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SNAPSHOT 21: 1956 Renault Étoile Filante


Whilst the make of this car should not present a recognition problem since it is written large upon it, Étoile Filante may see people reaching for a French-English dictionary. To obviate that, the meaning is: ‘Shooting Star’. Renault perhaps selected this descriptive to emphasise that the car was built for speed, but an unintended corollary is that although such fast-moving objects when seen in the night sky can be breath-taking, this is only the case for a brief moment of time. So although this was a distinctive vehicle which flashed across the Bonneville Salt Flats in September 1956 at over 300 kilometres per hour, life quickly moved on and it was soon forgotten.

What made the car so different was not its name but the fact that it was powered by a gas turbine engine made by the Société Turboméca. This was in the period when it was thought that gas turbine, or ‘jet’, power units might have as significant a role to play in the development of both motorcars and commercial vehicles as had already happened in the world of aviation. In Europe Rover led the field, Austin dabbled with the idea, the Socema-Grégoire was a 1952 one-off concept car as was Fiat’s ‘Turbina’ sports-coupé in 1954, and there was this compact streamlined Renault.

Across the Atlantic there had been a gas turbine Kenworth truck in 1950 and General Motors made a number of jet-engined ‘Firebird’ concept cars. Of most interest though is the story of gas turbine passenger cars that the Chrysler Corporation thoroughly explored from 1953 into the 1970s. The 50 examples built of its Ghia-bodied ‘Turbine’ model which were loaned to members of the public from 1963 to 1965 for long-term evaluation is a fascinating episode in itself.

Gas turbine cars also ran on the race tracks both in America and Europe from 1962 until they were finally outlawed in 1971. For anyone interested in that particular saga it is very well covered in Gérard ‘Jabby’ Crombac’s book: Turbine Grand Prix, published in 1989.

As for the Étoile Filante, it was shown at the 1956 Paris Salon and then went into hibernation for around 40 years before being restored. Impressive though it was in its day, quite how Renault were able to justify the “world’s fastest car” tag that they attached to its achievement, only they can explain.

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