Monday, January 17, 2011

History: Jet Powered Cars

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Last years Paris Motorshow saw the introduction of several high profile, ultra cool concept cars. However, among all the glitz and glamour there was one car that stood alone as the coolest car of the show, that of the Jaguar C-X75. This low-slung supercar from the British luxury brand was not only a design and engineering showcase of Jaguars future, but it is a car built to celebrate the companies 75th year of existence.

However, the C-X75 is more than just another pretty face. Like many new concepts this supercar is a range extending hybrid making use of four 145kW (195bhp) electric motors mounted at each corner. Nothing really special there, except when you realize what is providing the battery power generation. That would be two gas micro-turbines rated at 188 bhp total, mounted just behind the seats. Many had said that micro-turbines would never work, but despite the negative comments, Jaguar along with Baldon Jets, who designed the micro-turbines, are amidst a game changing revolution in the way cars are powered. However, turbine powered cars is nothing new, so with the re-evolution of the jet powered car, lets pay homage to the jet cars of past.

Rover JET1
The car that sparked the whole turbine-powered fad was British carmaker Rover. During World War II, Rover were heavily involved in the development of gas turbine engines, as the Allies raced to have the first jet powered fighters in the sky to take on the Luftwaffe. It was however, the Germans who won the race, fielding the Messerschmitt ME 262 Schwalbe ("Swallow"), the world's first operational jet-powered fighter aircraft. The ME 262 would come too late for the Germans, however, the superiority of the aircraft was pronounce.

With the war over and Rover putting the final touches on their own turbine technology, the British had lost the race for jet powered flight, however they could use the same technology to take a similar revolutionary jump in the automotive industry. In 1950, they did just that, shoehorning a jet turbine into a concept roadster behind the passenger seats. Instead of providing acceleration through thrust like the aircraft of the time, the turbines rotation was directed to the wheels much like a standard internal combustion car.
During tests, the car reached top speeds of 140 kmh, at a turbine speed of 50,000 rpm. Unfortunately, the size of the engine and the fuel efficiency meant the project was scrapped soon after the concepts unveiling.

GM Firebird
Next to bat was the General, who started their turbine-powered dreams two years later with the Firebird I concept car. By this time the whole “Jet Age” mentality of futuristic thinking was taking America by storm. The air force was in a highly popular race to break the sound barrier with experimental aircraft, meanwhile the common citizen wanted in on the act yearned for nuclear powered toasters and cars that looked and were powered by jets. GM answered everyone’s dreams with the first iteration of the Firebird. Half fighter plane and half car, the Firebird took the JET 1’s ideals and added them to a sci-fi body.

Designed by famed penman, Harley Earl, the series of three turbine-powered cars had a very obvious aircraft inspiration. GM would use a Whirlfire Turbo Power gas turbine engine that produced 370 hp (280 kW), with a two-speed gearbox. They then fitted the mechanicals into Earl’s body that comprised of a fiberglass fuselage, open wheels, and single seat cockpit with bubble canopy and winglets at the rear with actual flaps used as airbrakes. A feature now found on some of the world’s most expensive cars such as the McLaren SLR and Bugatti Veron.

The car was a hit at the 1953 Motorama Autoshow, and as such, an evolution to the car was put into motion. The Firebird II, was a more practical car, even if it didn’t look it, as it was designed as a four-seat family car. The car utilized a 200 hp (150 kW) engine and used an air fed regenerative system to solve the exhaust heat problem, allowing the entire engine to operate nearly 538 °C cooler, and also powered the accessories. A larger bubble canopy returned, however, the fiberglass used to build the body was binned for much more expensive titanium. Now how cool is that – in 1956!

Again, the Firebird was the darling of that years Motorama show, ushering yet another evolution, the Firebird III in 1959. This full on Jetson mobile kept with the uber expensive titanium body and extravagant tail fins, now numbering seven. The two-seat, double bubble cockpit coupe now boasted a 225 hp (168 kW) Whirlfire GT-305 gas turbine engine, and a two cylinder, 10 hp (7.5 kW) gasoline engine to run accessories. Unfortunately, despite all the crazy designs and massive technological advancements, the Firebirds would never see production, likely due to the sheer cost that the cars would undoubtedly carry.

Chrysler Turboflite and Turbine
While everyone else were playing around with concept cars in the 50’s, Chrysler took the idea of turbine powered production vehicles much more seriously. Since 1954, Chrysler had been experimenting with in-house built turbine engines in their production vehicles, and was even building rockets for the air force. In 1956, they drove an experimental gas turbine powered Plymouth from New York City to Los Angeles. They would continue to test further evolutions of their turbines placed into production cars such as Dodge Darts, Plymouth Fury’s, Belvedere’s, Coronets and Miranda’s all the way into the 1980’s until financial difficulties canceled the turbine development program for good. However, during this time, Chrysler dumped the fourth generation of their turbine, the CR2A that produced 140 hp (104 kW) into the Turboflite concept car. This car mated the realistic visions of the JET 1 with the outrageous stylings of the Firebird. It was a 4-passenger vehicle that featured a glass canopy that rose automatically when either door was opened and also a large rear spoiler that was later incorporated in the muscle cars of the sixties.

Then in 1963, Chrysler began the Turbine Car project building 50 production vehicles between October 1963 and October 1964, plus five prototypes. The bodies and interiors were crafted by Ghia in Italy, and then were shipped to Michigan to have the engines installed. The fourth-generation Chrysler turbine engine ran at up to 44,500 revolutions per minute and could use diesel fuel, unleaded gasoline, kerosene, JP-4 jet fuel, and even vegetable oil. The engine would run on virtually anything and the President of Mexico tested this theory by running one of the first cars successfully on tequila. Once the public trials were finished, Chrysler canceled the program, destroying all but a few cars. However, this did not stop Chrysler’s turbine production as several cars were offered with turbine power up until 1980 when financial woes forced the company to sease all turbine production.

Toyota Sport 800 Turbine Hybrid
The yanks weren’t the only one playing with turbines, as Toyota built a one-off turbine version of their popular micro sports car, the 800 in 1979. However, Toyota changed the dynamics of the system, ushering in the technology that would lead to the Jaguar C-X75. A much simpler version, the Toyota used a 30 bhp (22 kW) gas turbine engine, connected to a generator, which fed an electric motor that in turn provided power to a 2-speed gearbox. The efficiency of turbine power had now finally been realized, even though Toyota never continued to expand the project.

Jay Leno’s EcoJet
The last turbine-powered car built was the EcoJet by Jay Leno and GM. Built on the aluminum frame of a Corvette Z-06; the EcoJet sports a Cadillac themed body and is powered by a 650 horsepower mid-mounted Honeywell LT-101 turbine powered by bio-diesel.

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