Classic Cars Wiki
Classic Cars Wiki

A supercharger is an air compressor used for forced induction of an internal combustion engine.

The greater mass flow-rate provides more oxygen to support combustion than would be available in a naturally aspirated engine, which allows more fuel to be burned and more work to be done per cycle, increasing the power output of the engine.

Power for the unit can come mechanically by a belt, gear, shaft, or chain connected to the engine's crankshaft.

When power comes from an exhaust gas turbine a supercharger is known as a turbosupercharger – typically referred to simply as a turbocharger or just turbo. Common usage restricts the term supercharger to mechanically driven units.


In 1860, brothers Philander and Francis Marion Roots, founders of Roots Blower Company of Connersville, Indiana, patented the design for an air mover, for use in blast furnaces and other industrial applications.

The world's first functional, actually tested engine supercharger was made by Dugald Clerk, who used it for the first two-stroke engine in 1878. Gottlieb Daimler received a German patent for supercharging an internal combustion engine in 1885. Louis Renault patented a centrifugal supercharger in France in 1902. An early supercharged race car was built by Lee Chadwick of Pottstown, Pennsylvania in 1908, which, it was reported, reached a speed of 100 mph (160 km/h).

The world's first series-produced cars with superchargers were Mercedes 6/25/40 hp and Mercedes 10/40/65 hp. Both models were introduced in 1921 and had Roots superchargers.

On March 24th, 1878 Heinrich Krigar of Germany obtained patent #4121, patenting the first ever screw-type compressor. Later that same year on August 16th he obtained patent #7116 after modifying and improving his original designs. His designs show a two-lobe rotor assembly with each rotor having the same shape as the other. Although the design resembled the roots style compressor, the "screws" were clearly shown with 180 degrees of twist along their length. Unfortunately, this is all the further Heinrich got with the screw compressor. Technology of the time period wasn't sufficient to produce such a unit. Nearly half a century later, in 1935, Alf Lysholm, who was working for Ljungstroms Angturbin AB (later known as Svenska Rotor Maskiner AB or SRM in 1951), patented a design with five female and four male rotors. He also patented the method for machining the compressor rotors.

Types of supercharger[]

There are two main types of superchargers defined according to the method of compression: positive displacement and dynamic compressors. The former deliver a fairly constant level of pressure increase at all engine speeds (RPM), whereas the latter deliver increasing pressure with increasing engine speed.

Positive displacement

Positive-displacement pumps deliver a nearly fixed volume of air per revolution at all speeds (minus leakage, which is almost constant at all speeds for a given pressure, thus its importance decreases at higher speeds). The device divides the air mechanically into parcels for delivery to the engine, mechanically moving the air into the engine bit by bit.

Major types of positive-displacement pumps include:

  • Roots
  • Lysholm twin-screw
  • Sliding vane
  • Scroll-type supercharger, also known as the G-Lader.

Compression type

Positive-displacement pumps are further divided into internal compression and external compression types.

Roots superchargers are typically external compression only (although high-helix roots blowers attempt to emulate the internal compression of the Lysholm screw).

  • External compression refers to pumps that transfer air at ambient pressure into the engine. If the engine is running under boost conditions, the pressure in the intake manifold is higher than that coming from the supercharger. That causes a backflow from the engine into the supercharger until the two reach equilibrium. It is the backflow that actually compresses the incoming gas. This is a highly inefficient process, and the main factor in the lack of efficiency of Roots superchargers when used at high boost levels. The lower the boost level the smaller is this loss, and Roots blowers are very efficient at moving air at low pressure differentials, which is what they were first invented for (hence the original term "blower").

All the other types have some degree of internal compression.

  • Internal compression refers to the compression of air within the supercharger itself, which, already at or close to boost level, can be delivered smoothly to the engine with little or no back flow. This is more effective than back flow compression and allows higher efficiency to be achieved. Internal compression devices usually use a fixed internal compression ratio. When the boost pressure is equal to the compression pressure of the supercharger, the back flow is zero. If the boost pressure exceeds that compression pressure, back flow can still occur as in a roots blower. Internal compression blowers must be matched to the expected boost pressure in order to achieve the higher efficiency they are capable of, otherwise they will suffer the same problems and low efficiency of the roots blowers.

