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Original Issue


Gas-turbine sedans in the New York Auto Show and a new racer for the Indianapolis '500' threaten the old faithful piston cars

Amid the gloss and glitter of that tire-kicker's paradise, New York's International Automobile Show, the two cars might easily be overlooked. Garbed in reticent British green, the Rover T.4 sedan occupies a modest niche on the second of three exhibition floors in the vast Coliseum. The light blue Dodge Turbo Dart hardtop stands like a pretty wallflower on the third level, at the fringe of the crowds ogling her shiny Detroit sisters.

There are other things that are new in the show: the Raymond Loewy-designed Studebaker Avanti (which went on display this week) of Gran Turismo styling and with the American industry's first disc brakes in a decade on the front wheels; the Cobra, a touring-racing roadster, Ford V-8 engined and British AC-bodied, devised by Racing Driver Carroll Shelby to compete with Corvettes and Ferrari GTs; the plush Jaguar Mark X sedan from England; a Swedish Volvo station wagon; a Pontiac with some of speed merchant Mickey Thompson's hot rod artistry beneath the hood; and Detroit models utilizing turbo-supercharging, a method of recovering energy from exhaust gases.

But of all the 450 motor cars gathered from the U.S. and nine foreign countries for the largest of American auto shows—and this year one of the world's finest—none are more intriguing, in one respect, than the Rover and the Dodge. In a show dedicated, above all, to the good old reciprocating piston engine, the gadget that put the world on motorized wheels, these quiet intruders are forerunners of eventual revolutionary change.

Their hoods conceal not piston engines but gas turbines, offering the kind of motive power that, within a young man's lifetime, has made most piston-engined aircraft obsolete. But the Rover and the Dodge are not experimental playthings. They are perfectly roadable passenger cars that can approach the performance and manners of our orthodox machines.

Furthermore, as the New York show opened last week, by a significant coincidence the world's first serious gas-turbine racing car was being completed in a Tulsa, Okla. workshop 1,300 miles away. It is entered in the foremost American race, the $400,000 Memorial Day Indianapolis "500," and if it comes anywhere near justifying Builder Jack Zink's faith in it, it will stand the Brickyard on its ear.

Zink is a compact, restless Tulsa man who builds industrial burners to make money and makes parachute drops for fun. He is tired of campaigning the same old Offenhauser roadsters at Indianapolis.

Last year he wanted to take a turbine car to Indy. There wasn't time to get it ready. This week the car is complete and set for testing. Site of the tests: a new ‚Öù-mile oval track built for the purpose on Zink's J-Bar-Z ranch northwest of town. The driver: California's Dan Gurney, a Grand Prix star (SI, Feb. 9) who has never raced in the "500."

Zink's turbine is a 375-hp Boeing model of a type supplied to the Navy to power pilotless, radio-directed, torpedo-carrying helicopters. Light but bulky, it is rear-mounted in a new space-frame chassis (below) built by Zink's chief mechanic, Dennie Moore. Suspension is independent for all wheels. Thus the car defies Indy convention not only in motive power but also in the engine's rear position and the matter of suspension.

Light and potent

At 1,100 pounds, the John Zink Track-burner, as it has been named, weighs 500 precious power-saving pounds less than the lightest Offie roadster. Zink figures to lose only 5 hp while slowing for Indy's 135-mph turns; the typical Offie drops from 400 to 340 hp.

No dreamer, Zink is in fact the tough-minded realist who, as an Indy boy wonder, saw his Offenhausers win the big race in 1955 and 1956. Now 33, he is as alert as any man to the "500's" special demands. "If this car performs as we hope it will," he said last week, "it should stay with the Offies on the straights and outdrag them from the corners." In brief, Zink believes the car can win.

