It’s not every day—actually, it’s never—that someone trusts us to sit in and drive a zillion-dollar antique car, much less a genuine artifact of racing history, much less one capable of turning a 171-mph lap at Indy. Yet here was the actual platypus-shaped Lotus 56-3 turbine car in which Graham Hill set a qualifying lap record and ran fourth before crashing at the 1968 Indianapolis 500. Previous owners include Andy Granatelli and Richard Petty, a pretty strong lineage. Yet here it is, waiting for our pie-padded duffs to slide in and take a couple laps of California Speedway before heading to auction at this month’s Barrett-Jackson sale in Scottsdale, Arizona. In our business, this is what qualifies as a good day.
Perhaps you know the history and perhaps you don’t, but seeing the Lotus and the accompanying 1978 Granatelli “Jet-Vette” sitting on pit lane at Cal Speedway was a once-a-lifetime moment, especially with Colin Chapman’s son, Clive, personally giving us the walkaround. “My father thought the turbine was fantastic,” says Clive, standing over the knee-high 56, shorn of its bodywork to reveal the keg-shaped engine behind the cramped seat that is surrounded by fuel tanks. “Buy one engine and use it the entire season. He got tired of paying large bills to Cosworth; he would get very upset about that.”
Fresh from a complete restoration at Classic Team Lotus, which Clive Chapman runs and which sits across the street from the factory in Hethel, the Lotus 56 we were about to drive looked immaculate in its blood-orange STP livery, a time traveller from a distant, more adventurous age when every convention was being challenged in psychedelic Technicolor.
The 350,000 or so people who attended the 1968 Indy 500 could feel the earth shifting under their grandstands. The year before, Parnelli Jones had strolled away from the field in his bulbous, four-wheel-drive STP-Paxton turbine car until a transmission bearing failed with just eight miles to go. Team owner Andy Granatelli, the rough-hewn founder of STP bent on vanquishing an Indy losing streak dating to 1946, was determined to return in ’68 with another car using the pistonless engine everyone was now talking about. However, the U.S. Auto Club, which sanctioned the Indy 500, was bent on stopping turbines, or at least drastically slowing them down by reducing the allowed area for inlet ducts. If Granatelli was going to win the 500 with a turbine, 1968 was likely his last chance.
Why Reciprocate When You Could Simply Spin?
In the 1960s, it seems like every guy with a wild idea was taken seriously. The revolution overthrowing music, art, science, and engineering put the piston engine, that ancient stalwart of motorized propulsion, firmly in the crosshairs. Why reciprocate, with all the vibration and inefficiency inherent in stopping and reversing the path of fast-moving pistons, plus all the complexity involved in feeding, lubricating, and cooling their cylinders, when you could simply spin?
A byproduct of the jet age with far fewer moving parts, turbines had already largely displaced pistons in the skies. Five turbines making 60,000 horsepower each went to the edge of space serving as fuel pumps on the Saturn V’s first stage, and Chrysler had built 55 street-legal turbine hardtops to prove that they could safely and reliably run on roads.
Andy Granatelli had plowed significant proceeds from his STP sales (originally an acronym for Scientifically Treated Petroleum, but which he liked to joke stood for “sex takes practice”) into developing the 1967 STP-Paxton. He now allied with the premier race-car builder at the time, Colin Chapman, to evolve the design for 1968.
Chapman, that famous minimalist, thought it wiser to place the turbine behind the driver rather than next to him, as in the STP-Paxton. That substantially narrowed the car’s profile, as did eliminating the requirement for a radiator opening, a huge benefit of using the self-cooling turbine. The result was a spoon-billed nose that reduced aerodynamic lift and made the Lotus 56 look unlike anything else racing at the time.
The Canadian-built Pratt & Whitney ST6N-74 turbine, originally a variation of an airborne turbine but intended for stationary power generation, made 500 horsepower with a peak shaft speed set at 19,500 rpm. But because the engine’s powerband was so broad and flexible, a simple one-speed gear-reduction transmission on the output shaft was all that was required, giving the 56 a very compact, simple, and lightweight powerplant. To the left of the driver, forward and aft propshafts exit the transmission to take torque to the front and rear axles, which split it about evenly—nobody can remember the exact ratio.
Driving the 56
Most ordinary people are too fat for most single-seat racers, and the 56 proves the rule. You carefully step over the side onto the seat, then use both arms to lower your fanny into the butt pocket as your feet slide forward, inevitably snagging on the low-hanging front axle. Eventually they reach the two wide pedals—just gas and brake, like a go-kart—as your shoulders sink down, the bodywork creaking ominously as it flexes to accommodate your un-Graham-Hill-like girth. You pull your arms down and in, grab the three-spoke wheel with its amusing little black pad in the center, and you’re home, stuffed in like a meat sausage waiting to be barbecued by all the kerosene fuel sloshing around you.
It’ll be a quick drive, so no real need to learn the strange gauges, which are aircraft-style and include two RPM dials for the compressor and turbine, an air-pressure dial, an air-temperature gauge, and a bunch of oil temperature gauges for the turbine and transmission lubricants. A battery cart is wheeled over, buttons for the starter and igniter are pushed, a T-handle is pulled to open the fuel flow, and a slowly rising scream erupts behind you as shimmering heat waves gush from the air outlet behind the driver.
