W.O. Bentley, the founder of Bentley Motors, once claimed that if you want a faster car you should build a bigger engine. Sounds logical, especially during the early days of car building. This thirst for more power and higher speeds brought forth some of the largest engines ever to be used in cars, with anything from tank motors to airplane engines and even radial engines were used to push speeds to new heights! Fun fact is that these cars weren’t only built in the early years of the automobile, but also today! Let’s meet a few of these monsters with the help of Jay Leno’s Garage.
Jay Leno could be easily considered one of the greatest petrolheads to ever live. The man, of Tonight Show fame and fortune, has been collecting, restoring and driving cars and bikes for many years now, with an estimated collection of over 350 pieces. From steam-powered cars, a turbine-powered bike to modern racers and everything in between, his collection is a real smorgasbord of unique, historical vehicles. Some of these are one-offs, special builds commissioned by Jay Leno himself or added to the collection when it turns up for sale.
Since 2006 Jay Leno has been steadily building his YouTube channel Jay Leno’s Garage, with a weekly episode airing every Monday and TV episodes airing on CNBC Network. He shares some of the most interesting cars from his personal collection but also provides a platform for many other unique cars by collectors, manufacturers, custom-builders, or even museums.
Today we dive into cars Jay Leno owns or featured on the website, fitted with airplane or tank engines. Behemoths with huge power output and sometimes hugely intimidating to drive.
Jay Leno Tank Car “Blastolene Special”
First up is a relatively “new” car, and not necessarily by some prehistoric brand in the twenties and thirties that sparked some of the other giants we’ll cover. This car, known as the Blastolene Special, was built by Randy Grubb, an eccentric American known for his over-the-top, unusual builds. The Blastolene Special, or Leno Tank Car, is a mindboggling thing to behold.
It runs on Goodyear tyres normally fitted onto trucks, wears a polished handmade aluminium body, and is fitted with a tank engine! It looks and sounds menacing, mostly due to the semi-exposed 29 litre V12 engine from an M47 Patton tank. After purchasing it Jay made some changes, increasing the power to a staggering 1100 horsepower with the help of two turbos. This article from Popular Mechanics shares the story on this extraordinary machine.
1924 Bentley Twin Turbo
Jay Leno doesn’t just buy cars, he builds and restores them too, sourcing original parts and crafting new parts if needed. This Bentley from 1924 was built in his workshop, with his own team of mechanics and restorers. Originally this was a Bentley 3.0 Litre, but it has been given a twin-turbo 8-litre engine, upping power to 400hp. It might not seem that much at first, but these engines were more known for their immense torque figures to push them along. These old engines were hugely inefficient, partly the reason they increased the displacement to subsequently increase the power output.
Hot-rodding a classic Bentley initially seems like blasphemy but Jay Leno uses original, period-correct parts. The engine is an original Bentley engine, built in the same period as the 3-litre chassis it was put in. Jay himself compares it to a classic hot-rod technique; put the biggest engine you can find and try to fit it in the smallest possible car. All the info on this car in this Jay Leno’s Garage episode:
1934 Rolls Royce Merlin & Merlin engine trailer
The Rolls Royce Merlin V12, a legendary engine from equally legendary WWII fighter planes like the Spitfire and P51 Mustang. At 27 litres of capacity, not something you would expect in a road car as fuel consumption will probably drain your wallet rather fast. When Jay Leno bought this car, it was a running engine on a Rolls Royce chassis, but without a proper body. It took Jay and his team 25 years to get the car finished and running. The result is a period-correct, handcrafted aluminium body reminiscent of Rolls Royce’s of the twenties and thirties. Just, bigger!
The backward mounted Supercharged V12 puts out about 1000 horsepower so this thing pulls hard. According to Jay “it’s like the hand of God, it just pushes you”. Check out the article on this big “Roller” from Road & Track including the YouTube episode at the end.
1930 Bentley 27 Litre
Bentley, the brand I started with, is famous for its racing heritage in the early parts of the 20th century, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans several times. The Bentley Boys were widely regarded as almost unbeatable, partly due to the powerful cars they drove, including the legendary Tim Birkin-built ‘Blower’ Bentley’s.
Jay Leno owns a 1930 Bentley, which has been built by Petersen Engineering in the UK. It isn’t really a 1930’s Bentley, rather a very meticulously crafted replica on steroids. This is the same 27-litre Rolls Royce V12, albeit a Meteor instead of a Merlin. The difference being the Meteor was built for use in tanks and the Merlin for airplanes, the construction is a little bit different.
This Bentley is the same one that featured in a Top Gear episode (the old Top Gear, mind you) where Jeremy Clarkson races it against the 46-litre BMW ‘Brutus’.
This historical Hispano Suiza is another classic example of big engine meets little car, although little is a relative term here. The Hispano-Suiza is a Spanish brand no longer in existence but considered to be one of the very best back in the day. This 1915 example has a Hispano-Suiza chassis fitted with an 18.5-litre V8 aero engine from a World War I aircraft. The engine is an original Hispano Suiza unit, built under license in the US. It has been fully restored and modified where needed for use in a car by Jay and his team. It puts out about 300 horsepower, but with incredible torque.
The body is simply beautiful, bare sheet metal with copper and/or brass parts, including a separate fuel tank behind the seat. In the video below, Jay Leno explains a lot about the working mechanics of the car including the gauge-cluster and how to start a car like this. Mind you, it’s a lot of work before you can hit the road.
1939 Plymouth Radial Air
One of the weirdest, most amazing custom cars that have been featured on Jay Leno’s Garage is this 1939 Plymouth Radial Air. Where the other vehicles all have a straight or V-shaped engine, this comes with a radial engine from a Cessna. Putting a WWI or WWII airplane engine into a car, even if it is a straight-six or eight, or even a V8 or V12, is mental enough, but a radial engine is total madness really. If you’re not familiar with radial engines, the cylinders are positioned around a central crankcase. More info here.
The 12.4-litre 7 cylinder radial engine is from the fifties and comes from a Cessna seaplane. The mechanics on this thing are pretty crazy, including parts of a boat for the drivetrain. The engineering is just really cool, and the result is an industrial, almost steampunk looking truck. It may not float your boat but you have to appreciate the craftsmanship and engineering.
Everything is explained in this episode from Jay Leno’s Garage.