Summer 1962 (think American Graffiti): At last, Chrysler is ready to test drive its turbine-powered vehicles for a car-obsessed public, or as the brochure put it, the “man-on-the-street.” The Chrysler Turbine Car synched up perfectly with the Jet Age and the the zeitgeist of the time, captured by Sinatra singing “Fly Me To The Moon.” Paraphrasing Robert Kennedy, Chrysler didn’t ask “why” but “why not?”
Don’t everybody jump at once, though. There were only 50-75 prototypes planned, stingily loaned to a lucky, targeted, intentional demographic. Publicity was on Chrysler’s mind: who would drive the car — and where exactly would the car be driven — that would pop the most eyeballs and flap the most gums?
Chrysler wasn’t being generous; it wanted the cars back after the feedback, once they learned how they handled in regular, mainstream traffic. And one of the most important questions: would the public warm up to a turbine car?
Since the auto industry’s beginnings, engineers were looking for simplicity in design and function. Eventually, they looked up to the skies: the gas turbine engine of jet aircraft runs at a constant speed (as opposed to the piston engines of average cars). Nice, but the operating conditions, size and cost in adapting them for common automobile use was a huge problem.
There was no question that the auto industry believed that the turbo engine was the future; the piston engine was as evolved as it was ever going to get, and that story was essentially over. The turbine race was on, but Chrysler was particularly obsessed with being first.
Unlike the average piston-engine, a turbine has very few parts, is light and compact, and allows the car to run more smoothly, without vibration (due to its rotary motion). The secret to its operating success is how it works with excess air, burning up all the fuel and leaving no noxious fumes, such as nasty carbon monoxide.
Add water or antifreeze? Nope. The temperature is controlled by air flowing through the engine. Tune-ups? Nah. Fewer parts means less friction and wear — no cams, valve shafts or distrubutor. A warming-up period when first starting the car? Negatory. The fuel burns steadily, and you’re instantly off to the races. Stalling during the ’70s oil crisis? Yeah, no. The car is “multi-fuel,” running on any combustible liquid that works with air to create energy. Our chance to say “Suck it, OPEC” was never to be.
By 1954, Chrysler announced that it solved two major problems associated with gas turbines — high fuel consumption and “scorching hot exhaust gas.” (Think of the fire shooting out of the Batmobile’s exhaust pipe). The timing should have been perfect, but the Fifties were not going to be the age of the auto turbine. The limited supply of such strategic materials as colbalt, tungsten, nickel and chromium kept the cars experimental only.
However, proving-ground testing proved promising. Chrysler’s clean little secret: a heat exchanger (regenerator) that allowed the heat generated by the car to work with fresh air, converting it into useful energy. This process would help power the wheels, while cooling down the exhaust to temperatures even lower than average cars.
Hell, other automakers — including GM, Ford and FIAT — were producing turbine cars, but nobody had what Chrysler had: this new regeneration capability. Chrysler may have marketed “The Forward Look,” but it was here where they were surging ahead of the pack.
The test model: The Plymouth Belvedere sport coupe, and it was the first time that the regenerator could be produced small enough to fit into an average American vehicle. The gas tubine engine at last equaled that of conventional engines, and the exhaust was cooler than that discharged by the average car.
The real rush, though, was in the performance, which roared past average cars with equal horsepower. It was rated at 120-shaft horsepower, but the company claimed that, because of its superior torque characteristics, it delivered the same performance at the rear wheels as a 160-horsepower piston engine with transmission. And stalling was practically impossible: an increase in torque requirement only causes the power turbine to slow down without affecting the gas generator.
Unlike piston-driven cars, the gas turbine delivers its greatest torque during breakaway from a stationary position (think of peeling out).
By the early ’60s, the prototypes were introduced, including a baby version: a Dodge Turbo Dart. The Chrysler-designed bodies were built by Ghia of Italy, which was well known for creating amazing bodies in small batches. The idea was for the cars to be loaned out and driven for three months, and then Chrysler would gather the feedback and plot its next move.
In the end, the focus group had mixed feelings: some said the car was sluggish, the steering was sloppy, the throttle didn’t respond well, and the fuel economy at low speeds wasn’t very economical. Nothing that a few turns of the screwdriver couldn’t fix.
What killed the dream? What else? Politics. The mid-to-late-60s was not a friend to the supercar. Insurance regulations, safety and emission laws, Ralph Nader, the Clean Air Act, and increased foreign competition (and tariffs) left Chrysler scratching its head over the future of the turbine car.
As well, the auto industry was very much married to the piston engine, and sales were monster and nothing to mess with. Try to change a successful industry? Ask Preston Thomas Tucker about that.
A few more turbine generations were produced without fanfare; by the late ’70s, the project quietly folded. The car was cool, but it ultimately didn’t turn heads away from the pistons.
Of those produced (the educated guess is 55), 46 were intentionally destroyed. Only nine are known to have survived, adopted by historical museums and private collectors, including one owned by Jay Leno (Adam, whassup? You in the market for one of these babies?).
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