Creating and Junking the Turbine Cars: An Insider’s View

The turbine engine made it into regular production, but only as power for the M-1 Abrams tank.

I was involved in our Chrysler Gas Turbine program these many years [about 50] ago and after reading Steve Lehto’s book and talking with others, decided to record some of my memories of happenings with that effort. After 45 or so years, memories do fade, but these happenings stuck in my mind — now I wish I had kept more of the car components, most of which are now interesting museum items.

turbine car bookI was at Chrysler Engineering in the Structures Laboratory at building #132, which had been the Sherman tank final production line during the war years, in the late 1950s. Sometime in the late 1940s, Chrysler had put a floor in the upper sections of this building, doubling the floor area for development work. They were doing some turbine work at a fluid dynamics laboratory down the hall; I recall seeing Sam Williams followed by his secretary, who carried a clipboard and large marking pen to write things so that Sam, who was almost completely blind, could see them.

Later, I moved to the Chassis Electrical design departments and from that became the manager of Chassis/Electrical Cost Estimating. My office, along with a cadre of estimators, was eventually located on the third level of building 128, next to the Turbine Engine group. When the Turbine program developed to the point where cost estimates on the evolving engines were wanted, they called us in.

We started by having George Huebner’s people get us detailed parts lists of basic engine components, specifications, design drawings, etc., and comparing tese estimates to a standard 318 V-8 engine’s cost. Early on, the explanations we needed were hard to get in sufficient detail, but we were only the next office over from the Turbine group, so it was convenient for interaction. I recall working through estimates using part definitions given to us in various forms, blueprints, detailed material indications, actual experimental parts, sometimes just word definitions; often, as we estimated, Turbine engineers would revise their thinking on the spot when they were made aware of material and labor costs.

I remember being told to get some estimating people who could work on the unusual — to us normal vehicle estimating people different-unusual — turbine engine components; early on, I advertised in Detroit papers and hired a man who was at Williams Research out at the Lake who was somewhat dissatisfied at Williams. He had great cost knowledge on those engines, which really helped us car guys.

wheel clock

At one point, I was called to George Huebner’s office to review our progress. George would take a very personal interest in our estimating methods, once (early on), as I was explaining how we did cost estimating rational, I noted that the Turbine’s single spark plug [igniter] cost was $125, a very disturbing value. George became upset and I explained that the estimates used the part number his engineers had given us; it was the very one used in the F-86 Jet planes based at Selfridge!

After revealing this to the group, they gave us an alternative spark plug to use; this one was around $75 each. That was still too high, so we were challenged to try estimating a plug price assuming far more volume than a few thousand turbine cars. George said, “NO—No—No Warren, you must look out to the future, when there will be high production numbers of Turbine cars in production. Look through a pair of binoculars backwards, to see down the road to where hundreds of thousands of turbine cars were on the road.” That I’ve never forgotten.

huebner and chrysler gas turbine

That led to estimating the cost of a spark plug at $3 to $5 each, when regular plugs were 29¢ each. When George heard my number, he ranted that he had recently visited the Champion Spark Plug Company in Toledo and lunched with the CEO there, and I was told to remove my value because George was promised a low price close to a normal plug. I told him that if I were to remove my estimate’s plug cost [at the whole or total cost level] he would not even have a spark plug in his engine. After that exchange, he backed off and never talked spark plugs with me again!

So, we went through a litany of estimate updates as the engineers developed on going designs. Throughout this process we never addressed the possible capital costs needed, ours was strictly a piece cost analysis.

turbine engineGeorge’s staff, right next door, were always eager to have us be completely informed in all ways. I was routinely invited to take a Turbine Car home, especially on weekends. Even some of my estimators were invited to drive the cars at times.

The closeness of our departments meant George’s people could sit right with us as estimates were developed, —unusual to be sure.At one point it became evident to me that these turbine engineer guys were taking over the cost estimating function themselves. They were sitting there doing and asking the cost estimators “Now, you see this? You’re all right with this?” Well, what are they going to say when some high-ranking engineer is in there?

This was a real problem and so I went to my immediate superior, Ernie Rothaar, the head of all corporate estimating functions. After hearing my problem, Ernie called Paul Ackerman, the car Product Engineering Executive Engineer reporting directly to the Vice President of Engineering. The “interference” ceased at once.

