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Chrysler turbine engines and cars

Chrysler turbine car, rear viewFor decades, Chrysler worked on an alternative engine design that might have provided a very flexible alternative. It ended without fanfare in 1979, and was never picked up again - as far as we know.

Richard Benner, Jr., wrote: "Mike Eberhart (who works here at Chrysler St. Louis) is the guy who take the vehicle around for shows all over the U.S. He gives rides in the vehicles (I have ridden 3 times) and for anyone who says they did ride it it, if they did, they sign into a log that is kept here at the St. Louis Museum of Transportation, who owns the vehicle. Mike just has it on loan to work on and transport it. He did much of the work himself to get it running and in the condition it is in." Photos of Mike and his turbine.

One turbine-powered car, not made by Chrysler, was entered into professional racing at the Indianapolis 500; the turbine itself was a standard aviation unit, and the car involved nearly won, but a bad wheel bearing took it out of the race. Turbine powered cars were then excluded from racing through rules. [Details

turbine car

The history of the Chrysler gas turbine effort, 1954-1964

This first article was released in January 1964 by Chrysler Corporation.

Early gas turbine research and development and Chrysler Corporation

Buy or make a turbine model!

At Chrysler Corporation, the earliest work on gas turbine engines dates back to before World War II, when an exploratory engineering survey was conducted. These studies showed that, although the gas turbine engine had strong possibilities of being an ideal automobile engine, neither materials nor techniques had advanced to the point where the cost and time of intensive research would be warranted.

At the close of World War II, studies of completely new concepts in gas turbine design were started. As a result of this work, Chrysler was awarded, in the fall of 1945, a research and development contract by the Bureau of Aeronautics of the U. S. Navy to create a turboprop engine for aircraft. This program - although terminated in 1949 - resulted in the development of a turboprop engine which achieved fuel economy approaching that of aircraft piston engines.

1963 Chrysler Turbine (see many more photos)
1963 Chrysler turbine car (front-side)

Chrysler research scientists and engineers then returned to their original objective - the automotive gas turbine engine. In the early 1950s, experimental gas turbine power plants were operated on dynamometers and in test vehicles. Active component development programs were carried out to improve compressors, regenerators, turbine sections, burner controls, gears, and accessories.

Here they faced many challenges: fuel consumption had to be competitive with conventional engines; components had to be small and highly efficient; noise had to be in the tolerable range; engine braking was a necessity, and the acceleration time-lag had to be reasonable.

huebner and chrysler gas turbine

In addition, readily available and non-strategic high temperature materials had to be developed, exhaust gas temperatures had to be low, and development work had to meet the requirements of building an engine which would be light, compact, reliable, easy to maintain and, from the cost aspect, competitive with the conventional automobile engines.

In spite of these difficult requirements, Chrysler research engineers were convinced that the potentialities of the automotive gas turbine engine were more than sufficient to warrant intensive research and a full-scale design and development program.

The advantages of the gas turbine over the conventional engine are, indeed, real. Some of these advantages are:

  • turbine hood ornamentMaintenance is considerably reduced
  • Engine life-expectancy is much longer
  • Development potential is remarkable
  • The number of parts is reduced 80%
  • Tuning-up is almost eliminated
  • Low-temperature starting difficulties are eliminated
  • No warm-up period is necessary
  • Antifreeze is not needed
  • Instant heat is available in the winter
  • The engine will not stall with sudden overloading
  • Engine operation is vibration-free
  • Operates on wide variety of fuels
  • Oil consumption is negligible
  • Engine weight is reduced
  • Exhaust gases are cool and clean

The first production turbine car

On March 25, 1954, Chrysler Corporation disclosed the development and successful road testing of a 1954 production model Plymouth sport coupe which was powered by a turbine engine. On June 16, 1954, it was demonstrated at the dedication of the Chrysler Engineering Proving Grounds near Chelsea, Michigan. This car marked the first attempt by an American automotive firm to install a gas turbine engine in a production automobile.

The engine was rated at 100 shaft horsepower. Although built essentially as a laboratory development tool, it embodied solutions to two of the major problems long associated with vehicular gas turbines - high fuel consumption and scorching exhaust gas.

The key feature which contributed to removing these technical barriers was the revolutionary new heat exchanger, or regenerator . It extracted heat from the hot exhaust gases, transferred this energy to the incoming air, and thus lightened the burner's job of raising the gas temperature. The result was conservation of fuel as well as lower exhaust temperatures. A gas turbine engine without a regenerator would have required several times the amount of fuel normally used in a regenerator-equipped engine . The extra fuel would be required to heat the gases to operating levels .

The regenerator also performed another important function. It reduced the exhaust gas temperature from about 1200 degrees F at full engine power to a safe level of less than 500 degrees Farenheit. Even more important, at idle the temperature was reduced to 170 degrees. By the time the gases passed through the exhaust ducts to the atmosphere, the temperature was reduced even further.

Almost a year later, the same basic engine was installed in a 1955 Plymouth. This car, although never displayed at public exhibits, was used for driving evaluation tests on Detroit area streets.

The 1956 cross-country endurance test

In March, 1956, another historic event took place - the first transcontinental journey of an automobile powered by a gas turbine engine .

The turbine car - a four-door 1956 Plymouth sedan, a standard production model - departed from the Chrysler Building in New York City on March 26. On March 30, four days and 3,020 miles later, it completed the cross-country endurance test when it arrived at the City Hall in Los Angeles, California. The purpose of the run was to test the turbine's durability, acceleration, fuel economy, control in traffic, action on steep grades, and operation under various climatic conditions.

