A History of Cars With Aircraft Engines
With all the talk of self-driving cars in the near future, it has us wondering—what happened to the flying car? The reality is, the obstacles to personal flying vehicles are great, and we may never see a mass-produced flying car. So how about a remix on the concept. What about a car with the engine from an airplane? Sure, it’s not the same as a flying car, but while we may never see flying cars any time soon, aero-engined automobiles have been around for almost 100 years. But why would someone want to put an aircraft engine in a car? For that you’ll have to look to the early days of the automobile. In the early years of the 20th Century, the automotive engine had limitations. Its peak engine speed was about 3,000 RPM, which is not very high. To try and get more power, engineers made larger and larger engines, using displacement to get the necessary power. Even with that, engines could only make about 100 horsepower. Aircraft engines were more exotic, refined, lightweight and most importantly, more powerful than their automotive counterparts. The most popular period for this type of auto-aero mashup was the Interwar period, between WWI and WWII, automakers were shoehorning the large aviation engines into cars before the First World War. RELATED: The History and Future of the Land Speed Record
Hispano-Suiza, Renault, and Rolls-Royce tried their hand at such vehicles, but it was Fiat’s “The Beast of Turin” that is widely considered the first successful application. It called for a 1907-08 Fiat chassis to be fitted with a 28.4-liter six-cylinder engine designed for an airship. It made 300 horsepower and though it had potentially been designed as a land speed record car, it never went more than 90 mph– well short of the 125.95-mph standard set by the Blitzen Benz in 1910. Others like Sunbeam would also delved into aircraft engines in cars in pursuit of speed records before WWI.
The real era of growth for this niche was the time in between the World Wars. This era was marked by many speed-record attempts by Sunbeam. Later on they would be known for the plucky little Alpine roadster, but in the 1920s and ‘30s, it was vehicles like the 18.3-liter Sunbeam 350HP. Private parties would get in on the trend as well, building cars such as the Fiat Botafogo Special, using a 1917 Fiat chassis and a 21.7-liter Fiat A.12 aircraft engine.
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This incremental growth would continue, as chassis developed and so did engines. In 1927, the Sunbeam 1000hp, aka “The Slug,” was the first car to break 200 mph. It featured a pair of 22.4-liter airliner engine. Despite the name, it made about 900 hp. Mercedes-Benz would also try its hand, using engines such as an inverted V12 that displaced 44 liters, which had been derived from the Messerschmitt bf109 fighter engine.
With the outbreak of WWII, the automotive development came to a close, but once the War was over, it was back on, and with new technologies–turbines and jet engines. Sure, there were still piston-engined aero-powered cars, but things really heated up in 1960 with the Bluebird-Proteus CN7, which used a Bristol-Siddley Proteus turboshaft gas turbine engine. It cost £1 million to make, but the cost paid off, with an output of 4,1000 and a record-setting speed of 403.1 mph.
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This would continue through the years, using jet engines, and even rocket engines for land speed records. The Spirit of America was a Bonneville salt flat racer that used a General Electric J47 engine that would typically power an F-86 Saber.
Jet and turbine engines were not only for land speed records. The Louts 56 competed in the 1968 Indy 500 with a Pratt & Whitney ST6 engine (a variant of the highly popular PT6 engine) behind the driver, sending power to all four wheels. The governing body of Indy eventually banned turbine cars and four-wheel drive, and so Lotus took the car to Formula 1. It would never win a race in F1, but the design of the car (minus the engine) would set the mold for F1 cars in the years to come.
Cars don’t even need to race to take advantage of aircraft engines. The Tucker 48 is a favorite among automotive historians for its limited run, tumultuous existence, and the way Tucker thumbed its nose at the established automakers. At the back of the car was a large flat-six engine from the Franklin company that was also used to power a number of helicopters and small planes.
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The American Big Three even got in on it with cars like the 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car, which employed a turbine specifically designed for the application. Only 55 such vehicles were built.
We’ve barely scratched the surface of the shared history of automobiles and aircraft engines. Today, many of these vehicles fetch top dollar. There has been a renewed interest in aero-engined cars from the piston and jet ages, and they are fetching top-dollar at auctions–if you can find them.
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And if you can’t, just do what Jay Leno did and build one of your own. His EcoJet is a collaboration with General Motors, and features a Honeywell LTS101 gas turbine engine. It runs on biodiesel and can theoretically go 245 mph. How much is it? Well if you have to ask, you definitely can’t afford it.