Propellor-Driven Cars

Updated: 1 Feb 2014

ABC car added

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The history of motor cars has thrown up some strange designs; so far the Museum of RetroTech has barely dipped its institutional toe into a vast subject. Almost all designs, however, no matter how weird or misconceived, had one thing in common- they were propelled by applying torque to the wheels that supported them. Not these machines, though. They were pulled (or pushed) along by a propellor.

THE ABC PROPELLOR CAR: 1911

Left: The ABC propellor test car: 1911

This car was built, not as a transportation device in its own right, but to test aeroplane propellors. The one shownwas designed by a Mr Lang, seen here seated beside the driver, Mr Charteris. It is shown here at the Brooklands motor circuit, having driven there from Southampton by propeller-power only in the early hours of the morning, a time no doubt chosen to minimise the number of other road users minced by the wholly unguarded propellor. It is hard to see how that can have been been legal.

Fom Flight 27 May 1911

The engine is an 80 HP V-8 with open valvegear built by the All-British Engine Company. Just in front of it is a large radiator. On the trip up from Southampton the engine was run at 900 rpm, giving a propeller thrust of about 330 pounds.

THE HELICA
The Helica was invented, developed, and manufactured by the Frenchman Marcel Leyat, between 1913 and 1926. Thirty are said to have been built, though I am not at present sure if this includes prototypes, of which there were several; only a few are shown here. Certainly some were built for sale, and two of these survive.

Left: A early Helica: 1913 design.

This is a three-wheeled two-seater. Note the complete absence of any guard for the propellor; it is difficult to believe this would have been street-legal.

The engine appears to be a V-twin.

Left: An Helica: 1914 model, called "The Helicocycle" .

This model has gained a wooden shroud around the propellor, presumably for safety reasons. I Am Not An Aerodynamicist, but it looks too short to give a ducted-fan effect, which would have improved propulsion efficiency over an open propellor.
There also appears to be a wire guard over the front of the propellor, which is again two-bladed in this version.

Still a three-wheeler.

An obvious objection to the concept is the loss of efficiency due to the propellor drive system. A conventional car has an effectively solid connection between engine and road, though there are inevitably some losses in the gearing and the hysteresis of the tyre rubber.
One advantage of propellor traction is that a slippery road surface does not affect propulsion; however, since friction between wheels and road is still required for braking and steering, this might not be very useful.

For more unusual propellor-driven vehicles, see also The Anzani Propellor-Driven Motorcycle and The Propeller-Driven Sleigh.

Only two Helicas survive. Here they are:

Left: A surviving Helica in CNAM: 1921 model.

This four wheeled Helica belonged to Gustave Courau. It was donated to the CNAM Museum in Paris in 1931, and is still on show there. (CNAM = Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a very fine museum)

Note the propellor is now four bladed, possibly to reduce noise and vibration. According to the notice attached by the museum, this Helica was capable of "rapidly achieving a good 70 kph" but this is only 43 mph, unimpressive even for its day.

The notice also says that the Helica did not succeed because the propellor wash was too uncomfortable for the occupants. Since even the versions with a roof seem to lack a windscreen, this was almost certainly a contributing factor; however what killed it off was the general impractability of the whole concept.

Left: A surviving Helica in CNAM: 1921 model.

Another view. The passenger gets a rudimentary windscreen, but not the driver.

Note "La Gellicyne" is written on the side. For a long time its meaning was obscure, but one of my correspondents informs me it's an advetisement for a brand of cosmetic cream. Computer enhancement shows "Pour les mains. Pour le visage" ("For the Hands. For the Face") in very faded lettering below "La Gellicyne" .

Left: A surviving Helica in CNAM: 1921 model.

The engine. I could not see any maker's name. It is an air-cooled horizontally opposed twin, with pushrod valves and magneto ignition. The propellor is directly-driven.

The two curved pipes direct the exhaust to the underside of the Helica.

Left: The only running Helica, seen under power at Goodwood racetrack (Britain) in July 2003.

This Helica is owned by Jean Francois Bouzanquet of Paris. It was bought new by his grandfather in 1922, and it has been in the family ever since.
The engine is a British two-cylinder ABC of 1203 cc, driving a 4.5 foot diameter wooden propeller; maximum speed is about 60mph, which is a good deal faster than the Helica in CNAM.

Left: The only running Helica at Goodwood in July 2003.

The steering wheel operates the rear wheels by wires, which can, according to the owner, be 'interesting'.

Left: The only running Helica at Goodwood in July 2003.

The Bouzanquet Helica is said to be in original condition except for a replacement propeller. In WW2 the German forces attempted to commandeer the vehicle. Confused by the steering system, the driver turned right instead of left, hitting a tree and breaking the propeller.

The exhaust silencing arrangements look rather rudimentary.

Left: The only running Helica at Goodwood in July 2003.

The replacement propellor is two-bladed.

There is a YouTube video of a Helica allegedly dating from 1924. The model however most closely matches the 1914 model pictured above.

Many thanks to Paul Dunlop for drawing my attention to this remarkable series of machines, and special thanks to Claude Guéniffey for permission to use images from his superb website- the home of Helicas- at http://www.helica.info/

THE HELICRON
The Helicron prop-car was a later design. It was a one-off conversion from a Rosengart chassis, and was built in France in 1932

Left: The only Helicron. It has rear-wheel steering, and only the rear wheels are sprung

The car was restored after being found in a barn in 2000. The original engine was lost and has been replaced by a flat-four Citroen GS engine.

The car has allegedly passed a French safety inspection and is legal for use on public roads. Given that barely-guarded propellor, I find that very surprising. As one unconvinced commentator put it: "Leave it up to the French to design a car where the express purpose seems to be mowing down sniveling pedestrians for the sake of style."

Many more photographs of this car can be found by Googling "Helicron".

I'm afraid I seem to have mislaid the email that brought the Helicron to my attention. Please contact me if you would like an acknowledgment.

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