The cars we loved.
Back in the 1950’s and 60’s people dreamed of rocket powered cars with futuristic shapes. Nowhere was the dream of tomorrow more prevalent, than in a very optimistic post-war Detroit. Of the many wild and often outrageous designs making the car show rounds, few conceptual themes actually made it into actual production. Those that did were always tempered by practicality and the technological limitations of the real world. One of Chrysler’s takes on the future car was more than just a concept. The Turbine, named for its propulsion system saw actual production, although under limited conditions. Chrysler’s first turbine car was tested in 1954 using a Plymouth sport coupe. The success of that project prompted the company to continually develop turbine technology in road cars. By the dawn of the 60’s, Chrysler was almost ready to release the Turbine to prime time.
As its name sake suggests the turbine was actually powered by a real turbine engine. The car itself was designed by Chrysler with Ghia in Italy, Turbine bodies were built in Italy and assembled in a small nondescript facility in Detroit. A total of 55 cars were built, with five of them being prototypes. Unlike most cars, the Turbine was an ongoing experiment and was constantly being improved.
Due to its experimental status, Chrysler had a kind of lend-lease agreement with Turbine ‘users’. Although they never truly owned the cars, they singed off on a lengthy contract that in summary stated that drivers would by using the cars with Chrysler taking care of taxes, registration. Chrysler even paid the tab for insurance! The lucky 203 users who would get possession of the Turbine cars were more or less driving rolling laboratory and were only required to have the cars brought in for scheduled service/adjustments. After the lease period was up, cars would go to other users. Eventually Chrysler would collect the cars and scrap most of them. It was Chrysler’s policy that it would not sell prototypes to the general public. This arrangement was similar to what GM would do decades later with the EV1.
The striking low slung appearance of the Turbine was quite modern, and in many respects ahead of the design trends of the early 60’s. Its Space Age design influences were restrained by the clean lines that at the time, could have only come from a European influence (Italy). Oddly enough for a car inspired by Jet Age aesthetics, there was not a single wing or fin in sight. Chrysler clearly was looking ahead to the design trends that would become more common in the later half of the 60’s. The ideal of the car came from legendary designer Elwood Engle, however the overall look is attributed to designer Charles Mashigan. It would not have been a stretch to assume that the Batmobile from the popular 60’s Batman show was inspired by the turbine propulsion system of the Turbine car, complete with rocket-like exhaust and space ship like rear end (very Thunderbird like?).
The Turbine engine had super hero versatility. With 130hp, it could run on almost any combustible fuel. In the Turbine’s case that included diesel fuel, unleaded gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel even liquid Crisco! To illustrate the diversity of its fuel portfolio, the President of Mexico was said to have driven a Turbine powered by tequila! Simple driver made air/fuel adjustments needed to be made when switching between fuels.
The use of turbines had other advantages like longevity and dependability. Over 1.1 million miles were logged during the “test” period with less than 4% downtown for all cars combined. That was as impressive a record as Chrysler’s mainstream cars. Much of the dependability was due to the Turbine engine having far fewer parts that a regular piston engine car. The turbine itself spun up to 44,000 rpm on a sleeve bearing that insured smooth vibration free operation. No warm-up period was need or anti-freeze for that matter. In fact there was no need for oil changes because oil would not get dirty in the contamination process like with piston engines. The low emissions turbine was clean except for nitrogen oxide emissions. Early engines were also plagued with high operating temperatures, especially when idling. Otherwise, the turbine engine was as smooth as any V8 with a power delivery that was at worst, less than rocket like. The rear wheels propelled the nearly 4,000lb. car to 60 mph in about 12 seconds. Not by any means a sports car, the softly sprung gran tourer with a sharp turning radius was a highway cruiser more than anything.
The interior was as futuristic as the power plant. Door panels curved into the dash while luminescent dials used a sophisticated layer clear plastic system to mimic a fiber optic like display with a blue-green glow. Instead of a typical water temperature gauge, the Turbine had a turbine inlet temperature gauge. Many of the innovations of the Turbine’s interior would find their ways into later Chrysler cars.
Only a few Turbines exist today with a handful of private collectors and museums being among the owners. Chrysler stopped the Turbine’s production in 1964, but did not stop turbine engine development. A New 6th generation turbine car was developed that later became the 1966 Dodge Charger. Chrysler had whipped the heat and emissions problems and actually prepared a turbine version of the 66 Dodge Coronet. It never saw the light of showrooms.
A seventh generation turbine car took the form of an odd-looking Chrysler LeBaron in 1977. By that time Chrysler was in so much trouble, that it did not have the luxury of toying with experiential engines. Although the turbine engine project died for cars, it would go on as a powertrain development in Chrysler’s Defence business. Once Chrysler offloaded its defence industries to General Dynamics, the turbine technology it’s automotive wing started in the late 50’s ended up in the M1 Abrams main Battle Tank.