The automotive industry has seen its share of revolutionary ideas. Some of them have taken off. Fuel injection, ABS, and the EFI are now ubiquitous. Some seem to be messiahs, but end up in the round filing cabinet. The rotary engine, airless tires, and hydrogen all seemed like perfect solutions until they entered the real world, where they didn’t solve many problems, or just created more.
But what about the lesser parts of an engine compartment? Could someone design, for instance, the perfect air filter? The one that would change the air filter industry forever?
It was 1969 when Ken Johnson and Norm McDonald (no, not the comedian) got together and founded K&N Engineering, naming their business after their first initials and focusing on production of their new oil-soaked air filters. They’d found their design especially effective against dust and silt in Norm’s desert motorcycle races.
When they decided to expand their line of motorcycle filters, they needed a new set of dies. So they contacted a young machinist named Jerry Mall, who continued to build dies for K&N for 30 years. Today he’s the K&N chairman of engineering. And Jerry is an interesting character. He races cars regularly. In 2008 he was driving his 1996 Viper at a road rally in Nevada when, at around 200 mph, his engine blew. Oil sprayed all over the tires, Jerry lost control, and the Viper flipped. He showed up to dinner that night. And he’s 70.
But I digress. A close look at K&N filters doesn’t reveal anything that strikes one as revolutionary. It’s fairly simple. Layered cotton gauze is sandwiched between two pieces of aluminum mesh and soaked in oil. It sounds like something Henry Ford’s people could have invented a century ago.
Despite their unassuming design, however, since they were invented, K&N filters have improved racing machines around the world. Today they are the only filters used in NASCAR events, and the vast majority of NHRA dragsters have them, as well. And that’s fine if you’re a fan of ovals and straight lines, but what if you drive an M3 and also turn right? K&N’s biggest foreign market is Germany, the land of autobahns and the Nurburgring. Their other big fan club is Australia, a nation who invented the Ford Falcon XB, V8 supercar racing, and the word hoon.
So what makes this simple invention so popular among those in the know? Every other filter design on the market uses the same technology that was used on the Model T: a pleated piece of paper that pulls dust out of the air and eventually has to be replaced. But because it’s paper, it restricts airflow. K&N cotton filters allow much more air into the engine, and because they’re oiled, it’s clean. Drivers can expect a marked boost in horsepower. In fact, throwing in a K&N filter is probably the easiest thing you can do to add horsepower.
The other big advantage, which applies more to weekend warriors and daily drivers than it does to NASCAR teams, is that K&N filters are washable. So at 30,000 miles, when a paper filter is ready for the trash, a K&N is ready for the faucet. They’re entirely reusable, and K&N warranties them for a ridiculous one million miles. Though the company makes no claims in the area, some people even say K&N filters improve gas mileage.
The design just makes sense, and other manufacturers have begun to catch on. K&N wonders why it took them 40 years. They are still confined to the aftermarket, but they expect to get a few calling cards from Detroit-based suitors sometime soon. Some revolutions just take time.