Capacity rating[]

Positive-displacement superchargers are usually rated by their capacity per revolution. In the case of the Roots blower, the GMC rating pattern is typical. The GMC types are rated according to how many two-stroke cylinders, and the size of those cylinders, it is designed to scavenge. GMC has made 2–71, 3–71, 4–71, and the famed 6–71 blowers. For example, a 6–71 blower is designed to scavenge six cylinders of 71 cubic inches (1,163 cc) each and would be used on a two-stroke diesel of 426 cubic inches (6,981 cc), which is designated a 6–71; the blower takes this same designation. However, because 6–71 is actually the engine's designation, the actual displacement is less than the simple multiplication would suggest. A 6–71 actually pumps 339 cubic inches (5,555 cc) per revolution.

Aftermarket derivatives continue the trend with 8–71 to current 16–71 blowers used in different motor sports. From this, one can see that a 6–71 is roughly twice the size of a 3–71. GMC also made 53 cubic inches (869 cc) series in 2-, 3-, 4-, 6-, and 8–53 sizes, as well as a “V71” series for use on engines using a V configuration.


Dynamic compressors rely on accelerating the air to high speed and then exchanging that velocity for pressure by diffusing or slowing it down.

Major types of dynamic compressor are:

  • Centrifugal
  • Multi-stage axial-flow
  • Pressure wave supercharger

Supercharger drive types[]

Superchargers are further defined according to their method of drive (mechanical—or turbine).


  • Belt (V-belt, Synchronous belt, Flat belt)
  • Direct drive
  • Gear drive
  • Chain drive
Exhaust gas turbines*Axial turbine
  • Radial turbine


  • Electric motor
  • Auxiliary Power Unit in some large industrial applications.

All types of compressor may be mated to and driven by either gas turbine or mechanical linkage. Dynamic compressors are most often matched with gas turbine drives due to their similar high-speed characteristics, whereas positive displacement pumps usually use one of the mechanical drives. However, all of the possible combinations have been tried with various levels of success. In principle, a positive displacement engine could be used in place of an exhaust turbine to improve low speed performance. Electric superchargers are all essentially fans (axial pumps). A form of regenerative braking has been tried where the car is slowed by compressing air for future acceleration.

Temperature effects and intercoolers[]

One disadvantage of supercharging is that compressing the air increases its temperature. When a supercharger is used on an internal combustion engine, the temperature of the fuel/air charge becomes a major limiting factor in engine performance. Extreme temperatures will cause detonation of the fuel-air mixture (spark ignition engines) and damage to the engine. In cars, this can cause a problem when it is a hot day outside, or when an excessive level of boost is reached.

It is possible to estimate the temperature rise across a supercharger by modeling it as an isentropic process.

= ambient air temperature
= temperature after the compressor
= ambient atmospheric pressure (absolute)
= pressure after the compressor (absolute)
= Ratio of specific heats for air =
= Specific heat at constant pressure
= Specific heat at constant volume

For example, if a supercharged engine is pushing 10 psi (0.69 bar) of boost at sea level (ambient pressure of 14.7 psi (1.01 bar), ambient temperature of 75 °F), the temperature of the air after the supercharger will be 160.5 °F (71.4 °C). This temperature is known as the compressor discharge temperature (CDT) and highlights why a method for cooling the air after the compressor is so important.

In addition to causing possible detonation and damage, hot intake air decreases power in at least one way. At a given pressure, the hotter the air the lower its density, so the mass of intake air is decreased, reducing the efficiency and boost level of the supercharger.

Two-stroke engines[]

A two-stroke engine does not have an induction stroke where low pressure can draw in air. In addition a supply of air at higher than ambient pressure is needed to blow out the burnt gases from the previous combustion cycle. Thus a two stroke is unable to run without some form of supercharging to perform the scavenging.

In small trunk engines this is commonly achieved by using the crankcase as a supercharger. As the piston descends during the power stroke the underside of the pistons compresses the air in the crankcase. As it nears the bottom of its stroke a valve or port will open and allow the compressed air charge to escape into the cylinder.

In larger engines other forms of supercharging are needed. These engines are likely to be using crossheads and so have limited under-piston volume. They are also likely to have a crankcase shared by several cylinders. In these cases other means of supercharging are necessary and most, if not all, of the methods listed above have been employed.

