Dreaming of a Higher Power

One Coloradan's obsession: a new engine called the Newbold.

If you walk along the quaint quarter-mile stretch of Main Street in downtown Lyons, you can find a florist, a handful of antique dealers, Germanic knickknacks, a hearty omelet at the Gateway Cafe and the prototype for a radical new internal-combustion engine. Vern Newbold invented it; engineers from around the globe have begun trekking to this mountain town to see it.

"I was confident right from the beginning," says Newbold, who has a square face and a mouth that seems capable of producing words without movement. He has the classic tinkerer's body: giant hands and a massive torso perched on a lower body left small by long hours sitting at the workbench. "There was no question in my mind that this will be produced," he adds. "I've never had doubts. None."

A demo of the engine sits on a purple velvet blanket in the front window of Newbold's Main Street storefront. It is about the size of a pillow and made out of aluminum and gleaming steel. The concept is very simple. Just ask Vern.

"Seventy-five percent of the weight of the engine is in motion versus, in a conventional internal-combustion engine, just the crankshaft," he says. "And when you've eliminated the crankshaft, the camshaft, the flywheel and the bolts, you've eliminated 80 percent of the weight of the engine. And I've got a much shorter piston stroke, which means you can run it at high RPMs with a slow ring speed. And we've eliminated all reciprocating motion in this engine--even the airflow isn't reversed."

Actually, explaining the concept even to professionals has been a problem. Engineer Bill Nykfist recalls: "I came with three engineers--guys whose business is to know engines--and when he pulled that motor apart to show us how it worked, he had to go through it three times before they understood." Nykfist himself is no motor slouch: He runs a small-engine research and development group for the U.S. Army.

Even close to home, Newbold has had his doubters. "My wife decided I spent too much money on this and didn't know what I was doing," he says. "And she's probably right." Mrs. Newbold officially lost patience in 1991, the year she filed for divorce.

She was definitely right about the money part. "I've sold my house, and everything I owned is put into this," Vern Newbold says. "Financially, I'm not worth a nickel. Actually, I'm about $50,000 in debt." Several years ago he owned two houses. Today he lives in a small trailer outside Lyons, which is between Boulder and Estes Park.

But Mrs. Newbold appears to have had the wrong instincts about her ex-husband's engineering expertise. An increasing number of people who know something about engines have made the trip to tiny downtown Lyons to view Vern Newbold's creation.

"We were looking for engines to power our unmanned surveillance vehicles--military reconnaissance, mostly," explains Ken Brittan, a senior engineer for Northrop Grumman, the Huntsville, Alabama, aerospace company. "We'd heard that Mr. Newbold's engine might work, so we came out to look at it. It was a very advanced engine, a tremendous concept."

Unfortunately, Northrop, which was bidding for a U.S. government contract, didn't get the deal. Still, says Brittan, he expects big things from the Newbold Turbo Rotary Engine. For example, he says, "I'd like to see how it would hold up in an automobile."

And despite their initial confusion, Bill Nykfist and his engineers also left Lyons impressed. "It's a dynamite design, a radical design," marvels the Army man. Nykfist flew in from his base in Natick, Massachusetts, where he is searching for a new, lightweight, self-lubricating engine to power operations machinery on the Army's Humvee. "If Vern were to pull it all together and get it running tomorrow," he adds, "I'd be sending him money." Tomorrow could be tough--Newbold has been working on his motor for approximately thirty years.

Newbold built his first power plant when he was twelve years old, providing his Nebraska family with the neighborhood's first electricity. He used a Maytag motor and an old telephone battery dipped in saltwater. But his big interest has always been airplanes. "I've never had a fear of flying," he explains, "even though I've wrecked three airplanes.

"The first was in Arizona, a 402 Cessna. I put it into the Salt River. Fuel starvation. The second was a Cessna 206. The fuel valve came off of the distributor and the engine just quit. I put that one in a cornfield forty miles outside of Chicago. Both planes were totaled, but I got out without a scratch. The third one, an Aerocommander, both engines failed on takeoff. Oil starvation. I got it back into the airport, but the engine was ruined."

By 1966, after eight years in the Air Force followed by several working for flight-mechanic schools, Newbold had combined his interests and was tinkering with the idea of building his own plane. But for the type of craft he envisioned--one that took off straight up, like the Harrier jet--he needed a very powerful but very light engine.

"There just wasn't anything available," he says. "So I began to do research on every engine ever built, from steam to turbines. I copied articles from the library and wrote away to the patent office." He still has 35 file cabinets full of the materials he has collected.

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