Henry Wiggin’s Contribution

“The industrial gas turbine that’s good enough to fly.”

Image: autospeed.com via revivaler.com

Unless you have personal involvement within the industry, Henry Wiggin is unlikely to register upon your radar, for his products are hidden, yet well known. But for a brief time some seventy years ago, the automotive world came knocking at his door; the first customer from nearby, Rover of Lode Lane, Solihull. Wiggin’s business was the carburising of steel – extremely hard and durable nickel plating for items that spin at both high speeds and temperatures – conditions typical gas turbines are routinely subjected to.

Based close to the banks of the Birmingham canal on a street bearing his name, Wiggin produced  Nimonic 90, an alloy consisting of nickel, chromium and cobalt, coating turbine wheels conducive to smaller applications. For Rover, this meant its JET 1 gas turbine programme could now live.

Consider at that time, Britain was still under wartime rationing, yet pushing engineering boundaries. In the smoky wake of Frank Whittle’s jet engined aircraft, Rover, followed by a select handful of other interested parties believed gas turbines to have a promising automotive future. This palpable excitement sadly failed, but today we can at least reflect on some of these projects.

The rather bluff fronted, roofless two-seater, registered as JET 1 was first publicly aired in 1950, receiving some aerodynamic modifications by 1952. How the Rover-buying trilby-wearing gent must have gawped. First tests for this side fish-grilled, aviation fuelled wonder managed a top whack of 88mph, later modifications resulting in a Belgian Jabbeke run of 150mph, making the trilby history.

Rover JET-1. Image: oldconceptcars

Ten main advantages to the car-based gas turbine had been ascertained by Wiggin; compact engine dimensions, light weight, no gears (other than reverse), reduced maintenance, no water system, choice of ash-free, gaseous fuels, low oil consumption, a lack of vibration, simple electrics and instantaneous full output from a cold start.

The downsides were many and detailed below. But this failed to stop (for a while) Fiat, Austin and others from at least seeking out the potentially lucrative howl of a jet engine over the ubiquitous petrol engined thrum.

Turin naturally made the most graceful embodiment of jet power with their Turbina. Slippery aerodynamics (cd .14!) designed by Luigi Rapi, a midship mounted engine that revolved at 22,000 rpm producing around 300bhp and could nudge 250 Kmh was first conceived around 1948. Gestation proved lengthy and difficult; it took six years to show Agnelli atop the Lingotto – overheating issues and dreadfully high fuel consumption put paid to the project. For those interested, the car resides within the Turin Automotive Museum.

Paris Auto Show, October 1952, witnessed the revealing of the Grégoire-Hotchkiss gas turbine car. Ingéniuer J. A. Grégoire along with S.O.C.E.M.A. (Société de Constructions et d’Etudes de Matérials d’Aviation) produced a stunning looking Hotchkiss designed machine but with endless, project halting problems; overheating, high fuel consumption, turbine construction (should have called Wiggin…) and a complex braking system made this one-off a museum piece, also.

SOCEMA-Grégoire. Image: Goodwood.com

From two flamboyant attempts, we return to Blighty and a far more austere effort from Herbert Austin – the Sheerline. Regarded as a Rolls-Royce contemporary, what better exponent of Midlands engineering than a 23,000 rpm, Dr. John Weaving design with project name Fluid Flywheel? Leonard Lord was given a “hair raising” demonstration run in 1954 which left him unimpressed as well as nauseous. Once more, testing revealed poor fuel consumption, excessive heat and noise along with serious doubts over fire retardant capability. Road registered as TUR 1, the project was abandoned with as much rapidity as that turbine wheel.

The late Duke of Edinburgh inspecting the turbine-engined Sheerline. Image: Austin Memories

America had the most, if not successful then certainly the lengthiest of projects with Chrysler carrying the turbines hopes. Elwood Engel’s suitably futuristic design even managed public testing. Fifty five examples were produced, just five prototypes remaining in the companies remit. Over a thirty nine month period, 203 drivers found, yet again, woeful fuel consumption, unimpressive acceleration and noise to be the car’s downsides.

