THE ROVER-BRM GAS TURBINE - WORDS BY RICK WILSON, PHOTOS & MEMORIES COURTESY OF JOHN SISMEY
My interest in this fascinating project was sparked off in August 1999 when my then home town, Bourne in Lincolnshire, celebrated its motor racing heritage on the 50th anniversary of BRM, the 75th for ERA and the 100th anniversary of the birth of Raymond Mays, largely responsible for both the aforementioned marques. Pilbeam Racing, the town's remaining motorsport connection, also took part. In the makeshift paddock behind the town hall, one of the few cars which (unfortunately) could not run along the town streets was the 1965 Rover-BRM gas turbine car, on loan from the British Motor Industry Heritage Trust Museum at Gaydon in Warwickshire.
A chance conversation with one of the event's organisers a few weeks later led me to meet John Sismey, one of the principal engineers for the project on the BRM side and race mechanic come race week itself. John very kindly provided a wealth of insight, technical information to add to my existing research and access to a superb photographic collection of his years with BRM......
There was much talk among major motor manufacturers in the 1950s of a new type of engine, the gas powered turbine. Rover, Renault, Fiat, General Motors and Chrysler had all researched the subject to varying degrees.
In 1953, the Automobile Club de l'Ouest placed a clause and an equivalence formula in the regulations for the Le Mans 24 Hours, inviting entries powered by the new technology. In 1956, Renault had demonstrated their "Etoile Filante" prior to the race and then in 1957 the A.C.O. offered a prize fund of FF25,000,000 (old francs!) for the first such car to finish the race having covered in excess of 3,600kms (150km/h, 93.225mph). With the majority of the turbine cars of the time being test mules or show cars, it was a while before this was acted upon but the presence of the Rover T4 in 1962, which the A.C.O. allowed to demonstrate a lap of the circuit prior to the race, brought the matter back into the limelight, and the special prize fund was reactivated.
Rover picked up the gauntlet this time. Bearing in mind the time constraints, the car was built in partnership with BRM in Bourne (Sir Alfred Owen was so interested in the project, he put substantial team resources at Rover's disposal) and was based around a 2.5 litre 'type 57' Formula 1 chassis, modified by Tony Rudd, with the specialised transmission being worked on by Peter Berthon. Noel Penny masterminded the Rover side of things. To use an existing race proven chassis was essential given the "unknown" quantity of the engine in terms of raceworthiness.
Rover became responsible for the logistical analysis, design, development and testing of the engines, electrics, fuel, lighting, transportation, painting and cockpit trim. BRM (as Rubery Owen & Co. Ltd.) were to be responsible for the gearbox, brakes and the cost of all installation work, provision of the car/chassis & drivers, spare parts, organisation of practise and design & manufacture of the bodywork (consulting with Rover on this as aesthetics were important for the company image). There was to be a constant interchange of personnel between the two sides of the project in view of the limited time available. It was also agreed that the car would become the property of Rover once the racing programme had been completed.
Rover, for their part, had been working on gas turbines for 20 years already, having been associated with the Whittle jet engine during the second World War. By the time the project was being developed for Le Mans, the new technology was being hailed as the future of motoring, so Rover were keen to impress at this early stage. The first car had run as early as 1950 and in 1952, one of these cars was timed at 152.9mph. The first purpose built car ran in 1956, previous attempts had been existing production models modified to accept the substantially different layout.
The process had been set in motion with a 'dinner' meeting on 23rd October 1962 between W. Martin Hurst and A.B. Smith of Rover, and Sir Alfred Owen himself. The first meeting of engineers and executives took place on 31st October, followed by feasibility studies during November and the 'go ahead' decision being taken on the 27th December.
Three engines were built for the first attempt and were all ready for bench testing in January 1963. The engine chosen was Rover's 'non-heat exchanger' type 2S 150. Each engine was hand built and the big advantage of the new system was its simplicity, with no clutch or gearchange and less parts made up the units. Its big disadvantage, however, was fuel consumption. The gas turbine engine worked by taking in cold air, compressing it and adding sufficient 'energy', using paraffin as its fuel, to transform this into a searing blast which drove the turbine, which in turn drove the wheels. The hot air was lost into the atmosphere, and it was here that later attempts to drastically reduce fuel consumption would concentrate, by recycling the 'waste' hot air, thereby requiring less 'energy' to turn it back into that searing blast. This recycling was achieved by incorporating heat exchangers with ceramic elements. (It was the theory of respected engineers at the time that all future cars would use ceramics, replacing the inefficient metal alloys that were unsuited to the extreme temperatures present in combustion engines.)
