1978 Chevrolet Corvette Turbine Track Drive
The Day I Was Completely Blown Away: Driving Not One But Two Turbine-Powered Vehicles
Doing what we do -- driving cars for a living -- means we often get the opportunity to climb behind the wheel of some unique vehicles. I have driven quite a few memorable machines, but no matter how old, rare, exotic, or expensive they were, all of them shared one thing in common: an internal combustion engine. Which is why when I was invited to drive a turbine-powered vehicle -- and not just any vehicle, but a 1978 Corvette designed and built by Vince Granatelli, son of automotive mastermind Andy Granatelli -- I jumped at the chance.
So how did the Jet-Vette come to be? Simple. One of Andy's buddies asked him to build a really fast car for him. Andy had an old turbine engine from one of his dad's 1968 Indy race cars. He needed a car with a long nose to accommodate the engine, so the Corvette was a perfect choice. Put the two together, and there you have it: an 880-hp, turbine-powered street-legal road car. Simple enough.
Actually, it wasn't simple at all. The entire front end, from the firewall forward, of the C3 Corvette had to be modified to accommodate the Pratt & Whitney ST6N-74 gas turbine engine. This engine spins at 37,500 rpm, which is a bit much even for the modified Turbo 400 automatic transmission Granatelli was going to use. So in lieu of a torque converter, he installed a transfer case, dropping the revs to a more manageable 6,230 rpm. With all that go, you're going to have to stop, too, so massive ventilated, NASCAR-style brakes were used at all four corners. This car basically idles at 60 mph. Anything slower than that, and you're riding the brakes
Although the exterior doesn't give many indications that a turbine engine powers this vehicle, sans the gas turbine badging and JETCAR license plate, the interior definitely hints at what you're getting into. The standard dash gauges have been replaced with classic analog aircraft gauges, and the center stack gets "modern" (modern for the '70s or '80s) digital aircraft gauges. The fuel cutoff, start, and igniter buttons just above the shifter are a bit of a tell, as well.
As mentioned, we did get to drive it. In fact, this is actually the second time someone from Motor Trend has driven this car. We first drove and tested this exact car in a November 1979 story. And being able to drive this car was simply amazing. Not because of the speed attained or the lap time achieved, because we didn't really go very fast, but because I was driving a turbine-powered car, something I had never driven before, and I always like to drive new things. We had to follow instructions from our co-pilot, but on the back straight of the oval at Auto Club Speedway, we were encouraged to flat-foot it, which I happily did. To say there was a lag in response is an understatement, and once the engine did spool, it wasn't what you would expect from something producing 880 hp and more than 1,000 lb-ft of torque, but that didn't matter at all. It was the sheer experience.
Although all of us were invited to drive the Jet-Vette, a few of us got an unexpected surprise when we arrived at the track. We were informed that not only were we going to drive the Jet-Vette, but we were also going to get to drive the 1968 #70, AWD, Indy 500 pole-sitting, qualifying record-setting, Andy Granatelli- and Colin Chapman-built Lotus turbine Indy race car, driven by none other than the legendary Graham Hill. It was almost too much awesomeness to take in all at once.
This car only competed in one race, the 1968 Indy 500, crashing out and damaging the left rear suspension on the 110th lap. After the race, the damage was repaired using the original parts, and the car went on display at the STP headquarters for nearly 30 years in the exact condition it left the track in 1968. In 1996 the car was given to NASCAR legend Richard Petty as a thank-you for all of his years representing and winning for the STP Company. Petty owned the car for more than 15 years, until Milton Verret, a Texas car collector, bought the car and promptly ordered a ground-up restoration.
Verret enlisted Clive Chapman, son of Colin Chapman, and Vince Granatelli, son of Andy Granatelli, to oversee the complete restoration of the #70 Lotus to its original 1968 specs. All the original parts were used. Nothing was remanufactured, and after 1,250 hours of work, the job was complete, making it probably the most original, complete race car on the planet. Think about that for a minute. The car was set up for the 1968 Indy 500, crashed in the race, was repaired immediately, went on display, and never raced again. Every part on the car is as it was in 1968 -- the parts have just been polished, straightened, and painted. And I was going to drive it. I still can't wrap my head around what I got to experience.
I'm kind of a big guy at 6-foot, 3-inches and 200 pounds, and race cars are not meant for people my size. Once I shoehorned myself into the drivers seat, knees digging into the dash, they had to take my shoes off so my feet could operate the throttle and brake. More specifically, so my right foot could fit between the throttle and safety loop designed so the driver could physically pull the throttle up if it stuck for some reason.
After I was strapped in, they began the startup sequence. Hearing and feeling that engine start to spool was an experience itself. I anxiously sat in the cockpit, the turbine whirring behind my head waiting to be released. Unlike the 'Vette's turbine that idled at around 60 percent, the Indy car idled at around 90 percent, so as soon as I got the good to go and lifted my foot off the brake, the car shot down pit road without having to even touch the throttle. We of course had to follow a car on our one lap around the oval, but somehow I managed to fall back quite a bit on the back straight, affording me the opportunity to put my foot in it a little bit. And just a little bit it was because shortly after opening it up, the front end began to shake violently with the steering wheel almost being pulled out of my hands. This can be attributed to a few things -- alignment or wheel balance -- but it didn't matter. I just lifted and completed my unforgettable lap.
This is the only time so far that I can think of that it didn't matter how I got to drive a car. All that mattered was that I got to drive it. Not many can say they've driven a turbine-powered car, period, let alone driven the 1978 Corvette turbine built by Andy Granatelli, and even fewer still the #70 STP Lotus Indy car that was piloted for its one and only race by one of the smoothest cats to ever turn a wheel, Graham Hill. And I've driven both.
To add one more level to the amazing factor, both cars will be auctioned off at the Barrett-Jackson collector car auction this weekend in Scottsdale, Arizona. I can't wait to see how my story about one of the coolest days I have ever had ends.