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08/07/2010 1333

Rover - Jet 1

In the 1950s Rover was regarded as the staid wheels of the well-heeled. They went about life in their own snooty way, and you would hardly have guessed the company had a tiger by the tail.

It was called JET 1 and was the first gas turbine-powered car.

During the late stages of the Second World War, Rover had been intended as the main producer of the new Whittle jet engine for aircraft while Rolls-Royce was working flat-out on Merlin and Griffon piston engines.

But development work soon turned to a small gas turbine suitable for powering a motor car. Work began in 1946, and the finished vehicle was unveiled in 1950.

In 1952 JET 1 was fitted with an upgraded engine and achieved a world record speed for gas turbine cars of 152mph. When JET 1 was launched, the gas turbine `jet' engine was seen as a symbol of modernity and of British technical prowess.

Many viewed it as the power source of the future but shortcomings began to surface such as massive fuel consumption and slowness to respond to the throttle.

Poor old JET 1 was deemed an unsuitable father for a future power source and was put out to grass.

Rover nonetheless persevered and continued to develop gas turbine car designs until 1965.

But for small-scale applications the gas turbine has proved, up to now, too costly and the problems of control and fuel economy still exist.

JET 1 was built with the engine positioned behind the seats with air intake grilles on either side of the car and exhaust outlets on the top of the tail. During tests, the RAC recorded an acceleration speed of 0-60mph in a rather leisurely 14 seconds.

JET 1 ran on petrol, paraffin or diesel oil, but consumption was sky high at five to seven miles a gallon.

Rover and the BRM Formula 1 team joined forces to produce a gas turbine powered coupe, which entered the 1963 LeMans 24-hour race, driven by Graham Hill and Richie Ginther. It averaged 107.8mph (173km) and had a top speed of 142mph (229km).

However, it proved difficult to build an engine small enough to fit in a car, which was also fuel efficient, so the gas turbine-powered car was never going to be a viable alternative to the combustion engine.

JET 1 was placed on permanent display in the Making the Modern World gallery in the Science Museum, and was one of the stars of the show when I saw it on a visit to the capital with my parents in the 1950s.

It left me with a lasting impression of a car mothballed years before its true potential could be explored.





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