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.
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.
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.
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.