1950 Rover Jet
1950 Rover Jet. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

During the 1950s and ’60s craft magazines like Popular Mechanics and Popular Science regularly fed us news of startling new engine breakthroughs. One was the gas turbine, which had come of age in aircraft. Although turbine experiments had been conducted for many years prior, it was really the 1930 British gas turbine patent granted to Frank Whittle that was the geneses of the modern gas turbine, and the resulting jet plane.

The first jet plane flight was by a German Heinkel in 1939. Now, we were told, those smooth, vibrationless “windmills,” which produced power by using hot exhaust gases to spin a turbine, would soon be zipping us along the highway.

While the basic airplane and land vehicle gas turbine is similar, its application is different. Whereas a jet (not a turbo-prop) plane is propelled by a high-pressure blast from the engine’s exhaust, an automobile’s turbine engine, like a piston engine, is geared to the driving wheels.

But what excelled in the sky found challenges on the ground. Large turbines worked well at high altitudes, but smaller ones operating close to sea level proved to be uncompetitive in fuel economy.

Other problems for cars were the lack of compression braking and the large volume of hot exhaust gas. Finally, turbines required expensive, heat-resistant materials.

A turbine’s advantages included extreme smoothness, light weight, few parts, no cooling system, and the ability to burn cheap fuel, such as kerosene.

After the Second World War, England’s Rover Corporation, which had worked with Rolls-Royce on turbines during the war, began transferring that turbine experience to automobiles. It conducted its first demonstration in 1950.

Nicknamed the “JET,” the Rover turbine car was extremely fast. In 1952 performance trials on the famous Jabbeke highway near Ostend, Belgium, a mid-engined Rover turbine car ran a flying mile at almost 245 km/h (152 mph).

Road & Track magazine (6/53) reported that the JET also had stunning acceleration. The turbine engine hurtled the 1,270 kg (2,800 lb) roadster from zero to 96 km/h (60 mph) in 6.5 seconds, and from zero to 161 (100) in 13.2. Fuel consumption was six to nine mpg.

Obtaining this acceleration required a special technique. There was no transmission, so the driver held the brakes on while revving the engine to 45,000 rpm (that’s not a misprint; it produced its peak 240 horsepower at 45,000 rpm), and then releasing the brakes.

Other prototypes followed, and in co-operation with BRM, Rover entered a turbine-powered car in the 1963 24-hour race at Le Mans, France. Although not competing officially, it averaged 174 km/h (107.8 mph), finishing 8th. Rover never did, however, get a turbine-powered car into production.

Turbine cars also raced in the Indianapolis 500 mile race during the 1960s, and would have won in 1967 but for the failure of a $6 transmission bearing on the 197th (of 200) lap. Under intense pressure from piston car owners, conservative Indianapolis 500 officials restricted the turbine’s air inlet so much that it became uncompetitive.

Others manufacturers, such as France’s Renault, were developing turbine powered cars. Renault ran its fibreglass bodied Etoile Filante (Shooting Star) special at Bonneville in 1956 and achieved a top speed of 309 km/h (191.9 mph).

General Motors experimented with turbines in a variety of applications, including trucks, buses and cars. It fitted them to three concept cars, the Firebird I, II and III in the 1950s.

Many automakers assessed turbines, but Chrysler came the closest to making it a production reality. Chrysler’s demonstrated its first turbine-powered car at the dedication of its new proving ground in Chelsea, Michigan, in 1954. The engine, installed in a 1954 Plymouth, featured an advanced heat exchanger (like a radiator), which used exhaust gas to heat the incoming air. This reduced the exhaust temperature and improved fuel economy. Heat exchangers would become standard practice on automotive turbines.

After testing a turbine in a ’55 Plymouth, Chrysler sought some real world experience. They drove a ’56 Plymouth turbine from coast to coast. On March 26, 1956 the turbine powered Plymouth left the Chrysler Building in New York. Four days later, on March 30, it parked in front of the Los Angeles city hall, having covered a distance of 4,862 km (3,020 mi).

During the trip it had two minor non-turbine related mechanical problems, and averaged 16 mpg (U.S.) on a mixture of unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel.

Chrysler built a fleet of 50 turbine cars, and from 1964 to ’66, passed them through 203 randomly chosen drivers who covered 1.7 million km (1.1 million miles). By the end of the test, reliability was close to that of a piston engine, and although there were some disadvantages such as throttle lag and high fuel consumption, user comments were favourable.

Although Chrysler continued developing car turbines until about 1980, it never came really close to replacing the piston engine, whose development was accelerated by the two 1970s oil crises. Small gas turbines, however, can now be found under many automobile hoods as the “hot” end of a turbocharger.

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