Chrysler Turbine cutaway. Image: Spannerhead

Testers were however in favour of the durability, smooth operation and root beer bronze colour, racking up a cumulative one million miles of testing in the mid sixties. Mexican president Adolfo Lopez Mateos’ example of the cars fuel of choice being tequila making a headline or two back in the day. Costs, aside from aforementioned problems were Chrysler’s achillea; estimates at a per car cost of $50,000 included those extravagant (yet necessary) alloys made by Wiggin. Officially, the project ceased as at 1979 due to that poor economy.

Concluding our reflective glance means returning to Solihull. Omitting the Le Mans racing versions, one more bash by Rover was made. Named the P2a, the modified P4 body appears to have had an unsuccessful relationship with a steam engine. Severe problems exhausting that hot air led to the funnel on the boot-lid – a task of tessellation if ever there was.

Running on paraffin, claims of up to 200 bhp from a 26,000rpm turbine, trials were secretive, short and final. Whilst technical press of the time heralded turbines as the automotive way forward, reality found them more useful for aircraft use, relegating their earth-bound attempts to flights of fancy, museum relics and amusing follies.

It’s doubtful Henry Wiggin had much idea of the motor car at all; he’d shuffled off this mortal coil back in 1905. His company from 1870 still exists, although as is the way with such projects via convoluted mergers and takeovers, it is now known as Special Metals Wiggin Limited, the English office of a multinational, now Hereford based. The former Birmingham plant, as much of the old West Midlands manufacturing might, including the gas turbine motor car, long gone.

Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

25 thoughts on “Henry Wiggin’s Contribution”

  1. The last prominent proposal of a car with a turbine was Volvo’s 1992 ECC showcar. It had a tiny turbine from a stationary generator and electric power was used to drive the car.

    This enabled the turbine to run at constant load and speed, necessary to get the considerable thermodynamic efficiency a turbine can deliver.

  2. On the face of it that would make a turbine a drop-in solution for a locomotive. I think I’ve read of turbine locomotives, but cannot recall why they were not a success.

    1. Here’s a German TEE (Trans Europa Express) that started with diesel power but some units were later converted to gas turbines

    2. Don’t know about locos as such, but the Turbotrain was used in France for quite a number of years. It was a multiple unit rather than loco hauled but used gas turbines. Fuel consumption was its inevitable downfall. A few were sold to an American railway but abandoned.

    3. Rover continued tinkering with turbines well into the Leyland era. Some turbine engined Leyland trucks were built and lent or leased to selected customers- like with the Chryslers- for extended testing. These turbines were later used in British Rail’s original Advanced Passenger Train, a rolling testbed that used electric transmission. At the same time SNCF built a gas turbine train of their own the experimental TGV. As far as I know neither train used battery storage to enable the turbines to run at a constant speed, both begat passenger carrying versions that (Probably because they were post fuel crisis) used overhead electric wires.

      I often think about the benefits of turbo electric or wankel engined trains. Train journeys across the Pennines are inevitably noisy and rattly due to the use of trains with 6 cylinder diesels slung under the floor and centrifugal clutches which means that the driver has to rev it like he stole it to get the train to move out of the station, a problem compounded as the train usually has the gradient against it. Electrification is noticebly not on the agenda (Well it was for about 5 minutes for Manchester-Stalybridge-Huddersfield-Leeds), so diesel it is.

    4. Richard, at the risk of wandering somewhat from the subject, the diesel trains you talk about don’t use clutches of any persuasion. They have instead Voith hydrodynamic transmissions, widely used in the train business. These have two or three speeds depending on model. Either way, first speed involves a torque converter driving low gear. The converter allows for considerable slip so the engine speed remains roughly constant while the train catches up with it – which explains the sound effects you describe. Second speed uses a fluid coupling driving the same gear but with less slip so engine speed is now more dependent on rail speed. Third speed, if the train rises to that, has a second fluid coupling driving through a higher gear.
      Interestingly, and back to topic a little, the T2000 gas turbine trains used by SNCF in France for more than thirty years to 2004 also used Voith transmissions.