Never in many iterations of design and basic estimating assumptions did we ever see a Turbine Engine equal to or lower than a 318 V-8, in spite of us “looking through the binoculars backward.” Further, never did we ever go much into estimating “in-car” [installation] conditions, everything revolved around the engine itself. One only had to look at the two gigantic exhaust ducts running the length of the car to suspect a big plus cost for this kind of equipment; there was obviously a huge cost penalty when compared with conventional round exhaust pipes.

turbine exhaust ducts

I don’t think we ever analyzed the cost difference between turbine and gasoline engine cars as a whole, where an extensive air cleaner system on the turbine car would be another huge cost penalty. In deference to the high costs on the engine itself, it can use “spin-off” heat from the combustion process and regeneration cores for cabin heat, eliminating hoses, the blower motor, heater core, etc., of conventional water heat systems.

diagram

I recall a time one of our road test drivers took a Turbine car up to a car wash on Woodward Avenue. It was customary for the driver to exit the car but leave it in Neutral so the car-wash conveyor chain could push the car through the system. The Turbine car, though, had no normal Neutral. All bands in theA-727 transmission would lock up so as to not permit turbine runaway. The car was immobile and the car wash conveyor shut down trying to push a locked-up car. The car wash had a huge line up outside before they located the driver and had him sit in the car, in drive with his foot on the brake pedal, going through the system.

One day they had a Turbine car up in our styling showroom. After bringing it down by the car elevator, they started it up in the hallway out in front of my offices. The car’s exhaust outlets were close to a bulletin board that had hundreds of notes, for sale notices, pictures, etc The flow of exhaust volume resulted in every last item on that bulletin board being blown off and sent sailing down a hallway through two other laboratory buildings! I also recall some secretaries not pleased with all that hot wind blowing about!

turbine car
The side vents in front were air intakes — on both sides.

One time, George was spending a weekend of skiing at the Boyne Mountain resort near Petoskey; our cottage was at Walloon Lake and our children were at the resort. It had been a terrible cold overnight with temperatures near zero. When George started the engine, it tried to reach light-off RPM, but the extreme cold made the RPM go back below the “switch over” value, and the starter/generator became a starter again. The car just sat there going whish up, then idling down, until again whish up. Finally they gave up, and waited for the day to warm up.

I could go on and on, but I must stop, or some turbine guy might show up saying that, given time and resources, they could “work with us” on cost reduction ideas.

The end of the turbine car program

At the end of the program, it was decreed that all parts and equipment in the Turbine car laboratory were to be tossed out. Everything! That’s when some of us were able to “squirrel away” Turbine Car parts. To this day I have an instrument panel cluster with turbine inlet temperature, oil temperature, etc. I also have engine components like the regenerator drive shaft, and cold and hot side impeller wheels. At one point I had an entire rear bumper where one could see the millions of hammer marks on the back side resulting from Ghia’s pounding! I made nice lamps out of cold and hot wheels. These along with regenerator hollow drive shafts for lamp “stems” still garner discussion.

turbine car parts

A wheel cover has been made into a clock and it’s a favorite discussion piece; it’s extremely heavy and not good for [cars for] un-sprung weight reasons.

(During the time my estimating function was located next to George's Turbine group and the corporate photographic departments, there was another of the industry downturns and they were directed to get rid of all unnecessary “stuff” —so a Dumpster was in our hallway and they began filling it up—several times. Oh-my, the items that were tossed out. Many one of a kind photos, documents, and parts were gone. I managed to “liberate” some items and still have interesting old photos of things and people around Highland Park in “The Good Old Days.”)

clockOne of my good friends, George Fenstemacher, was a product planning type who one day told me we had received a notification from the Government [IRS, I think] stating that because we had been allowed to bring the Ghia cars into the U S “in-bond,” (without paying the duty), it was now time we had to do one of the following:

  1. Pay the duty, which was huge, I can’t remember the number
  2. Return the cars to Ghia
  3. Donate the cars to museums
  4. Destroy the cars

I recall we looked at costs for these options and believed we could place most at museums. So they sent something like 25 or 30 letters to museums around the country. We were all surprised when, as we know, only six agencies accepted a car.

So one early Sunday morning, they assembled most of the cars at a junk place in Detroit where all but a few were destroyed, burned in a huge furnace, and by mid-morning a railroad train with three flat cars took what was left for the smelter. It was a sad day for sure.

At one point George Fenstermacher was giving away small model cars with notes like “the Experimental Chrysler Corporation Turbine Car” and “Made in USA” embossed on the bottom—I think it was a Revell model. I still have some of these.

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