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SNAPSHOT 404: 1956 Renault “Étoile Filante”

On 22 June 1956 Renault presented their new turbine car, the Étoile Filante (Shooting Star) at the Montlhéry track. They took pains to explain that, unlike the Fiat Turbina of 1954, it was not a concept car but a serious experimental car to investigate the possibilities for future use of gas-turbine power for road vehicles. The story of the Étoile Filante started in 1954 when the manufacturer of aeronautical turbines Turbomeca proposed that Renault should make an experimental gas-turbine car, both to promote the benefits of the technology and to make an attempt at the world speed record for such vehicles.

Turbomeca were founded in 1938 by the aero engine designers Joseph Szydlowski and André Planiol, following the granting of their patent application for a supercharger during the previous year. This used an axial rather than the usual centrifugal compressor. Hispano-Suiza immediately ordered a demonstrator to equip its 12 Y engine, which was used on the MS 405 C1 fighter, among others. Assisted by French government support for rearmament, Turbomeca expanded rapidly: they made 18 compressors in 1938, 300 in 1939 and 1,200 in 1940. In 1941, a larger site was acquired in Bordes near Pau in southern France, but in November 1942 Szydlowski fled to neutral Switzerland and production stalled. Allied forces liberated the region in August 1944 and Szydlowski returned to Bordes to help revive Turbomeca. They achieved renown as manufacturers of low- and medium-power gas turbine turboshaft engines, principally for helicopters. From 1955 their Artouste II turboshaft engine powered the Sud Aviation Alouette II helicopter (the first production turbine-powered helicopter in the world).

Renault created the Étoile Filante and tested it in a wind tunnel between 1954 and 1955. In 1956, after the June presentation, Jean Hébert and a Renault Team went off to the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah for speed tests. The car reached an average speed of 191.0 mph, achieving a world record for turbine-engine cars. These speed tests also helped promote sales of Renault’s newest car in the United States, the Dauphine. The Étoile Filante later appeared at motor shows all over the world. In the early 1960s, however, enthusiasm for gas turbines among car makers ended (Fiat worked on their car from 1948 to 1954, Rover’s research spanned the period 1946 to 1965 and Chrysler had prototypes running from the 1950s to 1964.) Renault therefore did not make a second car, and its speed record was neglected.

In the mid-1990s Renault decided to restore the car. They completely dismantled it at their Billancourt factory in Paris, respraying the chassis and repairing the engine. In front of the waiting crowd, the car was fired up and moved under its own power for the first time since 1956. It is now part of Renault’s Historical Cars Collection.

In 2016, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Étoile Filante‘s 1956 record run, the car was fitted with an electric motor and brought back to the Bonneville Salt Flats with Nicolas Prost, son of Alain Prost, at the wheel.

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