by Jim Benjaminson. Copyrighted by Jim Benjaminson. Reprinted by permission.
Originally printed by Motorbooks International.
“The car was moving under its own power. I was driving it and Sam Williams was sitting next to me. Dave Borden was in the back seat.
“Word had gotten out that we were going to try a turbine car for the first time. We started it and started to move out and the crowd cheered. It was quite an exciting event. There must have been 300 people hanging
out of windows and leaning over the roof. With the cheers and the applause I suppose the rest of the place must have wondered what in the hell was going on over there. Word got around pretty fast. That was the fall of 1953.”
With those words, George Huebner Jr. recalled the first impromptu public showing of Chrysler Corporation's first gas
turbine-powered automobile as it was driven around Chrysler's Highland Park complex. The car, a white-over-beige 1954 Plymouth Belvedere two-door hardtop, was not the first turbine-powered automobile in the world (Rover's Jet 1 held that distinction), but it did carry a distinction no car had to that time—it was the first production automobile in the world to be powered by a gas turbine.
Chrysler's turbine program dated back to World War II. In 1945, Chrysler had been issued a contract by the U.S. Navy's Bureau of Aeronautics to develop a turboprop engine. Work on an automotive version of the engine didn't begin in earnest until 1949 when the Navy contract ran out.
Development work consisted of improvements to the compressor, regenerator, burner controls, and other necessary gearing and controls needed to adopt a gas turbine to automotive use. Key obstacles were cost and materials availability; completely new tooling and manufacturing methods would have to be developed if a turbine engine was to be mass produced. Turbine engines, by their very nature, required special metal alloy and ceramic parts to withstand the extreme temperatures generated. Chrysler engineers were faced with two engine designs to choose from, either single- or two-shaft, and chose to develop the two-stage turbine (a gas generator stage and a power turbine stage).
In its simplest form, a turbine draws in air which is then compressed (and heated) before being subjected to mixing with fuel. In its first stage, the mixture is again compressed before passing on to the second or power turbine stage. Gas turbines were noted for extremely high exhaust temperatures, a problem Chrysler engineers solved by rerouting the exhaust gasses through rotating heat exchangers or regenerators. At the power turbine stage turbine blades could be operating at over 70,000rpm, a speed that had to be reduced through a series of reduction gears before power could be directed to a car's transmission.
News of Huebner’s October 1953 test drive of the first turbine-powered production car wasn't released to the general public until March 25, 1954. With a mid-June dedication set for Chrysler's new Chelsea, Michigan, testing facilities, it was only natural that Chrysler would want to showcase its latest engineering developments during the ceremonies.
Chrysler engineers had begun to set up a 1953 Dodge sedan as the first turbine-powered car. With the fast approaching Chelsea dedication the switch to a more sporty Plymouth body style-at a time when Plymouth sales were lagging severely-was probably more of a public relations move than an engineering decision. Plymouth needed as much favorable publicity as it could generate even though the Chrysler Corporation gas turbine was just that-a corporate turbine rather than a Plymouth turbine.
The public got its first look at the Plymouth Belvedere Turbine when it was displayed at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City from April 7 to 11. The Waldorf showing was a static display; it wouldn't be until the June 16 dedication ceremonies at Chelsea that the press and public would see and hear the turbine run, and then only in a series of "drive-bys" past the visitors' grandstands. Neither the press nor the general public would get a chance to get behind the wheel of the turbine car.
Measuring 32 inches long, 33 inches wide, and 28 inches high, the turbine, rated at 100 hp, fit snugly into the Belvedere's engine compartment. Mated to a standard Plymouth transmission with only reverse and high gears, the turbine weighed some 200 lb less
than a conventional Plymouth 6-cylinder engine.
Built essentially as a laboratory development tool, the first turbine, identified as the CR1, was considered by Chrysler engineers as a "milestone in automotive power engineering" because it embodied solutions to two of the major problems long associated with gas turbines: high fuel consumption and scorching exhaust gas. The key feature that contributed to removing these technical barriers was the heat exchanger or regenerator. Heat exchangers extracted heat from the hot exhaust gasses and transferred that energy back to the compressed air, thus easing the burners' job of raising gas temperature, conserving fuel, and lowering the exhaust temperature. At idle, the turbine's exhaust temperature fell to 170 degrees Fahrenheit, ranging up to 500 degrees under normal operating conditions.
Unknown to nearly everyone was the existence of a second 1954 turbine-powered Belvedere sport coupe, without the heat exchanger. Plans had been made to show both cars, side by side, at the Chelsea dedication to demonstrate the difference between a turbine with heat exchanger and one without. The second car, appropriately painted fire engine red, nearly caught fire from the turbine's intense heat during a pre-dedication test, thus canceling the comparisons.
Of the two turbine cars, the white-over-beige car was the one always seen in press releases. The red car, in a photo cropped to show the turbine engine, was shown in
color on the front cover of the August 1954 issue of Motor Trend (Motor Trend had published a two-page feature with the white-over-beige car in its May 1954 issue). Everyone's question was, "When can I buy one?"