  3. My automotive knowledge is increasing every day. I knew about JET 1 and seen it in the museum and a vague recollection of Chrysler’s attempt, but nothing about the others. Even as late as ‘92, Volvo were still toying with the idea, I didn’t know that.
    Great article Andrew, thank you.

    1. Completely agree with you Tim. A never ending cornucopia of information to be found here. This article is another great example as I knew nothing about JET 1 whatsoever . Good work Andrew!

  4. Don’t forget the Rover T4 of 1961, the first incarnation we saw of the later P6. It was because the P6 was designed with space for a turbine that they were able to easily fit the ex-Buick V8 into it.
    Rover had a head start on turbines because they were initially tasked with developing the jet engine for aircraft use during the war. I am under the impression that the brief was then passed to Rolls Royce because of the slow progress by Rover.

  5. A fascinating article, Andrew – thank you.

    Jay Leno has a Chrysler Turbine – they sound very cool, of course.

    Ford (and Leyland) also appear to have had a go at turbine trucks.

  6. Great work, Andrew. I was vaguely aware of the Rover and Chrysler efforts, but not the others. Putting a turbine in an Austin Sheerline is mad! What were they thinking?

  7. Thinking about cars with inappropriate engines. Does anyone else remember this product of British inventiveness and lunacy from the 1970’s?

    It was fitted with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine from the Spitfire. To be clear, that not the Triumph Spitfire, but the Supermarine Spitfire of Battle of Britain fame. The engine had a capacity of 27 litres and, no, I haven’t omitted a decimal point!

    1. Yes, I do! That car was both famous and infamous, as what was described as a Merlin was actually a lower powered unit from a tank – but that didn’t have quite the same cachet.

  8. Good Lord, Mr O’Callaghan, where did you find that, er, long, upward bending thing? Did anyone give the car a name? I can think of several not fit for a family show.

    Dave, the TEE is looking mighty fine, a romantic step back in time and always conjures up the Kraftwerk pieces. A highly suitable place for turbine power.

    Apparently, Big Red lives; the cab that is, the trailers are still missing. Lovely video link, thank you, Charles. The fridge looked more interesting than the drivers evening meal. Did this behemoth inspire the Renault Magnum cab, I wonder?

    Here’s some pictures of the three bed semi on turbine wheels, aka the Sheerline. I’m still trying to imagine this car whooshing by.

    Also a couple of the P2a which if anyone says they admire should have their bumps felt by a heavy book. Preferably one on why gas turbines don’t work in cars…

    1. Hi Andrew. I remember it was featured on the BBC. There’s an old Top Gear piece on it on YouTube. Here’s some more recent video:

      Apparently, the engine is a Rolls-Royce Meteor, not a Merlin.

    2. So much nostalgia here. The TEE I remember falling in love with from poring over model railway catalogues in the late ’70s. When everything here was dull and dirty Rail Blue seeing these beautiful sleek international locos was an eye-opener.
      And The Beast I first saw in Speed and Power, a sadly short-lived magazine that was published 1974-75 and had me enthralled, especially as at the time my first loves were aircraft and trains, rather than cars, although cars has outlasted the other two.

    1. Yikes, that’s terrifying! Full throttle and heavy on the brakes…at the same time!

  9. No discussion of gas turbine engined cars can be complete without the Rover BRM Le Mans car which raced in 1963, 1964 and 1965. Even more interestingly Rover lent the 1965 car, fresh from it’s not entirely successful trip to France, to Motor magazine who then drove it around for a week. Yes, they just drove around in a car which had completed in the 24 Hours. Yes, things were different back then.
    The driving experience was as you’d expect somewhat unusual. For a start the engine needed about 30,000 rpm before the starter motor could be dispensed with and would then idle at about 35,000 rpm, producing about 9 bhp in the process which would enable the car to creep at about 40 mph given enough time. Requests for more power had, as per usual with turbines, to be made in good time as there was a lag of about two seconds between the pedal being introduced to the floor and a response. Left foot braking while simultaneously pressing the accelerator was the order of the day. Fuel consumption in road use was not a strong point as the engine was inefficient at lower speeds – remember that 9 bhp at idle? It didn’t come free!. Conversely the consumption while racing was quite impressive.
    The way power reached the wheels was fascinating to those of us who know nothing about gas turbines. A jet engine uses compressor blades to suck air in and compress it in combustion chambers, at which point it meets fuel and a spark and ignites. The now greatly expanded hot gas rushes out the rear, turning turbine blades as it goes which turn the compressor blades and continue the process. For road use a second set of turbine blades is fitted which turn an output shaft and via reduction gears the wheels, so the turbine is acting as a fluid coupling and no clutch is needed.

