Simanaitis Says

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ON MAY 31, 1918, a German Rumpler two-seat aircraft was shot down in combat. The Rumpler’s six-cylinder Bassé & Selve engine was retrieved by British Intelligence and subjected to intensive analysis. What a treasure trove of aero engineering!


Bassé & Selve engine, three-quarter view “from the Airscrew End.” This and the following images are from Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft, 1919, Arco Publishing, 1969.

Despite its French-sounding name, Bassé & Selve was a Westphalia, Germany, company founded in 1908 as the Selve Automobilewerke AG. During World War I, the company designed engines along the lines of those from Mercedes and Benz (two separate companies until 1926).

As described in eight pages of Jane’s All The World’s Aircraft 1919, much of the Bassé & Selve design was conventional aero engineering for 1918. The engine had six individually-cast cylinders, inline and water-cooled, with a single overhead camshaft actuating four valves per cylinder.

The intelligence report noted that damage to the powerplant precluded testing of its output. However, a plate on its crankcase cited a nominal rating of 270 hp at 1400 rpm. Its bore of 155 mm and stroke of 200 mm gave a displacement of 22.6 liters. Estimates of its cylinder clearance volume suggest a compression ratio of around 4.3:1, “which is lower than any of the previous enemy engines,” Jane’s observes.


From Jane’s: “View of a Complete Cylinder, from Exhaust Side. The curious gargoyle-face effect of this View is interesting.”

One feature that set the Bassé & Selve design apart from those of Benz or Mercedes is its valve actuation. Though its rocker arms are conventional, the tappets between rocker arms and camshaft lobes are decidedly not.

Each tappet is in the shape of a stirrup encircling its cam lobe, with these stirrups riding vertically on bronze bushings. It’s not recorded why this peculiar tappet design was chosen.


The camshaft, its casing and stirrup tappets.

Another innovative feature of the Bassé & Selve design was its means of compression release, used to facilitate swinging the propeller in startup. Jane’s notes that other aero engines accomplished this with “the usual half compression cams and mechanism.” With this approach, the camshaft was shifted longitudinally so that different cam lobes actuated the rocker arms to keep the exhaust valves half-open.

Instead, the Bassé & Selve used a rod aligned longitudinally outside the camshaft casing and directly beneath the exhaust valve rocker arms.


Section of one cylinder of the Bassé & Selve engine. Note the rod to the right of center aligned beneath the exhaust valve rocker arm.

The rod, partially rotated by a hand-lever at startup, had slots that raised these rocker arms and thus achieved compression release. Clearly, this was considerably less complex than other compression releases requiring longitudinal shifting of the camshaft.


Side view.

The intelligence report cited in Jane’s offered extensive details, including metallurgical data on the pistons and crankshaft. For instance, the pistons were aluminum, alloyed with silicon (0.45 percent), iron (1.06 percent), copper (1.90 percent) and zinc (15.62 percent). The crankshaft was of nickel-chromium steel.


Bassé & Selve factory, 2008. Photo by Bubo.

Bassé & Selve continued to build engines until 1932. Selve Automobilwerke AG closed in 1934. The former Bassé & Selve factory in Altena, Westphalia, is now a Cultural Heritage building. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2016


  1. Bob Taylor
    December 16, 2020

    I came upon a pic of a badly smashed Rumpler out there on the web which crashed, per caption, “near Noyon 1918”. There is in the ruins what looks like the crankcase of a Basse und Selve engine. Photo was credited to the estate of Johannes Leopold Perseke, formerly of FAA 278. Note that the word Basse does not have an accent in the original German; it was added perhaps by the RFC just to show the “e” was not silent but pronounced.

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This entry was posted on December 10, 2016 by in Vintage Aero and tagged , .
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