Fiat's Amazing Turbine Car
During the early 1950s, the adoption of turbine engines revolutionized the aviation industry. Smooth and powerful, the gas turbine soon tempted many automobile manufacturers into investigating potential applications for road vehicles.
Given Rover's wartime work on Frank Whittle's jet engine idea, it's not surprising that the British automaker was the first to show the public a car powered by a gas turbine, the "Jet 1," in 1950.
Fending off competition
Not wanting to be left behind on what could become the dominant technology for the future, Italy's largest automaker Fiat launched a gas-turbine research project under the direction of Dante Giacosa and Oscar Montabone, then-director of Fiat's research department.
At this point, it's worth pointing out that the initiative was independent of Fiat's aero division and aimed to build a smaller turbine engine optimized for a motor vehicle application, gaining valuable experience that would better place Fiat to compete with foreign industry in the field of small turbines, should that need ever arise.
It took Fiat about five years of studies to develop the technology for constructing a high-speed turbine capable of withstanding the rapid and violent variations in thermal regimes occurring in automotive use.
The result was the Fiat 8001 gas turbine engine, for which the company estimated an output of 200 HP at 22.000 Rpm. That may not sound like a lot today, but back then, there weren't many cars that could match that.
It consisted of a two-stage compressor and a two-stage turbine, plus a drive turbine connected to a gear reduction system transmitting power to the wheels, without a conventional clutch and gearbox.
The complete powerplant, which first ran in January 1953, was then installed amidship on a tubular chassis fitted with independent front and rear suspensions, whose parallel-wishbone design was similar to those used for the front end of the contemporary Fiat 8V sports coupé.
Doin' it in style
Contrary to Rover, which settled for a chopped P4 saloon body for its "Jet 1" prototype, Fiat went the extra mile to ensure its turbine prototype looked just as exotic as its powerplant suggested.
The bodywork was designed by Fabio Luigi Rapi, and particular attention was given to aerodynamic efficiency, studied using a 1:5 scale model in the wind tunnel of Turin's Polytechnic university, posting a record drag coefficient of 0.14.
To enhance directional stability at high speed, the design integrated two tall, squared tailfins, while the car's purely experimental purpose permitted to do without headlights and taillights.
The car was completed in early April of 1954, less than two weeks before its scheduled public debut at the Turin Motor Show.
The first drive by Fiat's senior test driver Carlo Salamano took place on the Lingotto's rooftop test track, which was far too short and tight to exploit the prototype's considerable potential.
Fiat's turbine car then reached a top speed of 260 km/h during subsequent tests held on the runway of Turin's Caselle airport, where the prototype, wearing a striking red-on-white livery, made its successful debut in front of the international press on April the 23rd, 1954.
That made Fiat the second automaker to ever demonstrate a running turbine-powered car in public, much to the satisfaction of everyone involved, especially technical director Dante Giacosa.
However, much work remained to be done to make the 8001 engine reliable and efficient enough, and it soon became apparent that it still had a long way to go before being suitable for a production automobile.
Development work on the Turbina prototype was abandoned around 1956, but thankfully, the unique Fiat Turbina was spared the grim fate experimental cars usually meet once they're no longer needed.
Instead, it was donated to Turin's National Automobile Museum, where it's been on permanent display ever since.