    1. Gas turbines are some of the internal combustion engines with the highest thermodynamic efficiency, close to marine diesel levels. But this works only for a certain level of load and speed with very little room for variation. As soon as load or speed change for more than a couple of percent their efficiency takes a sudden plunge, one of the reasons it doesn’t make sense to reduce speed in aircraft in order to save fuel.
      Therefore it would make the most sense to operate the turbine at its optimum range like Volvo did with the ECC or as in turbine powered power stations.
      A nephew of mine is desining gas turbines for a living and he’s making use of many of Henry Wiggins’ inventions and he’s sweating a lot over the enginineering challenge to adapt those huge power station turbines to the world of regenerative power sources. Up to now those turbines operated at constant speed to provide the base level of our electric power supply. With a growing proportion of non-calculable power sources gas turbines are used to close the gap when there’s no wind which means the turbine has to get up to speed quickly (it takes more than one and a half hour until such a large turbine reaches its operating speed) and it has to be able to operate at varying levels of load.

  10. There is also the matter of size. Small gas turbines (GT) turn out to be not really efficient at all. GT efficiency falls with size. As you get into smaller and smaller GT you discover that no matter what you do the thermal efficiency just craters, even if you operate strictly at design point.

    There are several reasons for this problem. One is that it is not possible to reduce the internal clearances in scale with size of machine. That is, if you halve the diameter of the GT you’ll not be able to halve the internal clearances. In a GT there are leakages of gas from high pressure regions to lower pressure regions costing efficiency. As a proportion of overall flow, these are far higher in the smaller GT. Efficiency suffers.

    Another issue is that the size of air molecules and the behaviour of air does not scale with falling GT size. So, if you halve the diameter of your GT the air molecules do not co-operate by reducing their diameters and altering their properties to suit. Result is loss of efficiency.

    So, small turbines are not all that efficient for reasons of size as well as everything else that goes against them such as poor transient behaviour, fuel specification demands, sound emission, heat management problems, need for expensive materials, difficulty to mass manufacture, low pressure ratio etc..

    That last item was a powerful reason why the early turbines had the high fuel consumption and low efficiency they did. If you look up the pressure ratio of the early and even some of the later automotive efforts you’ll see it was woeful. Pressure ratio is analogous to compression ratio in a regular engine. The Chrysler’s pressure ratio was about 4 to 1. Consider what sort of piston engine efficiency you would expect from an engine with a compression ratio of the same value.

    Now to try an end run around this, Chrysler (and many of the other automotive GT developers) used a heat exchanger to capture the exhaust gas heat and return it to the compressed fresh air just prior to that air passing into the combustion chamber. This helped matters some on the efficiency front. Trouble was the heat exchanger had to be able to handle huge thermal stresses (warm air on one side and extra-hot gas on the other) and do it for a long time reliably and without fail. There were thermal shock problems to overcome as well. Exotic ceramic components were deployed for the task. They were expensive indeed, adding to the overall cost of producing the GT and they were failure prone…

    It is a fascinating engine. Coulda and shoulda been a contender! Needs much more development though.

  11. I’ve seen the Fiat and Chryslers in museums, but never knew about the SOCEMA-Grégoire; where is it preserved?


    1. I’m ashamed to say that, although I’m interested in engineering, I wasn’t fully aware of how gas turbines worked (use of internal pressure, etc). Recently, this video was posted on YouTube and I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a beginner’s guide.

      Not needed by Mr Collins, of course – I’m always amazed and delighted by the people who drop by on this site.

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