Le Mans has long been a breeding ground for innovative, forward-thinking race cars. This year Nissan ventured into battle with its front-wheel-drive GT-R LM Nismo, eschewing decades of rear- and four-wheel-drive dominance, while BMW is considering a return in 2018 with a hydrogen-powered fuel cell racer.
The 2015 Coventry Motofest, however, played host to a much older car that had strived to push the envelope in a similar fashion, both at Le Mans and in the field of automotive engineering as a whole. The Rover-BRM, which took part in Le Mans 52 years ago, was a car that took the dramatic approach of ditching the conventional piston engine for a gas turbine.
It wasn't the first turbine-powered car, being preceded by Rover's own JET1 and myriad other prototypes, but it was the first turbine-powered Le Mans car. Its twin-shaft gas turbine produced 145bhp, which was sent to the rear wheels via a single-speed gearbox. It was claimed capable of dispatching the 0-60mph sprint in around 11 seconds, and had a top speed of 142mph.
The car itself has long been part of the Gaydon-based Heritage Motor Centre's collection, and during its time there the museum's workshop team has restored it to running condition. During its exhibition at the Motofest it took to the road in the ring road-based sprints, its shrill howl echoing through Coventry's underpasses.
It was a car that had always fascinated me, but I'd never seen it in the metal. Until, that is I found myself standing right next to it at the Motofest.
I hovered around it for a while, revelling in its delightful patina and imagining what it must have been like to drive. It was at this point that one of the display's attendants pointed me in the direction of a man called Joe Poole, who transpired to be the car's chief design engineer, and suggested it would be worth talking to him. I had to take the opportunity to ask him a few questions.
Why did Rover decide to start putting gas turbines in cars?
"Rover had been developing gas turbines for a long time, because they were involved with Whittle with the first gas turbine, but then lost the job and it all went to Rolls Royce. Rover decided to carry on with turbines, thinking that there was a possibility that they could be used in cars and industrial applications. That’s how it all started. The first car that they built with a gas turbine was JET1, then a number of other cars were produced to test the concept. This was the last one they built."
Was the company concentrating solely on cars?
"No. It also worked on a small industrial engine, known as the 1S60, that was produced for power generation and a lot of other things. It was also turned into an auxiliary power unit for aircraft; it could be used to drive the ancillary equipment without starting the main engines, or be used itself to start the main engines."
Did that turbine have much in common with the Rover-BRM’s?
"The 1S60 was a single-shaft engine, with one turbine and one compressor, but we carried on working on units for automotive applications - where there were two shafts, one which drives the compressor and the second, with the power turbine, which is used to drive the actual vehicle - like in the BRM."
How did the Rover-BRM perform?