Editorial note: this is a reproduction of a 2015 article from the printed Regals Torque magazine.
If you’re a Chrysler fanatic, you may already know of the company’s foray into gas turbine engines, but what you may not know is that it was the result of more than two decades of research and development, and that it had the potential to bring about a massive change in the automotive industry.
For those not familiar with the Chrysler Turbine, here’s how it all began. After the Second World War, jet power was all the rage. It was revolutionising the aeronautics industry, and there were some that believed it would have the same impact on the automotive industry. Chrysler began researching aircraft turbine engines in the late 1930s, but it wasn’t until a brilliant engineer by the name of George Huebner Jr. joined the team that this technology started getting adapted for cars.
When thinking about a jet-powered car, you can be forgiven for imagining the Batmobile, blasting flames from the rear of the vehicle. While this sort of jet car can be entertaining on a drag strip, it’s less than practical as a daily driver, especially when you keep burning the paint off the cars behind you.
The Chrysler turbine engine was nowhere near as exciting, but far more practical. Rather than shooting out hot exhaust to propel the car forward (like a jet plane), the rotation of the turbine was used to power the car’s drive shaft, and the heat was recycled back into the combustion chamber to improve engine efficiency.
The gas turbine engine had some huge advantages over conventional piston engines. The first one being the simplicity. A gas turbine engine had only one fifth the number of parts of a piston engine, and its exhaust emissions were far cleaner too. Another advantage was that it could run on just about anything that was combustible. That included leaded or unleaded petrol, diesel, kerosine, jet fuel, vegetable oil or alcohol. Believe it or not, they actually ran one of these cars on Tequila (what a waste), and it was also rumoured that one was run on Chanel No. 5 perfume. In this day and age of high petrol prices, alternative fuels seem like an incredibly marketable feature, but back in the days when petrol could still be purchased for 25 cents a gallon, no one really saw a need.
The first Chrysler to be given a gas turbine engine was an otherwise stock 1954 Plymouth Belvedere. It was still a pretty quirky beast, but it was operational. Chrysler unveiled the turbine-powered car to the media on the 25th March 1954. They still hadn’t incorporated a starter motor, so all demonstrations began with the car already running.
The team at Chrysler kept making improvements to the engine, and the next generation engine was dropped into a 1956 Plymouth Belvedere. To help generate public interest, and to test engine reliability, the research team embarked on a 4,800 km road trip to see how the engine would perform under a variety of conditions. During the road trip, it encountered every kind of weather condition imaginable, and performed flawlessly.
By all accounts, the experience of driving a gas turbine car was very similar to a normal piston car. The power and performance was comparable, but the main difference was the sound. Instead of the rumbling vibration of a piston engine, the engines whirred just like a jet plane.
By 1963, the team were up to the fourth generation of turbine engine. It was capable of generating 130 horsepower (97kW) and 375 lb/ft (508 Nm) of torque. Once again, this was comparable to the piston engines of the day. With each engine refinement, Chrysler were moving closer and closer to something that might be a realistic replacement for the engines of the day.
In one of the greatest publicity stunts in automotive history, Chrysler launched a major program to test public interest and monitor the durability of the engine. Known as the “Fifty-Car Program”, Chrysler decided on a limited production of turbine cars that they would lend out to members of the general public.
Chrysler wanted to create a futuristic design for the limited-release vehicle, so they enlisted the services of automotive designer Elwood Engel (previously employed by Ford). The bodies were then hand-made by Ghia in Italy.
To look at these cars today, they are a little bit like something from “The Jetsons”. Painted in a magnificent metallic bronze colour and with a copper interior, they were the 1960’s idea of futuristic. Lots of fake cooling fins could be found on the body, with the appearance that they were part of the jet mechanics, but were actually nothing more than decoration. But even with these features, it still looked like a fairly unassuming 1960s car. Apart from the temperature gauge that went up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and the tachometer that peaked at 60,000 rpm, there was little else to indicate that these cars were any different to their piston-driven counterparts.
One unexpected problem was related to ride comfort. They found that the engines were so smooth, it exaggerated any bumps or vibrations felt on the road. A piston engine would normally send constant vibrations through the body of the car, masking any other vibrations being felt from the road. Chrysler went to extraordinary lengths to eliminate any vibrations, including shaving some of the tread off the new tyres.
