Welcome to Forgotten Cars, where we highlight fascinating cars and engines that are obscure, unrecognized and lost to the passage of time.
This year marks the 50th birthday of Chrysler's Turbine Car, one of the coolest concepts they've ever made. Too bad the folks in Auburn Hills are celebrating this anniversary by painting a 300S orange and putting fancy wheels on it.
But while Chrysler and GM's efforts at making turbine cars are fondly remembered, most Americans don't know much about Rover's attempts at the same. And that's a real shame, because the British company worked on turbine cars longer than anyone, and they actually made the world's first one.
Rover first got involved in developing gas turbine engines intended for aircraft in the late 1930s when the British government anticipated having German asses to kick in the near future. At first, Rover was tapped to work with famed jet engineer Frank Whittle and his company Power Jets on engines and airframes. Although they did develop Britain's first production jet engine, a series of disagreements and delays led to their parting ways. (The work was later punted to Rolls-Royce, in case you're curious.)
Not one to waste all of the cool stuff they developed, Rover decided to see if the turbine engine could be made feasible on a passenger car. The Rover Car Club of New Zealand says that the car's earliest problems had to do with finances and supply shortages immediately after World War II. But this being Rover — and a brand new, experimental technology — there were loads of technical problems too. Here's an excerpt from one of the test engineers' logbooks:
1st test: satisfactory light-up, no oil pressure.
2nd test: no light-up.
3rd test: engine exploded.
Yeah, not very encouraging. But by 1948, they had a prototype engine producing 100 horsepower at 55,000 RPMs. Two years later, on March 8, 1950, Rover unveiled stuffed the engine into a modified P4 to create the JET1, pictured above, a stylish roadster with a gas turbine engine — the first of its kind in the world.
A BBC story from the time goes into some detail about the JET1, which had a rear-mounted turbine engine, air intakes on the sides, and an exhaust outlet on the top of the tail end. It could do zero to 60 mph in 14 seconds and do up to 90 mph, which was respectable at the time.
Its fuel economy, however, was not — they say the JET1 prototype could run on gasoline, paraffin or diesel (not unlike the Chrysler turbine car) but it only got five to seven miles per gallon! But Rover engineers promised a production car soon, and one that would rival the piston engine.
That never happened. But a series of prototypes were developed into the 1960s including small coupes and sedans, each faster and more powerful than the last. Again, from Rover Club New Zealand, here's one account of what it was like to drive one:
"Starting drill is simple but drawn out - turning the key actuates the special Lucas starter motor which winds away for several seconds. A faint, distant whine rises in pitch and intensity before light-up occurs and the engine settles down to 'idle' at 35,000rpm. This is enough to cause the car to creep along the road if the brakes are not applied, as there is about 4bhp residual at idle. To get moving engage forward gear and depress 'loud pedal' - after a jet lag of about 3 seconds, the engine speed rises rapidly to 50,000rpm and the car whooshes off up the road leaving engine noise behind (although this is quite acceptable to passers-by). 60mph is reached in 8 secs (a la 3500S) with very civilized handling."
Then in 1963, Rover did something very interesting: They took their turbine car racing. Teaming up with British Racing Motors, a Formula One team, they developed a gas turbine race car that they ran in LeMans in 1963 and 1965 (it was supposedly damaged in testing in 1964 and did not compete.) In 1965, Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart drove the Rover-BRM, and it finished 10th overall despite suffering engine damage during the race. Not too bad, all things considered.
So what happened to it? The same thing that happened to Chrysler's turbine cars — there are too many issues that just don't make the engines feasible for passenger cars, like heat, fuel economy and cost. The turbine was a great experiment, but it just didn't pan out for automobile use.
Today, JET1 remains on display at the Science Museum London, and the Rover-BRM racecar is on display at the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon. If you ever have a chance to visit those places in England, you should stop by and say hello.