Will Detroit Rev Up for a 168-Pound, Guaranteed-Not-to-Melt Plastic Auto Engine?

updated 03/11/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/11/1985 AT 01:00 AM EST

Paul Newman only had two words for Matthew Holtzberg after studying the engine Holtzberg had mounted in his hot Lola T-616 GTP Watkins Glen racer last fall. Newman wondered: "Why plastic?"

Six years after building his first plastic power plant, Holtzberg has a ready answer. His four-cylinder, 318 hp, 168-pound engine is up to 155 pounds lighter than most metal engines. It's also rustproof, quieter and more fuel efficient. And Holtzberg, who holds 12 patents, claims the hand-built engines could be mass-produced more economically than conventional engines.

So, is Detroit listening? To date Holtzberg's Polimotor Research Inc. in Fair Lawn, N.J. has turned out 50 plastic auto engines, at $75,000 each, and sold them "to nearly every major auto manufacturer in the U.S. and abroad." Because of Detroit's tight research-and-development security, only Ford voluntarily admits it is studying the patented engine, and Ford design engineer Robert Natkin enthusiastically hails Holtzberg's invention as "the wave of the future," predicting it will be viable for mass market by the year 2000.

Actually Holtzberg's engines aren't pure plastic—metal parts account for about 68 pounds of the total weight. "Most of an engine gets only as hot as the fluids running through it, about 200 degrees," Holtzberg explains. "The materials I use stand up to 500-degree heat. Those parts which reach even higher temperatures—the combustion cylinder liners and the intake valves—are aluminum."

Holtzberg, a 37-year-old New York University dropout and "self-taught engineer," took a $600 VISA cash advance in 1972 to start a free-lance design service for racing cars. During the '70s energy crunch, when Motown manufacturers were looking for a lighter, cheaper gas engine, Holtzberg worked out an arrangement with Amoco Chemicals Corp., a subsidiary of Standard Oil Co. of Indiana. Amoco would produce engine parts made out of their fiber-reinforced plastic resin, called Torlon, to Holtzberg's specifications. When he introduced his revolutionary engine at a Society of Auto Engineers meeting in 1980, "People were standing in line to see it," says Holtzberg. To be sure Detroit stays interested, he is racing a Lola GTP car with one of his engines. It reached speeds of up to 145 mph and placed 35 out of 56 last fall in the New York 500 at Watkins Glen. The engine didn't melt. And that, Mr. Newman, is "Why plastic?"

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