Most of the modern cars we now own are piston-engined. Some, increasingly, are hybrid, fully electric, maybe even fuelled by hydrogen. But back in the late 1940s the British Rover car company thought there might be a different way to propel the family car of the future: with a jet engine.
Rover, a rather staid and predictable manufacturer of cars for the middle classes, made quality saloons that bank managers would aspire to own but not to covet. It’s remarkable, then, that in ravaged post-war Britain this carmaker decided to change not only how people perceived its own image but the whole idea of car ownership. During World War Two, many car manufacturers stopped producing vehicles for domestic use and turned to war production. Rover was no exception, and its resources were called upon by Frank Whittle to work with his Power Jets company on jet engine development. Rover chief engineer Maurice Wilks refined Whittle’s original design, and the collaboration interested Rover’s management so much that, once hostilities had ceased, work began on a gas turbine engine to power road vehicles. Here, the powerful exhaust gases would power a further turbine to drive an output shaft. In 1945 Rover lured engineers Spen King and Frank Bell away from Rolls-Royce so they could start working with Wilks.
Despite fairly limited post-war resources, by 1949 the team had produced a turbine that could run on paraffin, diesel oil or petrol and produce 100bhp.
Rather than running as a single-shaft turbine, the automotive engine would need to be a two-stage design. In essence it had an ignitor turbine running at 50,000rpm and a power turbine, to drive the wheels, that would run between 13,000 and 26,000rpm. Many test engines later, the final version – designated T8 – was installed into a cut-down Rover P4 body. This prototype, bearing the JET 1 number plate, first ran on 4 March 1950 and was demonstrated to the press five days later. Two years on, with power then at 230bhp, it reached 151.96mph on Belgium’s Jabbeke Highway.