Starting the only known street-legal, jet-engined Corvette is easy. Push the buttons on the console to turn on the igniters inside the Pratt & Whitney turbine (assuming you’ve put jet A fuel into the tank, although it will run on nearly anything that burns.) Engage the starter so the turbines begin spinning up to 30,000 rpm. Push in a T-handle that looks like a choke from a 1940s sedan, and once the engine’s at speed, turn the igniters off. Don’t worry — you’ll know when it’s running by the sound of a jet surrounding you.
The Jet Vette was the creation of Andy and Vince Granatelli, created in 1978 a decade after Andy Granatelli had nearly won the Indianapolis 500 with the most radical race car of its age: four-wheel-drive, Lotus-built turbine cars. The only turbine Lotus in private hands — the 1968 Lotus 56-3 — and the Jet Vette will go up for sale on Jan. 17 at Barrett-Jackson’s auction in Scottsdale, and even amid an event numbering 1,400 cars, the Granatelli turbine duo stands out.
Rare pieces of automotive history that may soon sell for seven figures aren’t often given to journalists to drive. But Milton Verret, the Austin, Texas, collector who’s selling the pair, had no qualms about putting his prizes on a track in California and letting strangers take the wheel — albeit with lots of guidance. After all, that was one of the reasons turbines were once thought of as the next big step in personal transportation; once up to speed they were dead simple, and with far fewer moving parts than a gas engine, likely to last far longer.
Granatelli, the former chairman of STP who used racing in the ’50s and ’60s to make the company famous, had a lifelong desire to race and win the Indy 500. His first turbine car — nicknamed “the whoosh-mobile” by Speedway wags — came within a few laps of the checkered flag in 1967, when a $6 bearing failed. Despite a rule change by organizers meant to make Granatelli’s turbines uncompetitive, he returned in 1968 with another set of Lotus cars, and for the first time in any racer, an aerodynamic wedge shape. The Lotus 56 broke the Indy 500 qualifying record that year with a speed of 171 mph, and two paced the field.
This one, the Lotus 56-3, was being driven by Graham Hill when it lost a wheel on lap 110; the other two would suffer driveshaft failures on lap 191. The next year, Indy banned turbines altogether; this Lotus would sit in STP’s headquarters for decades until it was given to NASCAR driver Richard Petty, and then bought by Verret.
By 1978, Vince Granatelli was a car builder in his own right at his Pit Stop Service shop in California, and when a wealthy customer asked for something unique, Granatelli looked to one of the four Pratt & Whitney turbines he had left over from his father’s forays at Indy. The Corvette was the only vehicle available with a nose long enough to hold a turbine, and since the rest of the car was built for high horsepower, Granatelli set to work.
While the body of the Jet Vette is mostly stock save for the nose cap, the rest of the chassis had to be transformed to handle 880 hp and massive heat from the turbine. At speed, the turbine spins at 67,000 rpm; Granatelli used a special reduction gear mated to a GM Turbo 400 automatic transmission to manage the 1,100 ft-lbs of torque. At idle, the Jet Vette can do 60 mph, so it’s equipped with NASCAR disk brakes to hold the car at launch. And the exhaust comes out a custom diffuser that spans the width of the Vette; if you stand behind the back bumper for more than, say, 30 seconds, you’ll have found a new way to take the hair off your legs.
What’s it like to drive? When it was in the wild, the Jet Vette was known for hitting 60 mph in 3 seconds or less. Now that it’s up for sale, Verret’s guests weren’t allowed full-speed launches, but the experience feels less like a car and more like steering a plane readying to lift off — with that turbine cocooning you in its aural wake. The throttle lag spans several Mississippis between squishing the pedal and the arrival of thrust, and even with the racing brakes, driving this car on the street would almost require a scouting party for navigation.
Verret, watching the drives from the pits, says he “felt like it was just time to let someone else enjoy” the Granatellis’ work. Turbines turned out to be an evolutionary dead end in automobiles, but as a pair, the Granatelli cars reflect some brilliant engineering — and, in the right hands, they can still roar like a living dinosaur.