James Zeder, Chrysler vice-president and director of engineering, replied, “Commercial production of gas turbines for passenger cars depends on long-range solutions to many complex metallurgical and manufacturing problems. There is no telling at this time how long it will take to solve these problems.”
Metals such as tungsten, cobalt, and molybdenum, necessary to the construction of a turbine, were costly and in scarce supply. “Plymouth's production line would drain the national supply in short order,” Zeder continued.
With the exception of a 12 inch oval exhaust port beneath the rear bumper, the first Plymouth turbine cars appeared completely stock. George Stecher, who worked on Chrysler's turbine program for twenty-eight years, recalled another interesting aspect of the first turbine car.
“The original ’54 had no starter. We used to take an air motor—we had a T-handle bolted to the air motor, and we had a shaft that had a couple of tongues on it, and on the engine you had a shaft that had a couple of forks. And we used to sit there with it between our legs and start it that way. On shutdown, the soak-back temperatures got extremely high, so we used to have to sit there once we shut it down and continuously crank it, without feeding any fuel to it, just to cool the engine down so we didn't coke up the
bearings and things of that sort. We had a lot of problems with that.”
Almost a year later the same basic turbine engine was installed in a 1955 Plymouth Belvedere four-door sedan. Painted red and white, the 1955 Turbine Special carried a unique hood ornament and medallion, special body name plates and trunk medallion in addition to having an oval exhaust port built into the center of the rear bumper. The 1955 was never shown publicly but was driven on Detroit streets.
Again, according to Stecher, "Any photographs you see of the car on the streets of Detroit—well, you'd have to go back to the calendar, but it was Good Friday, when they used to close places down from twelve to three. That's when we went out with a bunch of photographers, and we went to various gas stations and things of that sort. It was done for various publicity reasons, but never shown."
March 1956 saw Plymouth's third Turbine Special, an all-white Belvedere four door, take to the highway on the first cross-country test run of a turbine-powered automobile. Leaving New York City's Chrysler Building March 26, the car arrived four days and 3,020 miles later in Los Angeles, California. Fuel economy on the trip averaged 13 mpg, using mostly unleaded gasoline and diesel fuel (the turbine would burn any combustible liquid, from expensive French perfume to rot-gut whiskey).
The trip was to be driven nonstop, with various drivers taking turns at the wheel. George Stecher, who drove on the first and last legs, recalled that the trip was not without its problems. A bearing in a reduction gear failed; “due to somebody putting in a piece of copper tubing for an oil feed and it just fatigued and broke.” Later a cracked intake casting was replaced. Chrysler was prepared for any trouble en route; the entourage included not only the turbine car but three station wagons and a truck carrying fuel, spare parts, and a complete spare engine.
Like the 1955 Belvedere, the cross-country car was modified only to the extent of having special hood medallions, body name plates, and a modified rear bumper with exhaust port. The cross-country Turbine still used the first generation turbine engine, which had been further refined through the addition of automatic controls for turbine temperature, idle, and top speed.
Later in the year, a second 1956 Belvedere Turbine Special was built using a completely redesigned turbine dubbed the CR2. The CR2 was rated at 200hp, double that of the first version. This Belvedere was never publicly shown and lacked some of the distinctive features of the cross-country turbine. Both 1956 Turbine Belvederes were fitted with green interiors.
Turbine development work continued, with the engine installed next into a white 1957 Plymouth sedan. This turbine, also a second generation CR2 version, was never shown publicly and was later modified to look like the 1958 series Plymouths. Why Chrysler bothered to update the looks of the car remains something of a mystery—even today Chrysler's history of the turbine project fails to even mention the 1957-58 Turbine Special!
Following a public absence of nearly three years, Plymouth officially unveiled the CR2 turbine in a red 1959 Fury four-door hardtop. Like the original CR2 version in the 1956 and 1957-58 cars, this turbine was rated at 200hp. This car was taken out on the highway, logging a 576 mile test run from Detroit to New York City and back in December 1958.
This second generation turbine, also considered "just a laboratory tool," was improved in nearly all respects. Three major components, the compressor, regenerator, and burner, showed significant improvements in operating efficiency. At an average speed of 38 mph, the turbine logged 19 mpg on the run east; on the return trip, averaging 51 mph, mileage dropped slightly to 17 mpg. Fuel used on this trip included diesel fuel, JP4 jet fuel, and regular gasoline.
By 1961, Chrysler engineers had again completely redesigned the turbine, referring to the third-generation turbine as the CR2A. First shown to the public in February 1961, the engine was installed in three different vehicles — a wildly designed show car called the Turboflite, a silver and red 1960 Plymouth Belvedere four-door hardtop, and a 1960 Dodge truck. Why these turbines weren't used in 1961 models was never explained. Later, a third-generation turbine would be fitted into a 1962 Dodge truck.
