IMPORTANT NEWS: National Electric Vehicle Sweden has agreed to buy the assets of Saab Automobile and the sale is expected to be finalized during the summer.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Heroes of Saab: Per Gillbrand - The turbo genius

Here is the first of what I hope will be a series of posts about the heroes of Saab. Both historic and present heroes.

First off is Per "Pelle" Gillbrand. Pelle Gillbrand is one of Sweden's most talented engine designers and was involved in the development of Saab's turbo engine.

The following interview was written by Håkan Matson and first published by DI Nya Bilar. I have done the translation. Enjoy!

Visiting the turbo genius

Pelle Gillbrand was one of the main people behind the Saab turbo engines and was in time given the nick name "turbo genius." But when he retired, he went down into his basement and started building models of historic engines, ranging from the first car engine and aircraft engine to the Bugatti V16 engine that’s used in the Veyron. It has turned out to be a unique collection of 23 engines - and they all run.

The face kind of sparkles. His eyes light up, the smile grows stronger, he stands in a kind of starting position and can sense the thin finishing line.

Pelle Gillbrand is about to start his latest construction, Bugatti’s engine from 1929, which was in the Type 35B. Then he pulls. The engine starts pleasurably and the sound of the eight cylinders fills the basement, in competition with methanol exhaust which pours from the engine. Through the mist he shouts:

"It sounds just like the original engine!"

The Bugatti engine is his latest construction, but definitely not his last. The next project is already decided:

"Rudolf Diesel's original single-cylinder engine, located at MAN. Though it looks more like a steam engine than an internal combustion engine."

When we say that Pelle Gillbrand manufacture model engines, we mean that he actually produces them. Using a hack saw, a milling machine, turning lathe and other tools, he makes everything from the raw materials.

"The only thing I buy ready made is gears. They come from Kuggteknik in Leksand."

The craftsmanship is obviously time consuming. Pelle Gillbrand says it takes a year to build an engine and an additional year to make it run.

"To make it run is the most enjoyable - and it takes a lot of time to get the sound right. But I’m having so much fun that time does not exist."

After some persuasion, he allows us to visit the basement. Like a prompter his wife Inga Gillbrand mouths silently and lovingly:

"He's always down there. He will soon have to calm down. But on the other side it is good that he has something that occupies him."

He was born 77 years ago in Tidaholm and when he was four years old his father taught him the difference between a two-stroke engine and a four-stroke engine. He grew up, built his own boat with an outboard motor, continued to Volvo in Skövde and worked with most of the B engines, both as a test engineer and developer.

In 1964 he received a call from Saab's technical director Rolf Mellde who offered him a job which paid SEK 1,900 a month. It was way above what Volvo wanted to pay, and Pelle Gillbrand’s managers willingly thought he could move to Trollhättan. He began working on the Ricardo engine and was later responsible for installing the Ford V4 engine in Saab’s different models.

In 1970 the position was relocated to Södertälje, where all engine development was done in the joint Saab-Scania-lab. Technology which Saab was the first and the only one to use at the time – like one coil per cylinder – are available in most cars today.

Pelle Gillbrand retired in 2001, after among other things having developed a variable compression engine which GM showcased at various auto shows, but then quickly buried. Today he has very little contact with his former employer and would rather not comment on the crisis in the company.

His model building is not just a technical hobby. There is also a political message.

"I started when the former Environment Minister Birgitta Dahl ruled out cars. I want to show that the piston engine we are using is not the result of an accident, but the result of 200 years of development. The piston engine is still the best compromise. In a competitive world you will die if you do not use the best technology. A good example is how the jet engine won over the piston engine in aviation."

But he does not believe that electric cars can knock out cars with piston engines:

"Before that happens something unexpected needs to occur. The batteries are too expensive and poor, the charge time too long and the supply of clean electricity limited. One kilogram of gasoline contains 12 kWh of energy, a one kilogram battery only 0.15 kWh. But when the gasoline has been consumed it weighs zero, while the battery still weighs one kilogram - but it's empty."

He is however critical to driving in cities.

"We have to ask ourselves if we should use cars at all in some environments. We should of course use what is best - and sometimes the metro and tram are by far the best option, while the car is the best option in other environments. We can not build tracks everywhere. "

His historical interest goes back to the beginning of the 1700s.

"Before that people had to work half of the day and rest the other half. But when Thomas Newcomen made the steam engine in 1717, suddenly machines could do the work for us. And just ten years later, in 1728, Mårten Triewald built a similar steam engine at the Dannemora mine - the house is still there."

A picture of the house is on the wall at home in the villa in Mariefred, where the family Gillbrand has lived since 1984.

The first model engine Pelle Gillbrand built was a steam engine. It was in 1967, when he and others at Saab were in Poland testing engines for the first 99-model, and it was a way to forget the boredom of living in a hotel.

The engine Gillbrand is most fascinated by was invented by James Atkinson in 1882. Without getting too technical, it completes four piston strokes per revolution of the crankshaft, which makes it much more efficient than conventional engines.

"It was so ahead of its time. Today almost all full hybrids, including the Toyota Prius, have gasoline engine built after the Atkinson cycle. "

The collection also includes the first car engine from Benz in 1886, and some Stirling engines, including one that was developed by inventor John Ericsson and sold in more than 15,000 copies, plus the two-cylinder engine that was in Sweden's first car from 1897. The man that made the engine was Gustaf Eriksson.

Pelle Gillbrand has also built the world's first aircraft engine from the Wright brothers Flyer 1. The original was made by Charles Taylor, who got 60 days to make the engine. The engine, which could not weigh more than 60 kilogram, was at 22 hp and worked for 80 seconds - and then never again.

"My model works better than the Wright Brothers’ original," chuckles Pelle Gillbrand, who received the drawings from the Smithsonian in Washington.

More aircraft engines: The Brayton engine, developed by American George Brayton and patented in 1872, was the embryo of the jet engine.

"But he never realized it himself."

He has built the Bugatti engine, which we talked about in the beginning, as a historical monument, the end of the big engines - in this case 16 cylinders.

"Now everybody is bragging about how small engines they can make."

Pelle Gillbrand travels the world with his 23 engines and his message about the piston engine as the best compromise. He lectures at universities, colleges and to other motorsports enthusiasts.

For how long will you continue?
"I have bookings for as long as I have the energy. I might get tired of the travelling, but as long as I have a wife who calls for me when it's time for food, I will continue in the basement. "

Pelle says quickly:
"I promise not to marry again!"

Engines are undeniably Pelle Gillbrand’s life.

Pelle Gillbrand
Age: 77 years
Family: Wife Inga (for 49 years), children Peter (47), Ebba (43).
Location: House in Mariefred.
Background: Test engineer and developer at Volvo (1957-1964), engine developer at Saab in Trollhättan (1964-1970), head of Saab's engine laboratory in Södertälje (1970-1996), technical advisor to Saab (1996-2001).
Hobby: To build engines. Has built 23 models of historic engines.

Pelle Gillbrand starts his Bugatti W16 miniature.