The engine could be revved to 60,000 once 'warmed up' (only 30,000 for the first five minutes)!!
The BRM chassis' original multi-speed gearbox was ditched in favour of a single-speed unit (plus reverse of course!), as it had been calculated that given the power of the turbine, a multi-speed unit would only reduce lap times by a relatively small amount - a 'risk' not worth taking for the simplicity (and therefore reliability) of a single-speed unit. Another departure from the established BRM chassis was to be in the braking. With virtually no engine braking effect and a slightly increased overall weight, it was clear that the brake discs needed to be very much larger than for Formula 1 use.
The deadline for entries was the 28th February. By the middle of that month, the car was unfinished, but the decision was nevertheless taken to proceed upon reassurances the car would be ready in time for the tests in April.
The first tests of the 1963 Le Mans car were conducted at MIRA on the 2nd of April and just four days later, the spectators present at Le Mans for the test weekend witnessed the rolling out of an unconventional looking open two seater still unpainted but being pushed by mechanics bearing allegiance to BRM, under the command of Wilkie Wilkinson (who had been responsible for the 1956 & 1957 winning Ecurie Ecosse Jaguars). In addition to the mechanical back-up, BRM of course provided the two drivers; Graham Hill and Richie Ginther, two very experienced drivers were exactly what would be required under such conditions as the 24 Hours would throw at this car in what would surely be a baptism of fire. An early problem had been the differing physiques of the two drivers, resolved by Ginther having a special insert made that fitted inside the 'main' seat, which was tailored for Graham Hill.
The testing weekend showed promise, but there was still some way to go before the car would be ready for the full race distance. Developments between the testing weekend and the race were mainly aerodynamic together with 'natural' chassis and engine improvements; a spoiler was added to the rear to correct rear end instability, the headlights were recessed to smooth out the lines, the wheel fairings to the front were 'dropped' 1 inch and the windscreen was raked back a further 15 degrees.
Negotiation with the ACO had commenced on the 8th January 1963; ultimately the car was placed in the 'under 2.0 litre' prototype class by the organisers after various equivalence factors were brought into reckoning. These cars were limited to a fuel tank with a capacity of 110 litres maximum. With the heat exchanger system that had been present on the road going T4 absent, the car would struggle to make the 3,600kms required at the finish, given the extremely poor fuel consumption. Rover and the A.C.O. reached a compromise whereby the car was allowed two fuel tanks, but the car would not be officially classified should it finish. As a result, the car was to race with the number '00' and would start 30 seconds after the rest of the field for safety reasons.
The car left for the race on the 8th of June, arriving at the circuit on the 10th. But before the race itself, quite a confrontation occured between the team and the scrutineers.
Twice the car failed the minimum ride height check. The official line fed to the expectant press was that one of the mechanics thought to measure the checking block which was found to be inaccurate. The rumoured method was to 'proudly' stand a mechanic at each corner during the check, who each 'assisted' the process whilst the scrutineers conveniently looked the other way. Reports differ, but either way the car was declared legal! The car is pictured below in the scrutineering area with Richie Ginther shaking hands with Roger Penske.
For the race, only two mechanics and one refueller were allowed to work on the car at any one time. The two mechanics would be one from Rover to look after the engine and one from BRM for the chassis/suspension. John was nominated as the refueller ("carburant") and as such was not allowed to touch the car, but with his expert knowledge could visually inspect the car and direct the others should the need arise.
On Saturday the 15th June 1963, now painted in BRM 'dark lust green', the 'whispering ghost' set off into the unknown. Averaging 2 hours and 30 minutes between fuel stops, the car ran faultlessly except for a precautionary front brake pad change, a gradually lengthening crack in the windscreen and a curious problem which manifested itself early on the Sunday morning; John in his capacity of refueller/advisory mechanic noticed that the sight glass for the gear box oil showed the level increasing! At the same time, engine oil was being 'consumed' faster than anticipated. It appeared that somehow a seal was being violated and it was decided the during the next pit stop, both engine and gearbox oil were to be drained and replaced, whereupon the problem disappeared.