Win or lose at Indy, does the gas turbine have a serious potential for non-sporting motorists? Will it, as some of its advocates believe, change the motoring habits of the world? It very well may. The engine is, first of all, dramatically simple. Let the Turbo Dart, which this winter rolled 3,154 miles from coast to coast in five days at an average speed of 55.5 mph, exemplify it. The Turbo Dart can run on just about anything that burns—gasoline, kerosene, diesel fuel. It has 200 fewer parts than a conventional engine of similar power. "It's full of nothing," says a Chrysler engineer, "and that's the way we wanted it."

Well, almost nothing. The principle of the gas-turbine engine is that of the windmill and the waterwheel (see previous page). "In our windmill," says George J. Huebner Jr., the graying 51-year-old director of Chrysler research and chief American champion of turbine passenger cars, "we make our own wind. The burner is our sun and the compressor is our atmosphere." The wind, as someone else described it, is "a cyclone in a box," and it drives the turbines—or windmill blades—of the gas-turbine engine with something like cyclonic power.

Neither sportsman builders nor commercial automakers can take much credit for the development of the turbine. Both prefer the tried and true and with the gas-turbine engine they had a chance to let somebody else do the trying. First developed in World War II from the pure jet engine, the gas turbine found immediate application in. military and then passenger airplanes. As turbine-powered aircraft climbed higher and higher in the postwar skies, supplanting the piston engine in one great arena, every major manufacturer began to develop, or at least study, turbine engines for actual everyday road use.

Rover of England was first on the road with a prototype car. Famous for the rough-country Land Rover and the luxurious, conservative passenger car that has been called the poor man's Rolls-Royce, Rover had done aircraft turbine development work during World War II on an engine designed by the gas-turbine inventor himself, Britain's Sir Frank Whittle. Rover engineers knew, therefore, that the turbine engine promised a very high output for a relatively low engine weight. The vibration inescapable in reciprocating engines because of the up-and-down thumpety-thump-thump of the pistons would be eliminated by the turbine engine's smooth rotary motion. No bulky water-cooling system would be necessary. The exhaust would contain no toxic residues to aggravate air pollution.

But the Rover men also knew that—turbine engines gulped vast quantities of fuel—however cheap that fuel might be. Special, costly heat-resistant metals would have to be used wherever the jet gases touched with their 1,700° blast. During deceleration, the engine would be free-wheeling, lacking the "engine braking" that is a welcome characteristic of piston engines, and thus throwing a heavier burden on wheel brakes. There would be an acceleration lag—a delay after stepping on the accelerator, until the engine revved up sufficiently to start from a dead stop or to resume speed after braking.

Nevertheless, in 1950 Rover sprung upon a doubting world the pioneer Rover Jet I. It was a quaint, bulgy, sawed-off roadster, but it caused a momentary sensation by screaming along Belgium's Jabbeke Highway, a favorite continental trial strip, at the astounding speed of 151 mph.

Rover's T.4 is the company's fourth turbine prototype. As newsmen who tried it out at New York's Idlewild airport the other day discovered, during preshow demonstrations, it comes close to being a completely acceptable road car as it stands right now.

The 140-hp engine is front-mounted, with the drive taken to the front wheels. While starting and idling, the T.4 emits a thin, whistling noise. At about 30 mph the noise ceases and the car is impressively silent. Even with only one forward speed, as now equipped, 0-to-60-mph acceleration is accomplished in a not-bad 12 seconds, and top speed is 115 mph. With a two-speed automatic transmission (this is in the works) the 0-60 time will be cut to a snappy 8 seconds. The T.4's disc brakes provide plenty of stopping power, despite the absence of compression braking, and the car corners with surefooted ease. There is still an acceleration lag of perhaps one second, but revving the engine against the brakes before takeoff produces jack-rabbit starts. Consumption of kerosene is 14 to 16 miles per gallon.

