The Last Interesting Rover Had A Gas Turbine Engine

If you have a car parked outside as you are reading this, the overwhelming probability is that it has a reciprocating piston engine powered by either petrol(gasoline), or diesel fuel. A few of the more forward-looking among you may own a hybrid or even an electric car, and fewer still may have a piston engine car powered by LPG or methane, but that is likely to be the sum of the Hackaday reader motoring experience.

We have become used to understanding that perhaps the era of the petroleum-fueled piston engine will draw to a close and that in future decades we’ll be driving electric, or maybe hydrogen. But visions of the future do not always materialize as we expect them. For proof of that, we only need to cast our minds back to the 1950s. Motorists in the decade following the Second World War would have confidently predicted a future of driving cars powered by jet engines. For a while, as manufacturers produced a series of prototypes, it looked like a safe bet.

The Chrysler gas turbine car from [Brian]'s article. CZmarlin [Public domain].
The Chrysler gas turbine car from [Bryan]’s article. CZmarlin [Public domain].
Back in August, my colleague [Bryan] wrote a feature: “The Last Interesting Chrysler Had A Gas Turbine Engine“, in which he detailed the story of one of the more famous gas turbine cars. But the beautifully styled Chrysler was not the only gas turbine car making waves at the time, because meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic a series of prototypes were taking the gas turbine in a slightly different direction.

Rover was a British carmaker that was known for making sensible and respectable saloon cars. They passed through a series of incarnations into the nationalized British Leyland empire, eventually passing into the hands of British Aerospace, then BMW, and finally a consortium of businessmen under whose ownership they met an ignominious end. If you have ever wondered why the BMW 1-series has such ungainly styling cues, you are looking at the vestiges of a Rover that never made it to the forecourt. The very successful Land Rover marque was originally a Rover product, but beyond that sector, they are not remembered as particularly exciting or technically advanced.

The Rover Jet1 prototype. Allen Watkin [CC BY-SA 2.0].
The Rover JET1 prototype. Allen Watkin [CC BY-SA 2.0].
At the close of the Second World War though, Rover found themselves in an interesting position. One of their contributions to war production had been the gas turbine engines found in the first generation of British jet aircraft, and as part of their transition to peacetime production they began to investigate civilian applications for the technology. Thus the first ever gas turbine car was a Rover, the 1950 JET1. Bearing the staid and respectable styling of a 1950s bank manager’s transport rather than the space-age look you might expect of the first ever gas turbine car, it nonetheless became the first holder of the world speed record for a gas turbine powered car when in 1952 it achieved a speed of 152.691 MPH.

The JET1 was soon followed by a series of further jet-powered prototypes culminating in 1956’s T3 and 1961’s T4. Both of these were practical everyday cars, the T3, a sports coupé, and the T4, an executive saloon car whose styling would appear in the 1963 petrol-engined P6 model. There was also an experimental BMC truck fitted with the engine. The P6 executive car was produced until 1977, and all models were designed to have space for a future gas turbine option by having a very unusual front suspension layout with a pivot allowing the spring and damper to be placed longitudinally in the front wing.

The Rover-BRM racing car at Gaydon. David Merrett [CC BY 2.0].
The Rover-BRM racing car at Gaydon. David Merrett [CC BY 2.0].
It was not only prototypes for production cars with gas turbines that came from Rover in the 1960s though, for in 1963 they put their gas turbine into a BRM racing chassis and entered it into the Le Mans 24 hour endurance race. It returned in the 1964 season fitted with a novel rotating ceramic honeycomb heat exchanger to improve its efficiency, racing for a final season in 1965.

The fate of the gas-turbine Rovers would follow that of their equivalent cars from other manufacturers including the Chrysler covered by [Bryan]. Technical difficulties were never fully overcome, the increasing cost of fuel  made gas turbine cars uneconomic to run, and meanwhile by the 1960s the piston engine had improved immeasurably over what had been available when the JET1 had been produced. The Rover P6 never received its gas turbine, and the entire programme was abandoned. Today all the surviving cars are in museums, the JET1 prototype in the Science Museum in London, and the T3, T4, and Rover-BRM racing car at the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon. The truck survives in private hands, having been restored, and is a regular sight at summer time shows.

