSU in 1960 allowing it to develop its own version of a Wankel engine, one that was of a high-performance nature specifically engineered for aircraft.
Who came up with the idea to install a rotary engine in a Mustang? We don’t know, but we do know that a 1965 Mustang 2+2 was obtained from dealer Dockery Ford in Morristown, New Jersey, and registered in the name of the Curtiss-Wright Corporation, Wright Aeronautical Division on July 28, 1965. The red Mustang fastback was then delivered to the Curtiss-Wright facility located on Main Avenue and Passaic Street in Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, just west of Teterboro Airport, where they were based.
The engine installed in that Mustang is a Curtiss-Wright-designed Twin-Rotor RC2-60 rotary, displacing a mere 240 cubic inches and developing 185 horsepower at 5,000 rpm. It weighs only 237 pounds, yet its compact 18.5-inch length made it ideal for small cars; it stands at just 21.5 inches tall. Smaller than a 289 Ford small-block V-8, it fits in the Mustang’s engine compartment with plenty of room to spare.
Like many interesting concepts that go nowhere, only one Wankel-powered Mustang was built. According to the placard at the National Auto & Truck Museum, “This project was dismissed when Ford decided not to pursue the Wankel engine.” The Mustang was donated to the museum by Steve Estes of Kalamazoo, Michigan.