Some engines, such a large marine diesels, will use a combination of superchargers. These will use turbocharging, for its efficiency gains, at medium and high speeds. For starting and running at low speeds, when the turbocharger may be unable to supply adequate air, an electrically driven blower will be used. On these engines mechanically driven superchargers are unlikely to be employed due to fuel efficiency being a major design criterion of this engine type.


In 1900, Gottlieb Daimler, of Daimler-Benz (Daimler AG), was the first to patent a forced-induction system for internal combustion engines, superchargers based on the twin-rotor air-pump design, first patented by the American Francis Roots in 1860, the basic design for the modern Roots type supercharger.

The first supercharged cars were introduced at the 1921 Berlin Motor Show: the 6/20 hp and 10/35 hp Mercedes. These cars went into production in 1923 as the 6/25/40 hp (regarded as the first supercharged road car) and 10/40/65 hp. These were normal road cars as other supercharged cars at same time were almost all racing cars, including the 1923 Fiat 805-405, 1923 Miller 122 1924 Alfa Romeo P2, 1924 Sunbeam, 1925 Delage, and the 1926 Bugatti Type 35C. At the end of the 1920s, Bentley made a supercharged version of the Bentley 4½ Litre road car. Since then, superchargers (and turbochargers) have been widely applied to racing and production cars, although the supercharger's technological complexity and cost have largely limited it to expensive, high-performance cars.

Supercharging versus turbocharging

Positive-displacement superchargers may absorb as much as a third of the total crankshaft power of the engine, and, in many applications, are less efficient than turbochargers. In applications for which engine response and power are more important than any other consideration, such as top-fuel dragsters and vehicles used in tractor pulling competitions, positive-displacement superchargers are very common.

There are three main categories of superchargers for automotive use:

  • Centrifugal turbochargers – driven from exhaust gases.
  • Centrifugal superchargers – driven directly by the engine via a belt-drive.
  • Positive displacement pumps – such as the Roots, Twin Screw (Lysholm), and TVS (Eaton) blowers.

The thermal efficiency, or fraction of the fuel/air energy that is converted to output power, is less with a mechanically driven supercharger than with a turbocharger, because turbochargers are using energy from the exhaust gases that would normally be wasted. For this reason, both the economy and the power of a turbocharged engine are usually better than with superchargers. The main advantage of an engine with a mechanically driven supercharger is better throttle response, as well as the ability to reach full-boost pressure instantaneously. With the latest turbocharging technology, throttle response on turbocharged cars is nearly as good as with mechanically powered superchargers, but the existing lag time is still considered a major drawback, especially considering that the vast majority of mechanically driven superchargers are now driven off clutched pulleys, much like an air compressor.

Turbochargers suffer (to a greater or lesser extent) from so-called turbo-spool (turbo lag; more correctly, boost lag), in which initial acceleration from low RPM is limited by the lack of sufficient exhaust gas mass flow (pressure). Once engine RPM is sufficient to start the turbine spinning, there is a rapid increase in power, as higher turbo boost causes more exhaust gas production, which spins the turbo yet faster, leading to a belated "surge" of acceleration. This makes the maintenance of smoothly increasing RPM far harder with turbochargers than with engine-driven superchargers, which apply boost in direct proportion to the engine RPM.

Roots blowers tend to be 40–50% efficient at high boost levels. Centrifugal superchargers are 70–85% efficient. Lysholm-style blowers can be nearly as efficient as their centrifugal counterparts over a narrow range of load/speed/boost, for which the system must be specifically designed.

Keeping the air that enters the engine cool is an important part of the design of both superchargers and turbochargers. Compressing air increases its temperature, so it is common to use a small radiator called an intercooler between the pump and the engine to reduce the temperature of the air.

In the 1985 and 1986 World Rally Championships, Lancia ran the Delta S4, which incorporated both a belt-driven supercharger and exhaust-driven turbocharger. The design used a complex series of bypass valves in the induction and exhaust systems as well as an electromagnetic clutch so that, at low engine speeds, boost was derived from the supercharger. In the middle of the rev range, boost was derived from both systems, while at the highest revs the system disconnected drive from the supercharger and isolated the associated ducting. This was done in an attempt to exploit the advantages of each of the charging systems while removing the disadvantages. In turn, this approach brought greater complexity and impacted on the cars reliability in WRC events, as well as increasing the weight of engine ancillaries in the finished design.

The Volkswagen TSI engine (or Twincharger) is a 1.4-litre direct-injection motor that also uses both a supercharger and turbocharger.