Aero-engined cars? It takes a special kind of madness

  • 45-litre oil tank is slung under the left-hand manifold. Inset: diff cooler Credit: Nigel Curling
  • Central seating position was forced by powertrain positioning Credit: Nigel Curling
Date:30 July 2013 Author: Anthony Doman Tags:, , ,

A 27-litre V12 based on a WWII warbird engine? Wheelspin up to 250 km/h? Works for us…

It takes a special kind of madness to shoehorn a 27-litre V12 World War II powerplant into a car’s engine bay… and who knows what to actually drive the thing. Few, outside of madcap racers, have managed it successfully – but locals are set to experience the thrills as South Africa’s second low flyer nears completion.

The spectacular Lucy that has recently begun shattering the peace in Gauteng should soon be joined by Cape Town’s Rothay Special.

Clive Woolley and son Bruce, of Randburg, spent four years between 2009 and 2013 creating Lucy. Both Woolleys have a long history in performance cars, but even for them Lucy exceeds what most would call sane. What started as a 1933 Rolls-Royce and a V12 Liberty tank engine came together in the marriage from heaven, or hell, depending on your attitude towards climate change. With those 12 cylinders – each of about 2,2 litres capacity – ripping into the atmosphere (and nearby eardrums) via 12 stubby unmuffled exhausts, this is about as politically incorrect as it gets for a machine.

Where did this crazy idea start? Well, way back between the World Wars, when speed freaks began installing ex-military aero engines in cars. It helped that the cars at the time were generally massive ladder-framed affairs – essentially, like today’s LCVs. The most noted exponent was Count Louis Zborowski’s four colourful Chitty Bang Bang specials. It didn’t take long for these kinds of designs to go racing, notably on the banked highspeed Brooklands circuit in England. This couldn’t last, given the little matter of a war, the expense, the lunatic performance and the minor drawbacks of totally inadequate braking and aerodynamics. Still, some enthusiasts weren’t to be denied (see “Let’s shred some tar”).

Lucy’s power output of about 335 kilowatts doesn’t sound much, compared with some of today’s heavy hitters. It’s when you look at its torque figure of 1 550 N.m that you realise things could get, um, out of hand – particularly given the overall weight of just 1 820 kg. It helps that the car doesn’t have any bodywork as such.

Inside Story: Lucy
Engine: 1943 Liberty V12
Capacity: 27 litres
Output: 335 kW, 1 550 N.m
Maximum revs: 1 650
Gearbox: Bedford
Diff: Leyland, 1,7:1
Chassis: Rolls-Royce
Running gear: Rolls-Royce
Weight: 1 520 kg
Radiator” Silverton
Bodywork: None planned
Build period: 2009-2013

The Woolleys’ stripped-down approach is radically different to that of a Cape Town man who has entered the home stretch with his own homebuilt monster. The diffident enthusiast – he prefers to be called simply by his nickname, Rusty – has spent the past six years chasing a dream that from time to time has turned into a nightmare.

Rusty’s dream began taking shape on a visit to England, his interest piqued by a magazine article about an ex-WWII Hawker Hurricane Merlin engine in a car called the Handlye Special. When the Special burst into ear-splitting life in the obliging owner’s garage, that was it: Rusty had to build one. It wasn’t entirely an illogical decision: he had built up a palette of skills putting together sundry items of furniture, a ferrocement yacht and a roadster based on a Jaguar 4.2.

He managed to find a Meteor, the unsupercharged version of the Merlin that was used in tanks (in any case, the Merlin’s bulky supercharger would have spoilt the car’s lines). His Meteor came out with a consignment of 100 Centurion tanks in 1952, possibly as a spare, and was sold at military surplus. Amazingly, it looks pristine and indications are that it was never used.

Rusty calls his car Rothay Special after a memorable holiday in that part of England’s Lake District nearly five decades ago. The chassis is based on his Jaguar roadster’s, which he reckons is significantly stiffer than the Handlye’s flexy Rolls-Royce basis. In the four years of construction to date, he has done much of the fabrication. “When you build a car like this, just about everything has to be handmade. You can’t just walk into a shop and say, I need this or that part. You’ve got to design and build everything.”

