Chrysler’s jet-powered car lived to see the streets, but this grand experiment was plagued with negatives that always seemed to outweigh the positives. This fleet of exotic test vehicles, however, propelled the company’s reputation as a leader in automotive engineering and design.
Chrysler’s jet-powered car lived to see the streets, but this grand experiment was plagued with negatives that always seemed to outweigh the positives.
This fleet of exotic test vehicles, however, propelled the company’s reputation as a leader in automotive engineering and design.
Now a common aircraft powerplant, the turbine proved to be a challenge for many auto manufacturers that tinkered with the concept.
Chrysler Corporation began studying turbine power as far back as the early 1930s and, by 1954, had developed a working prototype.
Although difficult to tame for the street, turbine power appeared to offer tremendous potential, not to mention profit.
The turbine’s primary advantage could be summed up in one word; simplicity. With about one-fifth the moving parts of a conventional V8, a turbine would conceivably reduce production costs. A gaze into the crystal ball had Chrysler licking its lips: no more tuneups; little if any oil consumption; easy cold-weather starts; and extended engine life. A turbine motor also resisted stalling and could burn a variety of fuels, from gasoline, diesel fuel and kerosene, to home heating oil and certain vegetable-based oils. More remarkably, drivers could switch between fuel types without making any engine adjustments.
It seemed too good to be true. First, however, as with any experimental design, there were huge hurdles to jump before moving to full production.
For example, a typical V8 idles at 700 r.p.m. The turbine? Try 22,000 r.p.m., while burning considerable amounts of fuel in the process (maximum revolutions were more than double that level). Operating temperatures were also high, requiring exotic (and expensive) materials that could withstand the heat. Engine response was sluggish, although once under way, overall performance was impressive. Finally, the whine produced by the motor — something akin to that of a giant vacuum cleaner — was almost deafening.
However, by 1962, Chrysler’s top brass was so sufficiently encouraged by its engineering team’s progress that the company ordered a full-scale, realworld test of a turbine-equipped automobile.
The vehicle would not only have the latest in under-the-hood technology, but the car itself would be a head-turning show piece that would be easily recognized.
The design portion of the program was turned over to Chrysler’s chief stylist, Elwood Engel who penned a gorgeous two-door hardtop with turbinethemed headlights, wheel covers and tail lamps. Even the gauges and floor console that ran the full length of the interior carried the turbine look.
The first of a total of 55 Turbine (the car’s proper name) coupes went on public display in May, 1963. Each was hand-built by the Ghia design studios in Turin, Italy, at a cost of around $50,000, a small fortune 45 years ago. All were painted Turbine Bronze with a contrasting black vinyl roof. Standard equipment included leather seats, whitewall tires, AM radio plus power windows, steering and brakes.
The completed bodies were shipped to a former Checker cab assembly plant in Detroit, Mich., where Chrysler employees installed the latest version of the turbine. Rated at 130 horsepower (Chrysler claimed the output was similar to a 200-horse V8), the light-weight 410-pound engine was connected to a three-speed automatic transmission.
Most of the cars were loaned to drivers picked from more than 25,000 applicants. All the participants had to do was pay the fuel costs and maintain an evaluation log book. Five of the 55 test cars were displayed in shopping malls and dealerships throughout North America and in various countries around the world.
During the two-year, $120-million study, more than 200 people drove the Turbine for extensive periods. Most reported positively about their experiences and, given the intensive degree of marketing support, the public, as well as most Chrysler dealers, fully expected a variation of the car to make it into production.
Ultimately, though, what seemed to be a sure-fire hit would never take off. Chrysler decided that the negatives outweighed the positives.
With the import permits on the 55 Italian-made cars set to expire, Chrysler scrapped 46 of Turbines, with the remaining nine shipped to museums.
Chrysler didn’t immediately give up on the technology and maintained its interest in turbines until the early 1980s. By then, the focus had turned to conservation from pure research and development.
The Turbine’s high-pitched song was finally silenced, but the significant effort and money that Chrysler invested in this unique project pushed the automotive envelop to its outer limits.
Malcolm Gunn is Wheelbase Communications’ historic writer. Wheelbase is a worldwide supplier of automobile news, reviews and features.