The race was won overall by the number 21 Ferrari (seen here in the paddock before the race), driven by Lodovico Scarfiotti and Lorenzo Bandini, having covered 4,561.710km. On the Rover-BRM, the combination of oversize brake discs, the light weight and the superb chassis meant a braking distance around 100 metres less than the rest of the field, including the Ferraris! The Dunlop tyres even managed to last the distance without having to be changed, having covered 4,172.90kms at the finish, averaging 107.77mph, sufficient for 7th place overall if the car had been eligible for classification and beaten only by six Ferraris! So the prize was claimed at the first attempt and Rover promised to come back the following year, this time though the car would have to conform to the regulations. In the photo below taken at the finish, John can be seen holding Richie Ginther's special seat insert.
For 1964, a far prettier and sleeker coupé with a drag coefficient of 0.32, designed by Bill Towns, appeared at the test weekend, albeit unpainted again. Running with the number 26, Graham Hill had been occupied at Aintree on the Saturday so didn't appear on track until Sunday, by which time the weather had deteriorated to such a point that no meaningful times could be set. A few days prior to race week scrutineering, the coupé was withdrawn. Several reasons were mooted, the official line being the car was damaged in transit on the return journey from the test weekend (this is still the reason quoted at the Gaydon Museum, where the car now resides). The real reason was that the car just simply wasn't ready, with fuel consumption still a problem despite the prescence of the heat exchanger by then. Rover committed there and then to coming back the following year.
The car duly reappeared in 1965, still with the same body. The coupé had been built in '64 around an improved version of the BRM chassis and looked resplendent in green, bearing number 35 for the test, but number 31 for the race.
Richie Ginther had gone to drive for Honda in Formula 1 and had been replaced by a very talented young individual by the name of Jackie Stewart. Now running in the 'under 2.0 litre' prototype class proper (had the A.C.O. adopted the F.I.A. equivalency regulations published a short time after their own, the car would have been in the 'under 1.6 litre' class), the car was quoted as developing 126bhp, with a top speed of 142mph.
For the testing weekend, Hill & Stewart were both involved in a Formula 2 race at Snetterton on the Saturday, arriving at Le Mans for the Sunday only.
Come race week, the car had acquired two large air intakes, one either side of the upper rear body
For the first time in the race's history, the scheduled practice sessions had to be cancelled due to massive storms, with flooding at several parts of the circuit together with gales blowing down trees! Qualifying took place on the Saturday morning.
The car started steadily enough, but early on the Saturday evening, Graham Hill brought the car in for an unscheduled stop with severe overheating. The 14 minute stop must have seemed like an eternity to all those involved with the project. The problem was traced to damaged compressor vanes, with one tip lost and two others bent caused by a 'foreign body' entering the intake which led to a very high jet pipe temperature. As a result the car continued, but with power reduced by 13%, although still good enough for a top speed of 131mph.
Despite this setback, the car managed to finish 10th overall, with the target of drastically reduced fuel consumption achieved, from 7 mpg in '63 to 13.5 mpg in '65.
This was as far as Rover went as the whole project, road car development included, was dropped shortly after. Gas turbines did reappear at Le Mans in 1968 in the shape of the Howmets, but with little success. A proposed collaboration between Lotus and their main F1 sponsor, Essex Petroleum, could have seen another turbine car at Le Mans in the early 1980s. David Thième of Essex had asked Colin Chapman to investigate the possibility, so Chapman turned to Tony Rudd, who was now working for Lotus. Initial thoughts were to utilise a Rolls-Royce turbine, but the well documented (at the time) financial problems that beset Thième laid the project to rest.
BRM engines appeared at Le Mans in 1966 and 1967 in the pretty Matra MS620s and 630s, but the name did not then appear again at Le Mans until 1992 when John Mangoletsi persuaded the Owen Group to give its backing to the P351 3.5litre sports prototype. Alas the car did not fare well and suffered from insufficient development time, qualifying a lowly 23rd out of only 28 starters (13th in class). Wayne Taylor started and completed only 20 laps, by which time the gearbox had already been rebuilt after 12 laps and the car officially retired with refuelling problems just before the six hour mark.
In 1997, the P351 had become the P301 (photo right, courtesy of Pilbeam Racing) and was now an open topped prototype. Now run by the Pacific team which had bowed out of an unsuccessful Formula 1 foray the previous year, the car actually had a Nissan engine, but was officially entered as a BRM by virtue of the chassis. The car made it through a tough pre-qualifying weekend and qualified 19th out of 48 (10th in class).
The car was the first official retirement of the race having managed only 26 minutes when that Nissan engine blew.