The strangest thing about the Lotus 56 is that it’s all sound and no vibration, as if an enormous Dolby speaker powers the car. You release the brake and off it goes on some kind of magnetic force field. At idle, the 56 will accelerate to about 70 mph, which is more or less as fast as the car’s current owner, Austin, Texas, marketing consultant Milton Verret, would like us to go. A Lotus Exige will set the pace, preventing anyone from attempting a racing speed on the car’s 45-year-old tires.
The brake pedal does most of the work during our drive, holding the car back. However, a few licks at the gas pedal shows that the turbine responds lazily to throttle inputs, a phenomenon long familiar to jet pilots who are trained to think ahead of the engine. That gives the 56 the initial feeling of an old Mercedes turbo-diesel with lots of lag. However, once the turbine’s speed builds and the air starts really moving through the engine, the 56 lurches up to takeoff speed.
At around 100 mph, the steering wheel is jiggling in our hands nervously from the old, rock-hard rubber, so our practical speed limit has been reached. But the sensation of skimming along the high banks inches above the asphalt, those giant tires turning in front of you about where your ankles are and the turbine screaming from the rear, sends you right back to the Brickyard. Race this thing for 500 miles? Sure, no problem. It’s a pussycat.
Entering the pits, the T-handle is pulled and the turbine immediately shuts off, #70 coasting silently to its parking spot. As vintage racers go, this would be a killer toy. With no clutch and a highly tractable engine that will turn perhaps thousands of laps before needing an overhaul, the 56’s ratio of spectacle to fussiness is highly favorable. Whooshing along like a pilot in the Klingon air force, the new owner will be the undisputed star of any vintage meet while having a car that is far more simple and easy to drive than its piston-powered contemporaries.
This 56 was a one-race car, ending its career on Lap 110 when a wheel fell off and it crashed into the wall. The car was sent back to Lotus for repairs before starting its next life as a museum piece. Granatelli ran multiple turbine cars in 1968, but didn’t win the Indy 500 with any of them, his front-running driver Joe Leonard having dropped out with just nine laps to go with a snapped fuel-pump shaft. After that, USAC basically eliminated turbines from competition by further choking down the allowed air duct size.
The car is expected to cross the block at Barrett-Jackson in primetime on Saturday, January 17. The auction company has supplied no estimate for the sale price.
And Now for the Jet-Vette: From Revolutionary to Just Loony
A full decade had passed since Andy Granatelli’s turbine blitzkrieg at Indy when the phone rang at son Vincent Granatelli’s shop, Pit Stop Service, in Van Nuys, California. A good customer, Herb Orlowitz, the owner of an executive-jet leasing company and two of Vince’s cars, wanted another fast machine. Granatelli, who had built two cars for Orlowitz already, offered to sell him one of the four Lotus 56 Indy race cars, but Orlowitz wanted something he could drive on the street.
Well, Granatelli happened to have four extra turbine engines left over from the Indy program. One crazy idea led to another and Orlowitz found himself with a 1978 Chevy Corvette fitted with an 880-hp turbine engine. Nobody ever disclosed the final cost, but it’s rumored to have been around $750,000. Current owner Verret will say only that he outbid Reggie Jackson for the car in 1981 with a bid of $550,000. This is one expensive Plastic Fantastic.
Performance claims of zero-to-60 in 3.6 seconds were not going to be tested today, as we cruised around California Speedway at a leisurely 100 mph or so for a couple of laps, the Jet-Vette being exactly how we imagine it’s like to taxi an F-16.
The Pratt & Whitney ST6B turbine is almost three times longer than the Vette’s stock 350, but the Vette’s inherently long nose allows it to fit, just. A gear-reduction gearbox on the back of the engine takes the peak shaft speed of 37,500 rpm down to a more manageable 6230 rpm, and the torque is then routed through an upgraded GM TH400 three-speed automatic. Plumbing the exhaust was a challenge, as the Vette’s single turbine puts out the exhaust volume of four contemporary Indy cars running at full throttle. That much airflow required fitting an exhaust pipe that is two to three inches tall and the width of the entire car itself, and it runs from the engine bay to the terminus of the rear bumper.
A sort of disc brake stands in for the torque converter. It’s vital to have your foot firmly on the brake when you slip the lever down to drive and the brake grabs. When you do, the Vette’s rear end jerks down into a squat. Lift the brake and off you go, up to 70 mph without even touching the gas. The turbine’s inclination to idle at such high speed means the Vette needed good brakes, so Granatelli fit 12.2-inch discs front and rear. Hence the big wheels.
As in the Lotus 56 Indy car, the swooshing turbine takes its time to spool up, but once it does, the Vette moves out with the urgency of, well, a modern Corvette. However, the Jet-Vette’s noise is both oppressive and fantastic, and it makes you wonder if Batman ever worries about pissing off his neighbors. Driving the Vette around in everyday traffic would be a challenge best tackled once every other month or so. You’d be braking constantly to keep it from rushing into the car in front of you, all the while trying to avoid distracted drivers who are scanning the sky for the 737 about to fall on them. This is not a vehicle you’d want to be in while tipsy or remotely sleepy, and your city council may ban it outright as being a violation of local sound regulations.