As a footnote to the Rover story, in response to the development of JET1 at the start of the 1950s, their rival and later British Leyland stablemate Austin developed their own gas turbine car. If international readers find Jet1’s styling a bit quaint compared to the American jet cars, it is positively space-age when compared to the stately home styling of the Sheerline limousine to which Austin fitted their gas turbine.

Rover T4 gas turbine header image: Matthias v.d. Elbe [CC BY-SA 3.0].

55 thoughts on “The Last Interesting Rover Had A Gas Turbine Engine

  1. Amazing that Rover would make their reputation with the Land Rover, probably the only vehicle at the time capable of tackling African terrain, and wind up today with the most over-priced, unreliable SUVs on the planet, the envy of every rap star and sports figure whose pocketbook is only overshadowed by his poor taste.

    1. Range Rover is the most comfortable car money can buy (2nd Hand Market). Barring the era when it came fitted with FORD transmission, the legendary car has been a wet dream for any travel enthusiast.

      My exposure to RR happened while my stay in London (2012-2014), and we (me & my wife) were so impressed with the comfort and performance that we decided to use a 2003 RR for our London (UK) to Jammu (India) roadtrip spanning 25+ countries.

      On the way the front suspension broke down, water pump broke down but this beauty kept running. If you would like to know more about the roadtrip, checkout this link: http://www.humdono.us/?p=585

      1. The last (only?) Rover I touched was about 8 years ago.
        The Discovery belonging to another parent at my daughter’s school had lost its engine coolant. I had a hose clamp large enough to re-connect the radiator hose to the engine block. We then proceeded to fill the radiator with a garden hose that was watering the school’s grass.
        He was upset about the whole ordeal (it was his wife’s car) and he decided to leave for a service station (the closest was over a mile away) before we topped off the radiator. I hope he didn’t warp the heads doing so…

      1. believe it or not the 2wd suzuki swift was better able to travel than the jimny. I was in one with dual wheels on the front and gouged tyres, it was so light it never got bogged climbing up muddy 45 degree inclines.

      1. A Freelander can follow a Defender almost anywhere, people just *assume* they must be rubbish because they don’t look rufty tufty. The later Disco / RR are insanely capable if you remove the 100% road-biased tyres.

        Also, LR are making shedloads of money on their luxury stuff and were losing money hand-building the ancient Defender for a small number of masochists and posers, so what should a sensible business do?

    1. I’ve just sold my old Rover 2000. :-( was not using her that much. Had her for 12 years, gone back to her second owner. Fantastic cars, the last good car rover built. A few years ago had a lot of snow all the modern cars including my Astra refused to move, the traction control kicked in. Could not turn it off. My 40 year old car was the only one in the street driving around, lol. Although stopping in the snow was a little scary. :)

      On my 40th I went to the science museum in London and got my photo with JET 1 :-)

    1. I’m would not be surprized if the were also steam-engine car owners under the hackaday readers.
      I don’t think that we can call sailing car (zeilwagen) a real car, but who cares.

      I wonder if mister Leno is a hackaday reader?
      He sure has an interesting collection of vehicles

      Below the 1963 Chrysler Turbine in the collection of mr Leno

      also very interesting

      1. Looks like they’re a centrifugal gas turbine design versus an axial flow gas turbine design.

        Reminds me of the nuclear power designs as well as the external combustion engine designs that are forgotten also. All of these have the potential in the future to be revisited for utilization.

        However, does seem the hybrid designs can store energy from braking and deceleration processes where the others can not. I envision super capacitors if not faster charger intermediate batteries to assure less losses as well as less energy loss control and power systems. I may be wrong though… the later may already be on the market with the lithium battery designs as they can charge faster. I do wonder about barium titanate to use that material and less lithium required.

        I also feel that dampening designs around thermonuclear reactors to assure no leakage as well as lighter weight materials can be the next step in bringing those power sources into the main stream even if for home power station operation . Seem with all the communications systems and power transmission systems radiation leakage can be detected almost anywhere now. .

