The development of turbine engines was all the rage in the 1950s as auto manufacturers reached for that dream of uniting car and aeroplane into a personal flying vehicle. There were practical considerations that seemed to predict a post-internal combustion future too: the turbine has a higher power to weight ration, more flexible fueling options, and a smoother operation than traditional reciprocating engines.
After more than a decade of experiments, Chrysler decided to develop a car incorporating their fourth generation turbine engine. That turbine, first displayed in 1962, was an engineering marvel for the time. At just 410 pounds, and delivering 130 horsepower and 425 lb-ft. of torque, it produced power almost equal to Chrysler’s Hemi engine. It was the first realistic passenger car turbine, one that could easily be placed in a standard car engine bay.
This advanced engine encouraged Chrysler to undertake one of the greatest testing regimens and publicity campaigns in the history of the automobile. A new car would be designed around the turbine: a futuristic, yet practical car that would be a rolling display of advanced technology. Chrysler turned, not only to its experienced turbine engine staff, but also to its newly revamped design team.
In 1961 Chrysler lured Elwood Engel away from Ford to replace the ailing Virgil Exner, whose 'Forward Look' tail-finned designs had begun to age rapidly in the new decade. Engel brought a new subdued and crisp styling aesthetic (first brilliantly shown on the 1961 Lincoln Continental), and immediately set to work transforming Chrysler’s design language. One of the first styling experiments was the Chrysler Typhoon, a two-seat car designed by Charles Mashigan, that looked very much like the Ford Thunderbird of the time – a design Engel had developed at Ford. It was this car that would be developed into the Turbine concept.
On the Turbine car’s exterior, the side profile was pure Thunderbird with simple massing and long lines designed to draw the eye along its flank, without resorting to the tailfins that had animated so many of Chrysler’s offerings. The front had large circular headlights surrounded by turbine-like trim. The rear lights repeated the turbine styling theme, inset into a highly sculpted rear fascia.
On the interior, Chrysler wanted a futuristic vision, but also one that would be practical for everyday drivers to make the transition to turbine motoring with minimal fuss. The instrument panel looked space age, but immediately recognisable; no radar screens or odd science fiction gadgetry. One thing that was noticed by nearly everyone was the tachometer. A reciprocating engine runs to a maximum of about 8,000rpm. The Chrysler turbine runs at a much higher rpm – in this case, 60,000rpm – reinforcing its jet engine qualities. A pyrometer nearby gauged the temperature of the engine up to 1800 degrees Fahrenheit – four times as hot as a typical internal combustion engine. Between the seats, a sleek transmission tunnel with switches and indicators made for a cool division of the interior into four seating areas.
One thing that the Turbine cars lacked was a name. There had been some discussion of names, but a satisfactory moniker was never found. Thus 'Turbine' became the name as well as the powerplant.
Elwood Engel and his team crafted design drawings which were sent to the Ghia design studio in Italy, where they were refined before construction into bodies for shipment back to the U.S. There they were mounted on compact car frames. Ghia delivered the bodies in large crates and, once unpacked, workers at Chrysler’s Greenfield Road assembly plant found a sleek coupe with complete paint and trim and interior upholstery. Chrysler assembled the body, turbine engine assembly, electrical systems and gauges, and chassis all together, taking about a week each to complete.
The first of the 'street' turbine cars was delivered to the public in October of 1963. The experience of driving the cars was similar to driving a regular car, except for the whining jet sound and smoother ride. Like a jet plane, the turbine sound was greatly diminished for passengers, and the ride was much smoother than a traditional car. Many families described riding in the car as “gliding” so smooth was the operation of the car. Indeed, some chassis adjustments were necessary as the turbine cars smooth ride revealed small creaking sounds that would be masked by a traditional engine. Drivers noted the quick start of the turbine, even in the coldest weather – no warming up required.
Most drivers used diesel fuel in the cars. Leaded petrol, the standard of the time, was not allowed in the cars (it damaged the turbine), and unleaded petrol was hard to come by. Jet fuel, kerosene and vegetable oil were also acceptable fuels, if not widely available. Chrysler also suggestively noted that the cars would also run on Chanel Number 5, though there is no documented use of the perfume as fuel. And the President of Mexico had his own unique solution to fueling the Turbine car (see below).
While the public was testing their versions of the car, Chrysler embarked on its own publicity tour. One car was sent to the 1964 New York World’s Fair other cars went to Europe, Latin America and Asia. In Mexico, President Mateos asked if he could test drive the car while it was fueled with tequila. After a check with Chrysler engineers, who quickly tested an engine in the factory, approval was given. The car ran flawlessly.
Cars were given to families for three months and before rotation to other locations and driving situations. In all, some 203 families got to drive the car, with some putting substantial mileage on them. There were a few accidents as well. No injuries were reported, but repairing the bodies could be a challenge as there were no standard parts. Each car had been hand-assembled by Ghia and each one was unique, though built to the same dimensions. A lot of improvisational bodywork was required to keep the cars as shiny symbols of a jet-fired future.
After two years of testing, Chrysler collected all fifty of the cars plus its own models and sent most to the crusher. Nine survived and were donated to museums, with a few going to private collectors. The official reason was to avoid paying import duties on the Italian-made bodies, but other reasons were certainly a part of the decision: proprietary technology in the engines, and corporate liability among them.
The turbine could never be successfully adapted for automotive use. It is best used in situations where the turbine could run at a constant speed, thus eliminating its effectiveness in city driving. It was not a clean burning as traditional internal combustion engines, and its fuel economy is poor. Chrysler would end its turbine program in 1977. Others would continue their programs, but the hydrogen fuel cell and battery electric propulsion technologies would eventually supplant automotive research into the turbine. The Chrysler program remains an outstanding effort in consumer and engineering testing of a concept car. But, as we will see next week, it was not the only one…