Rover Jet 1

rover jet 1.jpg

This is the world's first jet turbine-powered car.

And as the world's first, its development presented a number of unique challenges, for instance, the engineers who manned the jet turbine engine test bench had to volunteer…and be unmarried.

The engine at the heart of the Jet 1 can trace its roots back to 1939, shortly after the Second World War had been declared. The British government introduced Rover to a man by the name of Frank Whittle—later Sir Frank Whittle—who had a design for a gas turbine engine and for reasons of national security the unit had to be developed in secret.

With the resources of Rover, Whittle's engine went through several iterations, and some even claim that Rover engineers offered significant improvements over early designs. Whatever the case may be, by 1942 the project had progressed enough to see Rover trade their jet engine expertise to Rolls-Royce in exchange, as notes, for the 700-horsepower Rolls-Royce Meteor engine project. The engines powering Centurion and Conqueror tanks were Rover-developed and built Meteor units.

Brothers Spencer and Maurice Wilks had been directors at Rover during this time, they were aware of the potential such an engine may have for automotive applications, and after the war ended decided to pursue a jet turbine prototype…this time for a car. 

During the war, Rover engineers had already improved Whittle's design to the 'straight-through' layout that jet turbines have to this day. After hiring some Rolls-Royce engineers, who'd refined the design for military applications, Rover also called on the deep pocketbooks of Leyland, who may also benefit from the development of a road car-ready gas turbine engine.

Work started on this road car project in 1945 and, as you'd expect, putting together an engine that spins at 40,000 rpm was a difficult task when any metal beyond a Spam can was nearly impossible to come by. At great cost, the team forged ahead, and had their first engine running two years later, in 1947.

After many test bench explosions, the first 100-horsepower unit that also weighed less than a Rover road car engine was completed. It's obvious to see why engineers pursued turbine technology: jet turbines offer a great amount of power in a tiny package…noise be damned!

Starting at the T1 designation, the unit marked T8 found its way into the new-for-1949 'Cyclops' Rover 75 mid-sized sedan…only with its roof chopped off, giving it an almost 'Le Monstre' look coined by observers of the open-roof Cadillac that ran at Le Mans in 1950.

Being Rover, the shape eschewed sexy chrome nacelles up front, instead adopting a traditional Rover 75 chrome grille. The first jet car's only concession to so-called "Jet Age" style was its top-mounted exhaust, but even then they looked as lithe as home heating registers. If designers of the first jet turbine car didn't even bother with fantastical styling cues, it's safe to say Detroit's interpretation of the theme was all hot air. 

After its first test runs in 1950, by 1952 the car had hit an incredible 244 km/h (152 mph).

In any event, below you'll find period footage of the car, courtesy of newsreel purveyor British Pathé. Incredibly, it includes sound! Watch it: as of this writing there are fewer than 30 views—and that's a shame. At its end, you'll watch an interview with Spencer King, Rover Managing Director and driver of the car on its 1952 record run.

He says in summation: "It runs very smoothly. Hear just wind noise. No effort at all."

The car is on display at the Science Museum, London.