        The main issue is having a future generation that is serious enough to actually make the advances in the systems to go from low volume high price point to high volume low price point for main stream consumption if calculated to be beneficial to mankind, humanity and society.

        1. A hybrid car is really more of a modification to the transmission. You can use any engine you want, the electric parts mean that the engine can run at whichever speed suits it, separate from the power needed at the wheels. And regenerative braking etc comes as a nice bonus.

          The main problem with thermonuclear reactors is that they’re impossible. Well, I believe a Tokamak broke even a few years ago, but they’re not ready for the forecourt yet, the thing’s ten metres across and produces megawatts.

          As far as the future generation, under an ideal capitalist economy, a better system would replace a poorer one because it’s more profitable. As it is, economics and politics are corrupt and tied up in syndicates and monopolies, so it’s not quite that simple. But if a system is a big enough improvement, eventually it will get to the high volume low price stage. Doesn’t need future generations to be particularly sensible, or even particularly unstupid.

        2. >”Reminds me of the nuclear power designs as well as the external combustion engine designs that are forgotten also. All of these have the potential in the future to be revisited for utilization. ”

          The nuclear power design was an obvious no-go. It required too much for radiation shielding, and the reactor could never truly be turned “off”.

          The external combustion engine (ASE) was more interesting. It had the potential to work, but it revealed a crucial shortcoming in external combustion engines: in internal combustion engines, the surplus heat that cannot be utilized due to Carnot’s law is expelled through the exhaust gasses, while in internal combustion engines it must go through the whole engine and pass out via a heat exchanger. This heat exchanger must be highly effective to bring the cold reservoir temperature of the heat engine as close to ambient as possible to maintain high temperature difference and thereby high efficiency — in an ICE the cold reservoir temperature is the ambient environment.

          What that meant is, the engine was power limited by the amount of heat it could expel to the environment through some kind of radiator, and increasing engine power meant impossibly large radiators as doubling the size of the radiator can only halve the difference in temperature to the ambient environment. It turned out, providing the cold was more of a problem than providing the heat.

          So the ASE project managed to produce an engine that put out around 50-70 HP. Scaling that up to 150-170 HP became an exercise in diminishing returns as efficiency was compromized by scaling up in power.

          1. I caught the typo too. Had to go back and look to see if you did before I commented.

            Like nuclear power designs… there is room for improvement. For one, even the land based systems at plants at one time couldn’t be controlled to tun off as well. Now they can based on the design of the reactor. This can most likely even have some sort of mechanical fail safe designed so when the temperature increases to high the rods will be forced back into the shielded to stop/limit the reaction to safe levels. Second, the shielding can be made more effective and as I noted even dampening material for impact damage control or elimination can be designed. I am sure. May be for long haul trucking or locomotive design for starters then scale down.

            In regards to ECE, there is the potential to increase the systems surrounding and internal pressure. This is where I envision having the systems has undersea at geothermal vents power stations at the least for a future investment. The pressure of the system can be increased in a mobile system also.

            For heat exchange improvements, utilize liquid/gas phase/state change technology like in a compressor driven fridge/freezer to decrease size and increase heat exchange capabilities. Also, material science can produce materials that exchange heat in a passive manner more effectively by either the material itself or the design of the exchange structure to maximize feasible surface area potential along with material and apply in reality.

            I agree like you note, the ECE is easier, safer and has more potential for main stream operation implementation.

            The nuclear power plant being mobile is something that is more complex of even a sociological issue like gamma ray detectors or medical devices radioactive components being on the main stream consumer market.

      2. Oh, after watching and not assuming from the image… the turbine looks more like an axial flow design that is hybrid with a non-axial compressor or at least the earlier design turbine looks that way. The later design seems more axial.

    2. I loved my ‘79 RX-7. I turned it loose with over 120k miles and no problems. The odometer broke 2 years before I got rid of it so I guess 140-150k on the original apex seals with only a little smoke starting it up. Not bad!
      Sounded like a jet engine at the higher revs (power curve on a Wankel is different)

  2. I’m assuming turbines couldn’t produce sufficient torque for the amount of money a consumer would be willing to part with for transportation. But what about using them in a hybrid gen-set setup where the turbine is spun up to and maintained at ideal RPM and then coupled to a generator. What is the cost/efficiency math of that compared to a reciprocating ICE / generator pair? Would there be a potential for turbine/generators to better charge the batteries feeding an electric drivetrain?

