The space-age, which started at the end of the 1940s and went all the way through the 1960s, was such a wonderful time. Humanity was fascinated with the possibility of “boldly going where no one has gone before“.
Various fields of society have been inspired by space travel, including literature, films, fashion, and so on, but was the industry that took this concept to the farthest.
The need for speed made piston engines obsolete in the aeronautical field and the transition to jet engines made it possible for aircraft to fly faster, higher, and smoother. It was just a matter of time for some engineers to develop the idea of a jet-powered car.
The advantages of the gas turbine over the conventional piston engine are clear: it is a simpler machine, with fewer movable parts, and offers a better power-to-weight ratio. Turbines can also burn pretty much any kind of fuel since it works primarily with compressed air.
Before we move forward, let’s have a little “crash course” on gas turbine engines:
Just like a conventional piston engine, starting a gas-turbine motor it is necessary an external source of power, it can be an electrical motor or pressurized air. The starter will make the shaft spin, “sucking” air through the intake and sending it to the combustion chamber, under pressure. The pressurized air will, naturally, increase temperate, then the fuel will start spraying, creating a flammable mixture inside the chamber (again, just like a conventional engine). In the next step, the spark plugs will ignite the mixture and on its way out, the hot exhaust gas will pass through the blades of the last section of the turbine, forcing it to spin and consequently, creating torque and thrust.
Lured by the so-called advantages of the gas turbine engine, a few automakers around the world started to develop cars powered by this new technology.
The New York-based Carney Associates had designed a compact gas turbine engine for automotive use in early 1946, but it never saw production.
The Jet T1
The British automaker Rover had the honor to build the very first, fully-functional jet car. The company teamed up with the engineer Frank Whittle, one of the creators of the Gloster Meteor, the first Allied fighter jet to see combat during the second world war. Together they created the Rover Jet T1, based on the already existing model P4.
The T1 roadster was presented to the public in March 1950, but only as a prototype. The car was equipped with a centrifugal gas turbine, designed explicitly for automotive purposes, and placed in the mid-engine position. Since the jet engine produces enough power and torque throughout the whole range of RPM, (similar to an electric motor) the T1 wasn’t equipped with a gearbox. The centrifugal jet engine has a peculiar design, where the cold section sits on top of the hot section, making it more compact to fit in an automobile. It also has two separate shafts, the first one would spin at 50,000 pm and the second one at 26,000 rpm, producing 250 HP, enough to push the bulky roadster to a top speed of 150 mph (240 km), breaking the speed record for a jet car in 1952.
Rover was a traditional and austere British automaker and convincing its customers to replace their piston-powered car with completely new and futuristic technology never was an easy task, but the company was committed to seeing the jet car succeed.
In 1956, the new prototype T3 (picture above) was unveiled to the public. The elegant two doors coupe was equipped with some interesting refinements: disc brakes on all four corners, front and rear independent suspension, and all-wheel drive. The performance was close to the predecessor T1 since they were powered by the same jet engine, but the engine was relocated to the rear of the car.
By 1961, Rover revealed the T4, the last prototype of the series. The four doors sedan became the most viable jet-powered vehicle created by the company. The car was equipped with a 140 HP gas turbine, and just like any other sedan, the engine was mounted in the front.
It was able to go from 0 to 60mph (100 kph) in 8 seconds and after so many years of development, Rover came up with a jet engine capable of 20 miles per gallon when burning gasoline, but it could also burn diesel and kerosene as well.
The T4 was comfortable, roomy, and had a modern design, it was the closest Rover ever came to releasing a jet-powered car to the public, but the project never took off.
Thankfully, not everything was lost, the T4 was developed in parallel with the P6, which was, basically, a T4 with a piston engine. The car was a fairly successful product that marked the company’s transition from hand-built cars to more technologically advanced products.
Even after so many years of development, the Rover jet car failed to hit the assembly line, but the Brits had one more chance to show the world their supremacy in the automotive gas turbine technology.
For the 1962 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the race organizers offered a prize of 250,000 Francs to the first gas turbine car to complete 3,600 Kilometers in 24 hours. That was the chance Rover was waiting for.
The company teamed up with the British Formula One team BRM and together they created the Rover-BRM race prototype, aiming for the 1963 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
The team’s budget was very tight, BRM supplied a refurbished Formula One chassis that was used (and crashed) during the previous F-One season. On top of the chassis Rover fitted an open-cockpit, spider aluminum body. The car was powered by the same T4 jet engine, mid-mounted, producing 150 HP.
The legendary F-One driver Graham Hill and Richie Ginter were the chosen ones to take turns driving the Rover-BRM, here is how Hill describes driving the car: – “You’re sitting in this thing that you might call a motor car and the next minute it sounds as if you’ve got a 707 just behind you, about to suck you up and devour you like an enormous monster”.
The car was granted the # “00”, which means it would compete as an experimental entry, but not to be officially classified. Conventional cars were limited to a 109 liters fuel tank but the organizers allowed the BRM-Rover team to install a much larger 218 liters tank, making up for the excessive fuel consumption. The little prototype could easily go down the Mulsanne Straight at 240kph, leaving most of the 2-liter class car eating dust. At the end of the race, the car had covered 4,165 Km, winning the prize and finishing at 8th place overall, but then again, it was not permitted to be classified.
Motivated by the excellent result, the Rover-BRM geared up for 1964. The team came up with a gorgeous, redesigned new body, and the engine received some important improvements, like the ceramic heat exchangers, that greatly enhanced fuel efficiency. The prototype was considered suitable to compete in the 2-liter class.
Unfortunately, the truck which was transporting the Rover prototype, crashed on its way back from a practice section, seriously damaging the car. The technicians were unable to repair it on time and the team was forced to retire from the competition.
For the 1965 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the Rover-BRM team was ready for the challenge. The car was at the peak of its development and two British legends were hired to be behind the wheel, Graham Hill and Jackie Steward.
During the race, the car and the drivers were keeping up with the expectations, always among the top 10 positions but towards the second half of the competition, the jet engine began to overheat. With no time to fix the problem, the mechanics reduced the diameter of the air intake, bringing down the jet pipe temperature but also forcing the car to run at a reduced power level.
Regardless of the disadvantage, the team finished the race in 12th position overall and 2nd in the 2-liter class, at an average speed of 159 kph. The team also received the “Motor Magazine Trophy”, for being the first British car to cross the finish line.
The Rover-BRM accomplishment at the 1965 Le Mans was nothing short of amazing, even if it was overshadowed by the first battle of the “Ford vs Ferrari” war.
The race was also the closing chapter of Rover’s involvement with jet engines, the company would now concentrate on the P6 sedan, which became one of its most successful models.
The work done by the Brits was an inspiration for companies like Chrysler, General Motors, and even Toyota to create some interesting prototypes powered by gas turbines. Some of those cars we will see here at TCM.