Trouble-free trip

As for the Turbo Dart, its road qualities were well-demonstrated on that nearly trouble-free cross-country trip. Diesel oil was the basic fuel, and the best day's fuel consumption was 16.6 miles per gallon—a better figure than that achieved by the gasoline-burning escort cars. Chrysler says it has developed a secret, low-cost alloy for heat-critical parts, thus solving the serious problem of high cost in that area. It also has built into its engine a device providing the equivalent of the piston engine's compression braking, thus overcoming the problem of freewheeling.

The big question in all this, of course, is when will turbine cars go into anything like mass production?

Chrysler, which has a staff of more than 100 engineers and "support group" people doing nothing but turbine research, at a cost of $125 million a year, is evidently closest to taking the plunge (the other giants of the industry, General Motors and Ford, are keeping abreast of turbine developments but little more). Next year the firm will sell 50-75 pilot cars to selected customers. The anticipated sale price is $4,000 to $5,000; the cost to Chrysler may run 10 times as much per car. While the Turbo Dart has a modified Dodge Dart body with standard TorqueFlite automatic transmission, the new baby will have its own futuristic coachwork, transmission and identity.

"We must take a cautious approach," says George Huebner. "This is a revolution. We understand the turbine; a lot of people don't. Maybe we'll make 75 one year, then 300 the next and 3,000 the next. This is the first time the supremacy of the piston engine has been threatened. Even if we started mass-producing gas-turbine engines next year it would take 10 years just to replace the number of existing piston engines without expanding the market. A complete takeover by the gas turbine would take an awfully long time."

For all of the advanced work it has done, the other front-runner, Rover, still has many reservations about production and marketing problems and has announced no plans to produce turbine cars in any quantities for private buyers. Rover does claim, however, that it could market the T.4 in "reasonable numbers," i.e., 150 or more a week, at a price only 25% above current passenger models. With that threat stated, Rover's directors are watching and waiting. "If the only consideration were an engineering one," says Rover Chairman Maurice Wilks, "we could say with reasonable confidence that from a design point of view we could produce a specification for a satisfactory turbine car within the next two or three years."

"What we have here is youth," echoes George Huebner from Detroit. "It is intelligent, strong and willful, but as yet unrefined. We have developed the gas-turbine engine to the point where it is almost equal to the piston engine in performance. You've got to look at our youngster and say, 'that guy is going places someday.' " Possibly on Wednesday, May 30, at Indianapolis.


THEORY AND PRACTICE of an automobile gas turbine are shown in this schematic photographic cutaway (left) and the front-mounted engine compartment of the Dodge Turbo Dart (above). The source of power is air, compressed, mixed with fuel, ignited and burning in a continuous explosion. Air (1) is drawn in (diagram, left) by the fan-shaped "impeller," (2) which compresses it and forces it (3) to combustion chamber (4). Fuel is injected (5) and spark plug (6) ignites it. Then suddenly expanding, scorching hot (1,700° F.) gases strike the blades of a compressor turbine (7), then those of a power turbine (8). The compressor turbine whirls the impeller in a continuous cycle of compression-ignition-burning; the power turbine transmits power through reduction gears (9) and transmission to the driving wheels. The exhaust gases, finally, flow back (10) through the so-called regenerator (11), to preheat incoming air, while at the same time cooling off to a safe temperature (12).















[See caption above.]


JACK ZINK'S TRACKBURNER, here photographed for the first time with Builder-Mechanic Dennie Moore at the wheel, carries its 375-hp Boeing gas-turbine engine behind the driver. As modified for Indy, this engine differs from the Rover and Chrysler engines in several important ways. With no need to economize on fuel or cool off exhaust gases, it can do without a regenerator, blasting unmuffled exhaust out through the large opening above the engine. To eliminate lag in vital acceleration, its compressor turbine operates continuously at maximum revolutions; between it and the power turbine is a "waste-gate" arrangement which, when open, releases the hot gases before they hit the power turbine. When the gate is closed, there is an immediate blast of maximum power on the power turbine, with a resultant instantaneous acceleration response. There is no conventional transmission; the power goes directly through reduction gears to the rear wheels.