    1. There are 2 big disadvantages with a turbine engine that are likely to prevent practical use in cars (hybrid or otherwise). Firstly is the noise (there is a reason the guys you see hanging around a jet engine when its parked at the terminal all wear ear protection) and the second is safety where a crash could lead to spinning turbine blades flying everywhere (which would be far more dangerous than the bits that typically fly out of a regular ICE car in a crash)

      1. Go find videos about turbines equipped with recuperators, surprisingly quiet compared to other ICEs. I think Jay Leno’s garage had the best audio comparison.

        And as for the “deadly shrapnel” myth – a turbine sized for a normal car (well under 200kW peak power) has only a few kg of rotating mass, it’s not a 6-ton engine that pushes the worlds largest passenger plane :P
        If there’d be any problem with a crashed turbine car – in my opinion it would be the hot side of the engine, once something flammable (oil, fuel, tubes, plastic parts…) get’s to it, it very hard to extinguish the fire.

    2. Exactly the opposite, turbines are capable of giving nearly full torque right from stall (provided that it’s a 2 or 3 shaft engine), something a piston engine can only dream of. Another neat feature is that the torque/rpm graph (with linear scales) is a straight line, no curves, it just pulls like an ox ;-)
      Last but not least, turbines can run on pretty much anything that will burn in air – diesel, kerosene, oil, coal dust…they just don’t care, unlike piston engines which are touchy about octane (or cetane if it’s a diesel) rating.

      Their Achilles heel is fuel efficiency anywhere outside full nominal power, which is something that pistons laugh turbines in the face. Even with recuperation, they are still less fuel efficient. Also, they are more expensive, all that super alloy (high nickel steel) in the hot section doesn’t come cheap.

      Being expensive but light and very powerful makes them ideal for aircraft and very fast ships, not much else that moves.

      1. Good diesel engines can run on just about anything liquid that combusts too. Up until the point then went from IDI to DI with fancy drama queen injectors. Then they pretty much only run on diesel.

  3. My Dad had mentioned the gas turbine over the years as something he invested in (not only worked on) to drive volume to bring the price point down and make improvements to efficiency since he observed ways to improve and did over the years when he was working on and with. Not only the ability to run multiple fuels and even pulse water or waste injections.

    Of which I wonder why there isn’t a restroom waste stream pulsed into on modern passenger aircraft.

    I did see somewhere a gas turbine generator or alternator electric Hummer. I’ve thought adding a vacuum sealed electro-mechanical capacitor (since higher RPM) using a magnetic clutch with a charger for the batteries with wires and motor hubs for the drive train would be the system to implement. Might not be bad for long haul freight… though gas turbines with turbofans still seems more the way to improve flight operations with potential applications on the ground.

    I’m not as well versed with the limitations for ground operations other than power plants… though that is a different issue to me that needs either to design in sea water distillation or more closed loops so to not waste water. I’m more-so aware of the material science to drive improved materials for components safety and longevity. That is interesting observing more ceramics and titanium as well as other alloys into ground based operations systems.

    Amazing how some gas turbines were designed and made to be able to operate after being shot during combat. Neat how helicopters have gear boxes also to change the drive or with two gas turbine systems have a backup option also. I think with vehicles something with a magnetic clutch and maybe wrapping around an alternator if not on the end seems more feasible. The issue would be more-so insulation from the heat so to not cause a Curie Point demagnetization.

    1. If I understand your reply correctly, a turbine will run on water. Do you mean that the water is used as fuel?
      If so, in what state does the water need to be to make it eh.. ignite? flash?

      1. Water injection is possible for improving efficiency, as the evaporation of water cools the inlet and allows more air and fuel to enter, and then the rapid expansion of the resulting steam increases pressure. Some internal combustion engines were designed with an additional water tank, but the complexity of the system proved less than popular.

      2. Like Dax notes… I’ve read in tropical countries I think Honda had a water injection ICE design they were using. Basically, say in a four cylinder cycle… 1 gas, 2 gas, 3 gas, 4 gas… repeat till engine is warm then use water injection once until temp or some cycle determine to inject. Water is not really the combusted fuel, though a cleaner and from the heat absorbed and pressure from the liquid to vapor/gas state change.

        The KC-135’s used water injection like above where only a “pulse” or breif injection when turbine or engine is warm enough. This is somewhat noted on a wikipedia site with some updates for ICE. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Water_injection_(engine)

    1. Was that the one known as the SD1 or SDI?
      If so “wonderful ” but in a bad way would be a good word to use, it ws also known as the MFI rover, because if MFI made a car it would have been that one.
      In case you don’t know, MFI made particularly awful furniture.

  4. Never had a problem with my Rover, the VW Polo I had after was a nightmare in comparison. Clutch pedal bracket fell off (one incident in a long line of calamities) due to it being held on with three spot welds, one of which was poorly done.

    1. A cousin had one and it wasn’t great, blew head gaskets and gave immobilizer trouble. apparently it was hard to repair the starter too because he drove it for six months without one, which helped when a ne’er do well forced the door to his house, stole the keys and attempted to make off with it. rover made a good car when they bought in honda engines for some of their models.

  5. What would have spurred turbine research further for road car use is if all the motor racing organizations hadn’t been so reactionary against turbines and banned them.

    Turbines raced two times in the Indy 500 and would have won if not for various mechanical problems. Running on gasoline was also a problem for the turbines of the era because they had poor sealing for the shaft bearings. Jet fuel, being essentially diesel, didn’t dilute the bearing oil like gasoline.

    After the second year of seeing turbine cars nearly run away with the race, they were banned from Indy car competition.

    What should have happened was creating a circuit of races exclusively for turbine powered cars. But noooo, innovations like that had to be stopped cold, like was done with ground effects in Formuna 1 when teams not using the tech complained instead of adopting the tech themselves. Same for a couple of other series where a car with a device to pull air from beneath the the chassis proved to have potential. It’s gotten to where most pro racing series have gone to essentially identical cars for all competitors, with the technology allowed decided by committee of rule makers.

    1. Isn’t the efficiency of the Formula 1 engines so great at high performance operations that you have to lease the engines from the manufacturers and can’t even own? Seems I recall reading that on more than one occasion… seems like Honda is who I read about. I’ve wondered the same in regards to investment in improving efficiency of the gas turbine cycle(s). I always think of vacuum sealed electro-mechanical super capacitor alternators/generators with magnetic clutch on them for some reason…. either on the intake side or around. Maybe lined with the nano-carbon aero gel material and a heat exchanger intake cooling perimeter system..

    2. It’s a question about whether racing is about competition between drivers, or whether it’s about competition between cars.

      Formula 1 cars can be made so powerful and to grip the road so tightly that the drivers can no longer tolerate the G-loads or physically react fast enough to drive them. You should watch some of the 80’s F1 and rally documentaries, where drivers like Senna were actually at the brink of mental breakdown from the stress of driving such suicide machines. You couldn’t drive them anymore without computer assistance, at which point the driver would have become irrelevant and the whole sport would be lost.

      1. My Dad swore to the grave that the hybrid turbine is a way to go and maybe the future if invested in. Just needed the investment to support the infrastructure from raw materials to consumer mass market.

        I mean think about this… why don’t we have diesel hybrids?

        What is the price of coal and then to process in a form that isn’t going to clog engines. Oh wait… won’t clog the turbines and energy per unit weight and volume is something to consider.

        I think the USAF lead coal power turbines back in the day or was talked about. I know he thought water injection was overlooked in consumer grade operations. I’ve even added… or maybe he joked too and I forgot and added some lines too that… you can pump the toilet waste even for some extra thrust and not litter the planet with micro droplets of human waste… or is it made sterile and more like fertilizer… then wait… wouldn’t that be microbiological media??? Oh well…

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