For whatever reason, Chrysler’s next turbine-powered automobiles came from Dodge — a pair of 1962 Dodge Turbo Darts. One of the Turbo Darts, a light blue two-door hardtop, was driven cross country by George Huebner, who left New York City on December 27, 1961, and arrived in Los Angeles on New Year's Eve.
Eventually the turbine engine found its way into a pair of 1962 Plymouth Fury hardtop coupes dubbed the Turbo Furys; the Turbo Furys, along with the Turbo Darts, began an extensive dealership tour in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, and Chicago to test consumer reaction. Tour schedules included first displaying the cars to members of the press, giving each newsman a ride in the car and staging special tests. Following the press conferences, the cars went on display. By the time the tests were finished, the cars had been shown in ninety cities in both the U.S. and Canada.
At each showing the question was asked, "If this car were offered for sale to the motoring public, do you think you would buy one?" Thirty percent answered yes, they would definitely buy one, with 54% answering they would seriously think of buying a turbine-powered car. Basing on these replies, Chrysler Corporation released a statement Valentine's Day 1962 that it would build "fifty to seventy-five turbine-powered passenger cars" that would be made available to selected users by the end of 1963.
Three months, later Chrvsler unveiled
the Elwood Engle designed Ghia-bodied Turbine Car at the Essex House in New York City. On the same day a ride-and-drive program for the press was held at the 2-1/2mi Roosevelt Raceway Park on Long Island. Chrysler dealers got their first hands-on look at the car at the Waldorf-Astoria May 15.
With the switch to the semi-production Ghia Turbine Cars (fifty-five were built, fifty of which were used in Chrysler's Consumer Delivery Program, which ran from October 29, 1963, through January 28, 1966), Plymouth's involvement in Chryslers turbine program began winding down. Two 1964 Turbine Plymouths were built, one powered by a "fourth generation" design, the other with a "fifth generation" turbine.
The last Plymouth Turbine cars, a pair of Satellite sedans built in 1973, marked Plymouth's last efforts in the corporation's Turbine program.
What had begun as a serious attempt to produce an alternative to the piston engine automobile eventually fell by the wayside.
Between 1953 and 1970 Chrysler had invested $100 million of its own funds in the turbine program, with the U.S. government investing an additional $19 million between 1972 and 1980. The Arab oil embargo of 1973, Chrysler's declining fortunes in the late 1970s, and stringent government regulations all helped kill the project.
When the program was discontinued an eighth generation turbine was on the drawing boards, designed to be used with the K-car platform. When the axe fell, Chrysler Corporation had built a total of eighty turbine-powered motor vehicles: fourteen Plymouths, seven Dodges, two Dodge trucks, two dream cars, and fifty-five Ghia-bodied coupes.
None of the early turbine cars still exist. Considered merely prototypes and test mules, the cars were eventually scrapped.
Fate was slightly kinder to nine of the fifty-five Ghia Turbines. Because the bodies of these cars had been built in Italy, they were brought into the country under a Customs bond. Eventually Chrysler had the choice of paying duty on the vehicles or scrapping them, and it chose the latter. The turbine engines were removed and the cars trucked to the "boneyard" at the Chelsea test facility where Chrysler prototypes are routinely cut apart. Under the watchful eye of Elmer Kiel, Chelsea's destruction overseer, the cars were pulled off the transporters, the hood and deck lids torched off, the windows smashed, and the interiors set on fire before the bodies were loaded into a crusher.
The remaining nine Ghia Turbines were dispersed to museums around the country. Chrysler Corporation retained three of the coupes, number 50, number 42, and number 47. The Harrah Collection in Reno, Nevada, got car number 31 which has since passed through the Domino Collection to Frank Kleptz, the only turbine car now in private hands [this may have changed]. Car number 11 is in the National Museum of Transportation at St. Louis, car number 25 is in Detroit at the Detroit Historical Collection on Woodward Avenue, car number 34 resides in the Henry Ford Museum at Dearborn, and car number 44 at the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. The last car, number 45, resides at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
Each car had to be shipped with the turbine disabled, but each was shipped with a fresh engine in a crate. Except for the Chrysler-owned cars, all the cars remain inoperable [as of the writing of the book]. The Chrysler Historical Foundation possesses one of each of the seven generations of the turbine engine, reminders of Chrysler’s valiant effort to mass produce a gas turbine-powered automobile.
Want to learn more? main turbine information page and Jim Benjaminson’s history of the Plymouth turbine cars
Chrysler Heritage • History by Year • Chrysler People and Bios • Corporate Facts and History
Plymouth 1946-1959: Introduction • Turbines • Diesels • Christine • Dream Cars • Print version1924-1945 • 1946-48 • 1949 • 1950 • 1951 • 1952 • 1953 • 1954 • 1955 • 1956 • 1957 • 1958 • 1959 DeSoto and Plymouth Buyers’ Guide: DeSoto 1929-39 • DeSoto 1940s • DeSoto 1950s • Exports
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