The Rover
Turbine Cars
by John Wheaton*
Shortly after war was declared in 1939, Spencer Wilks was approached by the government to assist with a top-secret new development - Frank Whittle's gas turbine. He agreed, although Rover engineers knew nothing about the subject, the project being referred to as a supercharger for security reasons.

Whittle's company, Power Jets Ltd, was short of production facilities so the plan was for Rover to develop the Whittle design to production state, then maybe manufacture for the RAF. (Amazingly, Rolls Royce had no interest in jets at this stage as they were too busy producing their V-12 Merlins for the Spitfires.)

Early in 1940 work was progressing well with development, but serious differences arose between Whittle and the Rover engineers. Whittle's company was supposed to do the inventing, so he was furious with Rover for 'altering' (actually improving) his design in detail and basic concept without his approval.
The first Rover-built engines were to Whittle's W2 design (except with Rover-developed accessory drives) but were badly underpowered and suffered from surging and turbine failure. They then began development of the W2B version making many design changes of their own (causing more conflict).

Rover then got the go-ahead from the ministry to begin their own design (code-named B26 and so secret that Whittle was not even informed). This was a totally new concept of a straight-through layout retaining some of the original compressor features but giving dramatically improved thrust and reliability. It formed the basis of the World's very first production jet engine, the Rolls Royce Welland

Not a bad show for a 'conservative' motor car manufacturer!

Frank Whittle

By 1942 Rover were the leading jet engine developers (including de Havilland) when Rolls Royce, the top aero engine manufacturers, decided to enter the field. As Rover were not sure they wanted to stay in the aero engine business, they did a deal -handing Rolls all their gas turbine work (first completing all existing developments) in exchange for the 700hp RR Meteor engine project. This was a modified version of the Spitfire V-l2 RR Merlin engine intended for use in tanks. Rover developed and built the Meteor engine which powered the Centurion and later Conqueror tanks. Their later V-8 version Meteorite petrol and diesel engines were used in marine, heavy-duty and stationary applications right up to 1964. Thus the seeds were sown for what was to be Rover's most famous achievement - the World's first gas-turbine car.

Shortly after the war ended, Maurice Wilks tentatively suggested to his brother Spencer that they should look at gas turbines for cars, but both fully realised the costs involved and that a partner would be essential. Spencer approached his friend Henry Spurrier of Leyland resulting in Leyland agreeing to become financially involved, however all development work would be done only by Rover.

By the end of 1945 work had begun (in great earnest and secrecy) in project department C at Solihull under Frank Bell and Spencer King both ex RR gas turbine boffins.

The early problems were more financial than technical (to this day JET 1 has a 2nd hand bicycle caliper brake to stop the power turbine turning in neutral), not only were materials horribly expensive but almost unobtainable. In spite of this, the first prototype engine was running by February 1947.

There were of course also technical problems - one has to remember that gas turbines run at over 40,000 rpm and up to that time no one had ever tried (or even thought of) linking this high speed power to drive road wheels. (Rover's solution of using a second power turbine was copied by all who followed later). One should also realise that everyone was learning at the time - it was a miracle if the engine ran at all; test-bed operators were unmarried volunteers!

A typical sequence from a notebook -
1st test: satisfactory light-up, no oil pressure.
2nd test: no light-up.
3rd test: engine exploded.
The Rover JET 1
The Jet 1
However, the first engine (T5) producing 100bhp at 55,000 compressor rpm and weighing less than a standard Rover engine was announced in May 1948. The more powerful T8 was born later that year and successfully tested at the end of 1949 - in a boat!
This motor was the one finally installed in Rover's 'latest' product (a P4 75 Cyclops) - called JET 1, it made its first runs on March14 1950 and was subsequently shown to the RAC and the Press.

Brief descriptions of the Gas Turbine cars and events follow.

A. 1950.
JET 1. World's first jet car Inboard rear engine, suspension and brakes etc. standard P4.
Compressor turbine 40,000 rpm light-up at 3,000rpm
Power turbine max 26,000rpm idle 13,000rpm
Max bhp 100.
Test speed 85mph. Max mpg 6.

B. 1952.
Updated JET 1. Note restyled nose.
Inboard rear engine.
4-wheel prototype Girling disc brakes.
Turbine specs as above
Max bhp. 230
Test speed 152mph (world record). Max mpg 6.

C. 1952.
T(for turbine car) 2A - like T2, best forgotten. Outboard rear engine.

The Rover T3
The Rover T3
D. 1956.
T3. First car specifically designed around gas turbine engine, by Spencer King with Gordon Bashford and Peter Wilks.
Inboard rear engine (2S100 - 2 shaft, lOOhp)
4-wheel drive, fixed diff. Sheet steel frame, glassfibre body (David Bache). DeDion rear suspension, back-angled front forks, 4-wheel inboard Dunlop disc brakes - Most of these innovations were to be used on the P6, seven years later!
Compressor turbine 52,000rpm, light-up 15,000rpm
Max bhp 110
Max mpg 13 (with heat exchanger).

T4. 2 years before production P6. Basic P6 unit body shell with modified nose. Front engine, front wheel drive.
Rear suspension, swing axles with coil springs.
Max bhp 140. Acceleration 0-60mph,8 seconds.
Max mpg 20 (with heat exchanger)

The Rover T4
The Rover T4
F. 1963
The Rover-BRM (00) had been driven at LeMans by Graham Hill and Richie Ginther at an average of 108mph (and 7mpg) which would have made it 8th overall, but it was not officially competing, hence the 00 number.

The Rover BRM
The Rover BRM
G. 1964
Rover-BRM, rebodied by David Bache and Bill Towns, was damaged in transit to LeMans, and did not compete that year.

H. 1965
Increased air-intakes and extra driving lamps, driven at LeMans by Graham Hill and newcomer Jackie Stewart, was 10th overall at 99mph (13.5mpg) in spite of engine damage.
The Rover BRM
How did these cars behave? Graham Robson describes his first (and only) drive in T4...

"Starting drill is simple but drawn out - turning the key actuates the special Lucas starter motor which winds away for several seconds. A faint, distant whine rises in pitch and intensity before light-up occurs and the engine settles down to 'idle' at 35,000rpm. This is enough to cause the car to creep along the road if the brakes are not applied, as there is about 4bhp residual at idle. To get moving engage forward gear and depress 'loud pedal' - after a jet lag of about 3 seconds, the engine speed rises rapidly to 50,000rpm and the car whooshes off up the road leaving engine noise behind (although this is quite acceptable to passers-by). 60mph is reached in 8 secs (a la 3500S) with very civilized handling.


The Rover BRM
T3 and T4 were the magnificent swan songs of Rover's gas-turbine cars - whatever happens in the future, Rover were the first and most successful (T4's achievements have never been matched). T3 and T4 happily survive in running condition in the British Leyland Collection, while JET 1 is honorably retired in the Kensington Science Museum.
* This piece was taken from the RCCA archives. We believe the author to be as stated.