Same As It Never Was: Testing Out Turbines

The heart of the BlueBird CN7 as it was being built

The heart of the BlueBird CN7 as it was being built

Innovation is scary to some and welcome to others. Innovation is what makes a lot of young people interested in motorsports. Racing is the perfect proving ground for the newest and fastest technology. It always has been. The history of auto racing is littered with scraps of failed ideas. It does not matter that they failed, but that someone made the effort to try a new idea in the first place. This is a look at three projects that could have been a new breed of car but, due to extraneous circumstances, became extinct.

Still obsessed with the space age in the 1960’s, car builders started to probe the idea of turbine cars. This is defined by putting an airplane engine in a four-wheeled vehicle. There was a turbine land speed car, there were turbine IndyCars and there was even experimentation with turbines that prowled on the street. None were deemed successful.

The first of these three projects was the BlueBird Proteus CN7. The spawn of the original land speed car, this bird was driven by Donald Campbell, son of Sir Malcom Campbell. The car weighed four tons and was powered by a Bristol Siddeley Proteus free turbine. This was Bristol Aeroplane Company’s first successful gas turbine generating some 4,000 HP. In 1960 the BlueBird Proteus CN7 made its first land speed attempt but had its wings clipped, crashing violently. Campbell would survive but with serious injuries. Another attempt was scheduled after nursing the car and pilot back to life in 1963 at Lake Eyre, Australia. The problem however is the once desert-like lake-bed suddenly transformed back into a body of water from heavy storms. Stories describe Campbell frantically moving the car so it did not become submerged in the fast rising water. A year later Campbell brought his bird back for another attempt. In 1964 he went 403.10 MPH and set a Class A four-wheeled vehicle record.  To Campbell, this was nothing to celebrate. The beast was intended for 500 mph travel. During testing, it reached speeds of 440+ MPH in bad weather conditions. However, again the surface of Lake Eyre was deemed unusable. The BlueBird Proteus CN7 wouldn't ever take flight as wished for and so was retired.

As told by an article featured called “Still a Stunner” in the January 20, 2014 issue of Autoweek, Chrysler was also raising a herd of turbines to use for their own purposes. Between 1963 and early 1966, Chrysler had everyday Americans test turbine prototypes meant for everyday travel. Having made 55 of the new breed, Chrysler loaned the cars out to roughly 203 drivers for feedback. The article states “Like a note of a muffled airplane engine, the turbine’s whine was just loud enough to remind drivers that the same technology could take you on a jaunt to Rio and back” and “the turbines themselves were relatively simple; they used roughly 80 percent fewer components than a piston engine.” They, like other turbine engines, could run on nearly anything flammable including tequila and perfume. Problems started to pop up however. The cars would essentially have a heart attack at 20,000 miles and keel over. Chrysler decided that “the benefits of the exotic engines weren’t enough to recommend them over proven piston technology.” The new innovation was butchered by 1967 and the prototypes were slaughtered. Notes from this article indicate that turbine powered streetcars are plausible given enough tender loving care, but are often turned away for the piston proven standard.

Joe, Andy and Vince Granatelli with team and Parnelli at Indy 1967- Addressed to me from Mr.500

Joe, Andy and Vince Granatelli with team and Parnelli at Indy 1967- Addressed to me from Mr.500

Andy Granatelli and his brothers weren’t the first to try a turbine engine in a race car but their creation gained more attention than any created thus far in history. The STP number 40 turbine was born in time to race the 1967 Indy500. Prominent racecar driver, Parnelli Jones climbed behind the wheel of the ‘whooshmobile’ and changed history. From the moment that the Granatelli turbine strutted out of Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, there was controversy. It was a completely new animal and was met with accusations of cheating and fear. In his book ‘They Call Me Mr.500’ Granatelli says: “Racing was ready for it. The world was ready, even now, as you read this. But the establishment, a small band of men determined to preserve the old way of things, men that were frightened of that future were frightened when they heard that sound.” (pg.274) it was too earth shatteringly different. Jones qualified sixth for the 1967 race but everyone knew that he would be dominant come race day. Sure enough, with three laps to go the turbine was 52 seconds out in front of second place AJ Foyt. Fate, like it has a tendency to do at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, intervened. A ridiculously small and crucial bearing broke in the gearbox and crippled the machine. Not only did the STP turbine fail to win the race, but it failed to finish all 250 laps, registering a shameful 27th spot in the record books. Almost immediately after that, the IndyCar sanctioning body held a meeting to change the rules, resulting in a suffocating reduction of the allowed air intake, rendering future turbines under powered.

These turbines could have worked and should have worked but due to weather, money or fate, possibly a combination of all three, the turbines were put out to pasture. Though none of these projects seemed successful, they tested the boundaries of innovation. Had one of these three attempts been effective, cars and racing as we know it today would be completely different.