If you’re wondering in amazement at the Howmet TX, we have great news: turbine-powered cars tend to be pretty awesome. From the very first, which was cultivated through a secret British Second World War engineering initiative to Jay Leno’s custom-built turbine-powered supercar, here are the world’s most notable gas turbine cars.
While each is incredibly complex (and impossible to get into great detail here), we think you’ll be as surprised as we were with the number of notable gas turbine vehicles built—not to mention the people who drove them.
1950 Rover JET-1
This is the world’s first jet turbine-powered car, and as the world’s first, its development presented a number of unique challenges, for instance, the engineers who manned the jet turbine engine test bench had to volunteer…and be unmarried.
Brothers Spencer and Maurice Wilks had been directors at Rover when the company helped Rolls-Royce during the war on its top secret jet turbine program. The brothers were aware of the potential such an engine may have for automotive applications, and after the war ended decided to pursue a jet turbine prototype…this time for a car.
It took about five years and a pile of exploded prototypes, but in 1950, the Jet 1 was ready. Being Rover, the shape eschewed sexy chrome nacelles up front, instead adopting a traditional Rover 75 chrome grille. The first jet car’s only concession to so-called “Jet Age” style was its top-mounted exhaust, but even then they looked as lithe as home heating registers.
After its first test runs in 1950, by 1952 the car had hit an incredible 244 km/h (152 mph). The car is on display at the Science Museum, London.
1953 General Motors Firebird XP-21
The first U.S.-made gas turbine vehicle and obviously designed by Harley J Earl as the flagship of the company’s Motorama shows. It was made to move around under its own power, show the feasibility of turbine-powered vehicles, and inspire the public to start lusting after them. More of a land speed record car than a practical cruiser, it’s been to 100 mph before the driver had to deal with excessive wheel spin.
For your Tuesday trivia nights: the Firebird sits atop the Harley J. Earl Trophy, which you get your name on after winning the Daytona 500. But as impressive as this car was for its time, the company wasn’t done with turbines yet.
1954 Fiat Turbina
Seemingly out of left field in 1954 came Fiat, who were not content to let the rest of the world have a monopoly on promising new gas turbine technology. Being an Italian turbine-powered car, the Turbina is not only beautiful but fast, hitting a reported 155 mph.
It’s also unique: unlike all other road-going turbines, Fiat chose to put three into the Turbina. Two small ones compressed air for the third, which drove the wheels to the tune of 220 horsepower at 22,000 rpm.
1956 Rover T3
With looks that are sort of like a Volkswagen Karmann Ghia crashed into a Rover, the T3 was the first road-going vehicle to be designed entirely around the jet turbine engine. It was both fast and efficient, hitting 60 mph in about 10 seconds…but not quite ready for prime time. But as Rover engineers chased practicality, General Motors had other ideas.
1956 General Motors Firebird II
Shown in the same year as the Rover T3, the two biggest turbine players couldn’t have taken a more different approach. Rover focused on practicality, while General Motors used turbines to push its engineering teams and “Jet Age” styling cues that made everyday cars resemble what the public thought the future looked like.
The Firebird II is what General Motors thought the future looked like, and it was actually kind of accurate. Its four seats, titanium bodywork, and incredible styling wasn’t production-ready, but four-wheel disk brakes, independent suspension, and a primitive “computer” guided cruise control system are around today.
1956 Renault Étoile Filante
Like Fiat a few years earlier, Renault’s interest in gas turbines came as a complete surprise. Built in collaboration with aeronautical engineering company Turbomeca, the beautiful Étoile Filante was built to break the land speed record.
The Turbomeca power plant made 270 horsepower at 28,000 rpm, and combined with the slippery bodywork was enough to push the car to 191 mph at the Bonneville Salt Flats—a new World Record for turbine-engined cars. Its name means “Shooting Star” in French, by the way. Its polyester body and tubular steel space frame weren’t all that advanced, but once loaded with kerosene the streamliner became one of the fastest turbine-powered cars ever. If you’re a fan of illustration, we must also mention the excellent book Renault Sans Limites, an illustrated French book with the Étoile Filante as its star.
1956-60 Plymouth Turbine Specials
No longer content to sit idle as its rivals soaked up the spotlight from their turbine initiatives, Chrysler engineers started to reveal what they’d been working on…for more than 20 years. Instead of adding a turbine to a concept car, engineers used a Plymouth Belvedere to showcase that they’d solved two huge problems with the technology: engine heat and fuel consumption.
In 1956, the road-going prototypes evolved into a four-door Belvedere that set off cross-country, taking four days at an average of 13 mph to travel from New York to Los Angeles. Fuel used for the journey? Gasoline, diesel fuel…and apparently even whiskey. Don’t forget, gas turbines will run on almost anything.
Three years later, another four-door Belvedere Turbine Special did Detroit to New York, with an updated 200 horsepower engine, at a pretty-good-for-the-time 18 mpg combined. Chrysler wasn’t done yet, though—not by a long shot.
1959 General Motors Firebird III
Even more extravagant than the first two, by 1959 General Motors had refined the Firebird into a two-seat car with a 225 horsepower gas turbine, 2-cylinder gasoline engine to run accessories, and a double bubble canopy. Titanium bodywork was joined by joystick controls, cruise control, anti-lock brakes, air brakes, automatic keyless entry, and yes: air conditioning.
1962 Rover T4
The most developed turbine-powered car from Europe, the T4 was an engineering jewel in the Rover lineup. Hitting 60 mph from a standstill was down to just 8 seconds, which was as about quick as any of the automaker’s V8-powered sedans.
But first, the company decided to prove the engine in racing, and organized a demonstration in the 1962 Le Mans for the P4, ahead of a factory entry a year later…
For us, 1962 marks the end of early development on the gas turbine engine, simply because 1963 would bring the first—and only—turbine-powered car to make it into the hands of regular customers.