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