Rover-BRM: The Jet-Powered Car That Proved It Could Hang With the Big Boys at Le Mans

While it all started with an unofficial experiment, the Rover-BRM eventually became the first gas turbine car to race at Le Mans as an official entry, and it actually came close to winning the 2.0-liter class.
1964-1965 Rover-BRM 11 photos
Photo: British Racing Motors
1963 Rover-BRM1963 Rover-BRM1964 Rover-BRM1964 Rover-BRM1964 Rover-BRM1964 Rover-BRM1964 Rover-BRM1965 Rover-BRM1965 Rover-BRM1965 Rover-BRM

For over a century, gasoline and diesel engines have ruled the automotive world. This is set to change in the following decades thanks to the reemergence of EVs, but before we got to that point, there were many other attempts to replace the aforementioned powerplants with more efficient forms of propulsion.

One of the most interesting alternatives was the gas turbine unit (aka. jet engine), which began revolutionizing the aerospace industry shortly after the Second World War. During the same period, carmakers also began to experiment with this technology, leading to several functional prototypes. In the U.S., the most famous example is the 1963 Ghia-bodied Chrysler Turbine Car. Produced in 302 units, it was tested on public roads for three years, as part of a comprehensive user program, and almost made it into series production.

However, the first fully functional jet-powered car was built in England thirteen years earlier. Presented to the public in the spring of 1950, the Rover JET1 was an open two-seat tourer that proved the feasibility of such an engine and convinced management to continue investing in the project that would culminate with a fascinating Le Mans prototype.

By the early-1960s, Rover had built its fourth gas turbine prototype, dubbed T4. In 1962, a year after its introduction, the car made its way to France where it completed a demo lap of the legendary track, before the start of that year’s race.

The story goes that the organizers were so impressed with the T4 that, for the 1963 race, they decided to offer a special prize of 250,000 francs to any gas turbine-powered race car that could complete a minimum of 3,600 km (2,237 miles) in 24 hours.

Rover engineers saw this as the perfect opportunity to promote their novel engine, so they partnered up with Formula 1 team British Racing Motors to develop a worthy Le Mans racer.

1963 Rover\-BRM
Photo: British Racing Motors
Based on a modified F1 chassis fitted with an open-cockpit aluminum body, the car came together in just a few months. Mounted in the rear was a 2S/150 gas turbine engine that idled at 28,000 rpm and could reach up to 55,000 rpm. As opposed to the conventional cars which were limited to 109-liter (29 gal) cells, the organizers allowed the Britons to use a larger, 218-liter (58 gal) fuel tank which was filled with paraffin oil.

A couple of months before it was completed, the Rover-BRM was transported to France for the race. Donning number 00, it ran as an unofficial experimental entry with BRM’s Formula 1 drivers Graham Hill and Richie Ginther taking turns behind the wheel.

Achieving close to 240 kph (149 mph) on the Mulsanne Straight, the car completed 310 laps and covered a total of 4,165 km (2,588 mi), winning the organizers’ prize. Not only did the Rover-BRM finish the race, but, if officially classified, it would have earned 8th place overall.

1964 Rover\-BRM
Photo: British Racing Motors
Encouraged by the result, the team returned to England determined to improve the car and return to Le Mans for the 1964 24-hour race. In the following months, it received a completely new, closed-cockpit body and a revised 150-hp 2S/150R turbine engine complete with ceramic heat exchangers that dramatically reduced fuel consumption.

With all the new hardware, the vehicle was deemed eligible for official entry in the 2.0-liter class, gaining competition number 26.

Sadly, after one of the practice sessions in France, the Land Rover tow truck crashed, and the race car was seriously damaged. Unable to repair it in time, the team had to retire from the event.

A year later, the Rover-BRM was back on the Circuit de la Sarthe as an official entry. This time, the practice and qualifying sessions ended with no incidents, and Graham Hill, along with future Formula 1 champion Jackie Steward, was ready for the big race.

1964 Rover\-BRM
Photo: British Racing Motors
Among the sea of Ferraris and Ford GT40s, the British turbine car had a promising start, hovering around the top ten, but as the race progressed, the engine started overheating. Due to this issue, engineers were forced to reduce power levels, so Hill and Steward were not able to harness the car’s full potential.

Despite this, the Rover-BRM racer managed to end the race, securing 12th place overall and second in its category. This was an outstanding feat for a jet-powered vehicle developed from scratch just three years earlier.

After Le Mans, the car toured the world’s most famous auto shows and was subsequently used for various endurance tests on public roads. In 1974, the Rover-BRM was retired from active duty, and it’s currently displayed at the Heritage Motor Centre located in Gaydon, Warwickshire.

Eight years ago, after a comprehensive restoration was completed, the iconic Rover-BRM returned to Le Mans where it gathered huge crowds. In the video below by candscmagazine you can watch (and hear) its experimental powerplant being fired up.

Although the gas turbine engine never revolutionized the automotive industry, this fascinating British prototype went down in history as the first jet-powered race car to ever compete at Le Mans.

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About the author: Vlad Radu
Vlad Radu profile photo

Vlad's first car was custom coach built: an exotic he made out of wood, cardboard and a borrowed steering wheel at the age of five. Combining his previous experience in writing and car dealership years, his articles focus in depth on special cars of past and present times.
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