Each car cost approximately $50,000 USD to manufacture, which would equate to nearly $400,000 in today’s money. But keep in mind that this car was being hand made. The expectation was that Chrysler would be able to bring the price down to a competitive level when they started full scale mass production. A total of 55 cars were made: 50 for the user program, and 5 would be used as demonstration vehicles.
Chrysler asked for public expressions of interest to be part of the fifty-car program, and they received over two hundred thousand written applications. From these, 203 people were selected, with each of them being loaned one of the vehicles for a period of three months. The program officially started on the 29th October 1963. There were no restrictions given to the users, with one driver doing over 15,000 miles (24,000 km) during his three months with the car. The users were required to pay for their own petrol, and they weren’t allowed to talk to the media about the mileage, but apart from that, they could use the cars however they wanted.
Chrysler put together a service team that would fly around the country, responding to any issues with the loaned vehicles, and making any improvements that were required. From time to time, they would need to replace a failed engine, but this was giving Chrysler the sort of real-world analysis that they couldn’t get any other way.
The users were asked to report on the cars after they were returned, and the feedback was mainly positive. Many people had complained of a noticeable performance lag when applying the accelerator, and others had also noticed that the mileage was pretty lousy during city driving. But these were issues that Chrysler were confident they would be able to resolve in future revisions of the engine. A few people hated the sound of the turbine engine, but most people loved it. The fifty-car program officially ended on the 28th January 1966 and on the whole, it was considered a success.
And here comes the saddest part of the story. In 1967, Chrysler decided to dispose of the Chrysler Turbine test cars. The reason for this is hotly debated, but the most widely accepted version is this. If Chrysler decided to sell these cars (and there were no shortage of potential buyers) they would serve as a novelty for some time, but what happens when they break down or need servicing? They couldn’t be taken to a mechanic for repair, because no one other than Chrysler staff knew how to fix them. The fear was that the cars would end up sitting in people’s yards rusting, or that the owners might pull out the turbine engines and replace them with V8s. This went against everything the cars stood for, so Chrysler destroyed all but 9 of the 55 original cars. Chrysler kept three, and donated the other six to car museums.
Despite all this, the turbine engine advancements continued, and the sixth generation engine was placed into a 1967 Coronet. They had sorted out the problems with the performance lag, as well as a number of other improvements. This version was so well refined, it was looking like full scale production might begin before the decade was over. But there were still a few issues that needed to be sorted out first. There were some parts in the turbine engines that needed to be precision-moulded. No one could figure out any other way of making these parts, and the moulding was too slow to produce parts fast enough for large scale production. And then came the smog…
Around this time, various major cities around the world were being affected by smog. As a result, in 1970 the Environmental Protection Agency brought in the Clean Air Act, placing major restrictions on exhaust emissions. Even though the turbine engine was considered to be quite clean in comparison with piston engines of the time, it did have an issue with nitric oxides (nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide). These by-products were a result of the constant high temperature combustion, and Chrysler had no idea how to stop them. The gas turbine team set about finding a solution, and through various additions and refinements, they managed to reduce the emissions to meet the EPA’s 1975 standards. However, these refinements were making the car even more complicated and expensive to produce.
In September 1975, George Huebner Jr. (the main driving force behind the Chrysler gas turbine team) retired. After 40 years at Chrysler, he decided he’d had enough. This was the beginning of the end of the gas turbine engine.
The EPA clean air standards kept changing. Every time a goal was met, there was an even more challenging goal in the next year or two. Even though the gas turbine engine was compliant with 1975 standards, it would not meet the standards set for 1979. All the while Chrysler were having to move more and more funds into improving the emissions in their range of piston-driven cars, as well as trying to make the turbine cars a viable alternative. It’s also worth mentioning that Chrysler were having some major financial issues related to quality problems, dropping sales and poor management.
Eventually it was decided that the problems related to the gas turbine engine were insurmountable. The cost of manufacture, the emissions, and even the lack of service mechanics qualified to work on a gas turbine engine were all considered to be too big to solve. In late 1979, the gas turbine research team was dissolved, and given one week to find another job.
Of the nine remaining Chrysler Ghia Turbine cars, seven are in museums, and two are privately owned. It is said that only three are still operational, one of which is owned by the biggest chin in show business, Jay Leno.