Driving a jet-powered Corvette

This is the world's only jet Corvette
This is the world's only jet Corvette

From the outside, it looks like a 1978 Chevrolet Corvette with a custom paint job and some fancy wheels. But it also rides weirdly high off the ground -- to make room for massive rectangular exhaust pipes.

But it's when the engine starts that you know there's something really weird about this car. The sound of a jet engine fills the air as heat ripples blur the pavement behind it where that hot exhaust is pouring out.

This Corvette has an 880 horsepower Pratt & Whitney jet engine under the hood.

It's not really a jet-powered car, strictly speaking. It's a turbine car. It's not pushed through the air by the exhaust coming out the back. Instead, the rapidly spinning jet turbine spins a crankshaft that drives the car's back wheels.

And I got to drive it.

In fact, my experience behind the wheel of this bizarre automobile clinched my membership in a very, very small club.

I'm one of the very few people on earth to have driven two different turbine powered automobiles. The other, which I drove just a couple months before, was a 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car.

Both cars were perfectly legal to drive on public roads, but the Chrysler, of which 55 were built, felt absolutely ordinary compared to the one-and-only Jet Vette.

While the Chrysler Turbine car was once lent out to ordinary American families to drive for weeks at a time, the Jet Vette was created for the son of a racing team owner as his own personal insanity project. Clearly, Vince Granatelli did not intend to hand the keys to just anyone.

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For one thing, this car goes 65 miles an hour ... at idle. In other words, if you were to put the car in gear and just take your foot off the brake, the car would immediately start accelerating -- pretty fast -- up to 65 miles an hour without you even having to touch the gas pedal. It's basically terrifying unintended acceleration except that it's completely intentional. Fortunately, it's equipped with gigantic brakes like the ones used in Nascar.

Starting it up required turning a key, just like in any other car. That was pretty much it for the "just like any other car" part. After that, I had to pull out the fuel rod and start the igniters. Then check some gauges, press a couple more buttons, then turn off the igniters and push the fuel rod back in. Only then were we ready to go.

This car has a jet engine
This car has a jet engine

As I put the car in gear, the back end dropped down from the pulling force of the engine's torque. (A brake mechanism grabs a flywheel to slow the engine down enough to connect it to the transmission.) Then I let my brake foot up gradually and we were off.

In fact, my foot was on the brake most of the time as I took the car out on the track at Auto Club Speedway. I gently released the pedal as the car built up speed on the oval track. I'd been warned about the dwindling supply of jet fuel and the fact that the tires and suspension were set up for street speeds. On the straights, I gently nudged the car toward 100 miles an hour as the sound of that monstrously hissing jet engine filled my helmet.

jet vette2
The Chevrolet Corvette was the only car with a hood long enough to fit the engine. Still, it needed an entirely new frame.

This car is reportedly capable of going from zero to 60 miles per hour in an insane three seconds, but acceleration once higher speeds were reached seemed relatively sane, if noisy. After we got done the car sat there happily hissing like a dragon with smoke drifting of out its hood vents. I was told that was perfectly normal.

The idea for this car had come from Vince's father, Andy Granatelli's, turbine-driven Lotus race car that almost won Indy in the 1960s. Rule changes quickly made it impossible for turbine cars to compete but the idea seems to have stuck with Vince. A decade later, decided he wanted to put that same sort engine into a street legal automobile. General Motors' (GM) Chevrolet Corvette was only car with a nose big enough to hold it. So that he bought one, brand new, and made this.

Texan Milton Verrett bought it in 1982 for $550,000. Last week, he put it up for sale at the Barrett-Jackson collector car auctions where no-one bid high enough to take it home. So, if you're interested, it's still available.

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