The staggered 3-seater configuration with a central driving position was dictated by a combination of narrow chassis, leaving no room for feet next to the bellhousing, as well as the need for two propshafts. One shaft is used at the back as usual and one between gearbox and engine because there is no way of mounting a bellhousing on the engine. The drivetrain layout resulted in extra body length and, says Rusty, “I thought I would put in two extra seats behind the drive to put in two paying passengers.” It will be some ride: with a gearbox that steps revs up by 1:2,77, he is confident of clearing 200 miles per hour – about 330 km/h. “Assuming that the car does not take off, of course.” Because of all the torque (2 000 N.m), wheelspin up to about 250 km/h should be expected. Fortunately, the engine won’t be under immense stress: “At 160 miles an hour, it will be doing 2 000 r/min.”

The Rothay has five radiators, two gearboxes and a dry sump lubrication system with a 45-litre oil tank to cope with its prodigious thirst of up to 4,5 litres of oil per hour. Its cylinder block that expands by a centimetre when hot, requiring a sliding exhaust manifold and engine mounts with moving front supports. Aircraft didn’t have this problem (they used separate exhaust pipes) and tanks used a water-cooled engine cradle that limited expansion. The car’s aluminium bodywork will be crafted in Stellenbosch by English wheel master Barry Ashmole. It will have a period 1930s look, with a boat tail and forward-sloping front, matched by locally cast 21 x 7 inch aluminium disc wheels wearing bespoke rubber from Blockley Tyres in the UK.

Rusty plans to use the car in hillclimbs, racetrack demonstration runs and, closest to his heart, for use in Reach For A Dream. He even talks of setting endurance speed records over 6 hours, though given South Africa’s lack of a 240 km/h plus oval track and estimated fuel consumption of around 50 litres/100 km, that will take some doing…

Inside story: Rothay Special
Engine: Rolls-Royce Meteor V12
Capacity: 27 litres
Output: 500 kW, 2 550 N.m
Maximum revs: 2 550
Gearbox: GM TH 400
Chassis: Space frame, custom
Running gear: Jaguar XJ 12
Weight: 2 000 kg
Bodywork: aluminium
Build period: 2009-present

From air to road
The 12-cylinder Liberty aero engine, conceived in 1917 after the US entered World War 1, was built by several manufacturers, including General Motors and Ford. It was developed into an L-12 for tank use, which developed 250 kW and was built under licence in Britain as well.

The 1930s Merlin V12 aircraft engine, famously used in the Spitfire fighter and Lancaster bomber, was adapted for tank use by the removal of its supercharger and propeller-related equipment. The more rugged result, called Meteor, was made using cheaper techniques, steel in some areas instead of aluminium, and could run on normal petrol. Power output of about 500 kW was significantly down on the aero engine’s.

Let’s shred some tar
The Beast, Mefistofele, Chitty Bang Bang… and Babs? Just some of the colourful monikers of the legendary cars that took aero-engine tech to the roads. Innovative solutions had to be found, records were set and – inevitably – lives were lost.

In 1924, Sir Ernest Eldridge drove Mefistofele (above) to a land world land speed record of 235 km/h in France – said to have been the last such mark set on a public road. Its six-cylinder 21,7-litre Fiat A.12 aero engine got the power to the road by chain drive and the story goes that Eldridge cannibalised a London bus to get the long engine to fit.

Two years later, with John Parry-Thomas at the wheel, Babs set a record of 273,6 km/h. The car was the fourth of Count Louis Zborowski’s Chitty Bang Bang specials, used a 27-litre 340-kW Liberty L-12 engine and raced at Brooklands. After Zborowski’s death Parry-Thomas bought the car, renamed it Babs and rebuilt it for his record. He was killed while making another record attempt at Pendine Sands in Wales, where the car was subsequently buried. It was “exhumed” after 40 years and restored to running order.

After World War II, similar cars continued to be built – more for pleasure than for racing, it seems. The Beast certainly provided a colourful 1960s episode involving a lawsuit with Rolls-Royce over the use of its characteristic grille and trademark on a glass fibre car that looked like a Ford Capri station wagon, with a WWI Hawker Hurricane Merlin engine under the bonnet. The Beast is currently in the stable of our regular US columnist Jay Leno, who owns four aero engined machines. Jay wrote most recently (November 2012, see below) about his 1917 Fiat Botafogo Special, one of three in his collection with a World War I engine. This car was built as a copy of Sir Ernest Eldridge’s record-setting Fiat Mefistofele. Its Fiat aero engine peaks at just 240 kW, but produces massive torque. The car was used for racing, but originally, didn’t have brakes or a transmission.

Video: Watch the flame-belching Lucy take to the road
Blog: Aero-engined car nears the finish