Turbine Power

The next big thing in propulsion systems is of course fuel cells. A subject no petrolhead is getting excited about. The prospect of a quiet, moderately powered car isn't going to send a tingle up anyone's spine. Turn up at the pub in your Honda Insight and you'll be glad it's quiet as you sneak it into a dark corner of the car park.

Turn up in a gas turbine powered motor however and the exciting jet-like whoosh should mean you don't even get to the bar for a drink. When it comes to turning heads, start with ears!


Research into turbine powered cars started as long ago as 1928 when Opel briefly experimented with the idea. Their prototype car briefly managed 47mph but the project was canned shortly afterwards.

Before the Second World War, Rover were brought in to work with Frank Whittle who was developing a gas turbine design for aeronautical use. Rover helped out with engineering facilities and eventually produced designs of their own. Not wanting to stay in the business of aeroplanes, Rover did a deal with Rolls Royce where they swapped turbine technology for a derivative of the Merlin engine used in Spitfires, which they then used in tanks.

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Prototypes can still be seen at the Heritage Motor Museum at Gaydon

They didn't completely turn their backs on the idea of gas turbines however. In 1950 they showed the JET 1, a cut-and-shut Rover P4 saloon hosting a 100hp turbine. It was good enough to take the car to 150mph.

Later cars such as the T3 and T4 were designed from the ground up to house gas turbines. The T3 was unveiled in 1956. This featured a 110hp engine, four wheel drive, a glass fibre body and four wheel disk brakes.

The T4 was derived from the forthcoming 2000 body style and heavily influenced the design of that model. It was actually shown two years before the debut of the 2000. At the time Rover claimed that if the market could accept the price of £3-4000 then it could have been in production within three years. However, at the time the most expensive Rover was £1948. With Kerosene consuption of the 140hp turbine engine being 16-20mpg, it was never going to compete with petrol engines on an economic basis.

The most spectacular car they produced however was the Le Mans racer! The Rover-BRM racer was driven at Le Mans in 1963 by Graham Hill and Richie Ginther. It wasn't officially competing so was awarded the number '00'. Had it competed, it would have been classified 8th overall however.

In 1964 a rebodied Rover-BRM was dispatched to compete at the legendary race, but was damaged in transit and couldn't race.

However in 1965 they did make it and the car - now featuring more air intakes and better lighting - finished 10th overall, driven by Graham Hill and Jackie Stewart.


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1963 Chrysler Turbine

The Americans weren't idle during this period either. Excited by the prospect of jet powered cars, Chrysler worked on a number of projects, dropping turbines into the enormous cars of the 50's and 60's, hoping to capture the thrill of the space age in their car programmes.

In '63 Chrysler Corporation built over 50 gas turbine-powered cars. They put them out on loan to members of the public for three months to gain feedback. It's incredible to think that forty years ago there were motorists going shopping in jet powered cars with rev counters showing a max rpm of 60,000. Exhaust temperatures could read 2800 degrees Celcius!

Both General Motors and Fiat experimented with concepts during the era too. Fiat's cars were sleek, futuristic looking prototypes, whilst GM appeared to lop wings off jets and drop them onto the roads!

What Happened?

Whilst there benefits to turbine power, it's the cost that prevented large scale production. Although power is ample from the units and the weight very low (a 320hp unit can weigh just 60kg), a turbine producing as much power as a healthy V8 will set you back around £25K. Fuel costs aren't particularly favourable either. But they do make a great noise!

It's that spirit of excitement and disregard of costs that lets one company produce some mad machinery. Marine Turbine in the US have several road going applications including a pick up truck, a Dodge Viper and more bizarrely the Y2K, 300bhp turbine powered motorbike! For $185,000 you can have a bike that will do 0-227mph in 15 seconds. Expensive but strangely appealing...

Links: http://marineturbine.comwww.turbinecar.com, www.howstuffworks.com/turbine.htm

Comments (13) Join the discussion on the forum

  • v8thunder 30 Jan 2003

    Lotus attempted a turbine-powered Indycar racer back in the late '60s as well. P.S. Does anyone else reckon that Rover P4 conversion at the top looks like a Citroen DS?

  • jamesc 30 Jan 2003

    Surely you mean "Graham Hill"?? I know Graham Bell has driven most cars; but a team mate to Sir Jackie Stewart; I don't think so.


  • roop 30 Jan 2003

    The sad thing about Rover's turbine experiment is that after they gave up they sold the design and manufacturing rights of their powerplant to Allison. A verion of the engine with fairly limited modifications has been used in the very popular Bell JetRanger helicopter ever since. Bet Rover wish they hadn't let it go so cheap now...!

    On another note, my high school had one of the few Rover Turbine engines left on display. Very small and compact unit it was too.

  • gbgaffer 30 Jan 2003

    I remember watching Graham Hill driving at Brands Hatch in a gas turbine powered Lotus, quite weird, as he had to spool up the engine v. early through the corners so that he was on power at the exit. Can't remember what the race was but IIRC it was 'unlimited' so you had CanAm cars racing single seaters. Great fun

  • gnomesmith 30 Jan 2003

    The problem with the Rover Le Mans car lay with the heat exchangers required to give it a reasonable fuel consumption which were fragile and unreliable. The ceramics available today would have made the car far more effective and who knows what it would have led to.

    Rover were a Rolls Royce sub contractor producing Rolls Gas Turbines for the Meteor fighter, no surprise then that they started their own programme which eventually led to Leyland trucks powered by gas turbine.

    The Lotus Turbine car raced in F1 not just Indy racing, if only we had that sort of technical diversity in GP racing today. Perhaps more people would be able to stay awake on sunday afternoons.

    My particular favorite was the Howmett GT Turbine wooshing around Brands Hatch.

    >> Edited by gnomesmith on Thursday 30th January 13:44

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