Dreaming of a Higher Power

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.

Newbold reached an inescapable conclusion: The conventional internal-combustion engine is stupid. Drivers are lucky if 20 percent of the energy created by the standard car engine, invented a hundred years ago, makes it to the wheels. Power is lost in all sorts of ways. The cylinders waste tremendous energy when they reverse direction (from up to down). Converting the up-and-down motion to the circular movement of the wheels is another drain.

Newbold's research yielded an idea, which coalesced into a plan, which produced a thirty-year obsession. Starting in 1968, using materials he'd collected from junkyards and flea markets, and working in his garage on weekends and after work, he built his first rotary engine. It took him two years. He quit his day job for good in 1986 and has been working full-time on the Newbold ever since. (There have been other rotary engines, notably the Wankel, in which a rounded triangular rotor functions as a piston. The Newbold is different.) He is currently tinkering with his eighth model, which, he allows, is nearly perfect--far more efficient and far less polluting than the rest of today's motors.

Newbold has ridden the inventor's roller coaster of peaks of promise and troughs of doom. Money has been a constant problem. He now juggles 160 separate investors, a handful of whom have given more than $100,000 each. (One, Newbold says, is a "very well-known Denver man, very much into politics. But he wouldn't want his name used.") Yet even with the backers, finding enough cash for retooling parts, paying design engineers and all those long-distance calls to Slovenia has been tough.

"Slovenia," says Newbold, "is a beautiful place."
Four years ago, at a trade show in Germany, Newbold was approached by several men from TAM Motors of Maribor, Slovenia. They were interested in the Newbold Turbo Rotary Engine. Newbold visited Slovenia, and TAM sent a plant manager, an accountant, a lawyer and a translator to Lyons. They talked. Eventually they agreed on an arrangement: Newbold would be given full rein of their facilities to complete the development of his motor. "If we got it manufactured, we'd all be partners," says Newbold. "If not, no problem."

He stayed on for two years, each day a day closer to production of his revolutionary engine and the completion of his dream. Unfortunately, it all ended abruptly in October 1994 when the government-owned TAM was sold to private industry. The German company that bought the motor division was uninterested in the Newbold.

Still, the inventor remains relentlessly optimistic. "We've had plenty of people interested," he says. "I've been contacted by people from a dozen different companies. Almost all the universities in the country that are working on hybrid cars have called us, as well as people from Malaysia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Canada, Australia, South America, Norway, Poland and England."

Leaning against a battered conference table under blinking fluorescent lights in his Main Street office, Newbold says, "It'll happen. I haven't had to advertise this at all. People just hear about it and come to me. And if somebody comes in here and says, 'This engine won't work,' I won't try to convince them. It makes no difference to me. I couldn't care less. I know it will.


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >