Friday Flashback: The Rover-BRM Gas Turbine Le Mans Racer

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As Britain dragged itself out of the rubble of World War II and took stock of its place in the world, engineers previously employed to develop weapons had to turn their talents to peacetime. Jet turbine technology was a particularly tempting target, and before Chrysler’s famous turbine cars ever saw the light of day, Britain’s Rover had rolled out the first-ever turbine-powered car, the JET1, a precursor to the Rover-BRM turbine-powered Le Mans race car that competed in 1963 and 1965.

As Rover and later Chrysler would learn, turbines are actually crazy-impractical for powering automobiles. But in 1950, when the Rover JET1 debuted, nothing seemed impossible or impractical; it was the beginning of the Jet Age, after all. For its time and place the JET1’s specs were comparable to many other cars; 100 horsepower, 5 to 7 MPG, 0 to 60 MPH in 14 seconds, and a top speed of 90 MPH. Seems kind of pathetic today, but this was the era of the BMW Isetta, the original MINI Cooper, and six-cylinder Corvettes.

Rover continued to develop turbine-powered prototypes through the 50s and into the 60s, culminating in the development of the Rover-BRM prototype gas-turbine race car. Debuting for the 1963 24 Hours of Le Mans in its own experimental class, the turbine-powered racer performed remarkably well.

With drivers Graham Hill and Richie Ginther at the wheel, the Rover-BRM averaged 107 MPH over the course of the race and a top speed of 140 MPH; had it actually been competing, the Rover-BRM would have finished in 8th place overall with average fuel economy of about 7 MPG. While it skipped out on the 1964 race, it returned in 1965 (with Jackie Stewart replacing Ginther), finishing in 10th overall, with a lower average top speed (due to damage to the turbine mid-race) but almost double the fuel economy, to 13.5 MPG.

Alas, that would be the last time the Rover-BRM would compete in any major race, and though it spent the next decade making assorted public appearances and road tests, by 1974 it was retired completely. Today, it resides in the Heritage Motor Centre in Gaydon, England, while the JET1 concept is preserved at the Science Museum London.

But while Rover never went much further with its turbine concepts, the idea has never truly gone away. The turbine-powered 1978 Granatelli Corvette could dash from 0 to 60 MPH in just 3.2 seconds, and today Wrightspeed is pairing micro-turbines with plug-in hybrid drivetrains to make fuel-efficient trucks. But for everyday commuters like you and me, turbine cars remain a thing of science fiction and concept cars.

Image: Dave Hamster

Christopher DeMorro

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.