Over the entire trip, fuel economy averaged approximately 13 miles per gallon using mostly "white" (unleaded) gasoline and some diesel fuel . The run was interrupted only twice for minor repairs which did not involve the turbine engine (a faulty bearing in the reduction gear and an intake casting were replaced) . The engine itself and its basic components performed very well and without failures of any kind.

The experimental turbine engine was essentially the same as the one tested previously in the 1954 Plymouth. However, it reflected progress in the following major points:

  • engine friction was greatly reduced
  • considerable work had been done with plain bearings instead of more expensive types of antifriction bearings;
  • the combustion system was improved; and
  • engine controls were developed further, allowing the driver to operate the turbine car just as he would a conventional automobile.

The second generation Plymouth turbine

After extensive laboratory tests, a second engine was installed in a standard production 1959 Plymouth four door hardtop. In December, 1958, this latest Turbine Special made a 576-mile test run from Detroit to New York. The results showed significant improvements in fuel economy, along with roughly double the horsepower. (The following photos are not from this car but from the special-production turbine cars.)

turbine car gauges

Three major engine components (compressor, regenerator and burner) showed significant improvements in operating efficiency . The compressor efficiency was brought up to 80 per cent, a 10 per cent increase. The regenerator or heat exchanger unit reclaimed almost 90 per cent of the heat energy in the exhaust gas whereas peak efficiency in the 1956 cross-country run was around 86 per cent. Burner efficiency also was improved so that it was approaching the point of ideal combustion.

Less apparent, but fully as important as the engine design advances, was the progress in turbine metallurgy. Prior to this time, automotive turbine metals were similar to those used in aircraft jet engines, which would not be suitable for automotive production for two key reasons: cost, and the lack of availability in the quantities needed. Through Chrysler metallurgical research, new materials were developed which contained plentiful and relatively inexpensive elements and could be fabricated by conventional means.

Chrysler engineers designed the third generation of the turbine and introduced it in three different vehicles. The initial showing was to newsmen on February 28, 1961. The vehicles were displayed publicly in Washington, D.C., March 5-9, 1961, in conjunction with the Turbine Power Conference of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, co-sponsored by the Department of Defense.

The first of these gas turbine vehicles was an experimental sports car called the Turboflite. In addition to the engine, other advanced ideas of the car were the retractable headlights, a deceleration air-flap suspended between the two stability struts, and an automatic canopied roof. This "idea" car received wide public interest and was shown at auto shows in New York City, Chicago, London, Paris, etc. The other vehicles were a near-stock 1960 Plymouth and two-and-a-half-ton Dodge truck.

The CR2A - Turbo Dodge Dart and Turbo Plymouth Fury

After months of test and development work, a CR2A gas turbine engine was installed in a modified 1962 Dodge called the Dodge Turbo Dart. Styling modifications to the car were adapted to reflect its radically different power plant. The bladed wheel motif of the grille and wheel covers reflected the appearance of the vital components of the gas turbine.

turbine engineThe car left New York City on December 27, 1961, to begin a coast-to-coast engineering evaluation. After traveling 3, 100 miles through snowstorms, freezing rain, subzero temperatures and 25 to 40 mile per hour head winds, it arrived in Los Angeles on December 31.

The turbine not only lived up to all expectations but exceeded them! An inspection showed every part of the engine in excellent condition. Fuel economy was consistently better than a conventional car which traveled with the turbine car and was exposed to the same conditions. The key to the excellent performance and economy of the third generation gas turbine (called the CR2A) was its new variable turbine nozzle mechanism.

The automatic second stage turbine nozzles provided optimum results throughout the entire operating range of the engine. Thus, economy, performance, or engine braking could be maximized as required by the driver. For example, one area of performance is what is termed acceleration lag - the time it takes the compressor section to reach operating speed after the accelerator pedal is depressed. The first turbine engine had an acceleration lag of seven seconds from idle to full-rate output; the second engine required three seconds to achieve maximum vehicle acceleration, while this new engine required less than one and one-half seconds to accomplish the same performance.

Chrysler turbine car customer reaction tours

Another experimental turbine-powered car - the Plymouth Turbo Fury - joined the Dodge Turbo Dart, and the two turbine-powered cars began extensive consumer reaction tours at dealerships throughout the country in cities such as Los Angeles, San Francisco, Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago, etc. Two other turbine cars, a second Dodge and a second Plymouth, were added during the month of April in order to expand coverage of the tours. All four cars were powered by versions of the CR2A turbine engine.

interior

The tour schedule was similar in each area. When the cars arrived in a given city they were first displayed to members of the local press. The press events involved explaining the turbine and answering questions, giving each newsman a ride in one of the cars, and, in some cases, staging special tests. After members of the press had viewed the cars, they were then displayed at various dealerships. The cars were shown at Plymouth and Dodge dealerships in approximately 90 major cities in the United States and Canada.

During this time hundreds of thousands of people came to see the turbine vehicles, and public interest was intense and serious. When asked, "if this car were offered for sale to the motoring public, do you think you would buy one?" 30 per cent of the turbine viewers said "yes" they would definitely buy one and 54 per cent answered they would think seriously of buying one.

As a result, on February 14, 1962, Chrysler Corporation announced that it would build 50 to 75 turbine-powered passenger cars which would be available to selected users by the end of 1963. Typical motorists would be offered an opportunity to evaluate turbine cars under a variety of driving conditions.

On February 14, 1962, in Chicago, Chrysler Corporation exhibited another gas turbine vehicle - the Dodge Turbo Truck. This medium-duty truck (also equipped with the CR2A experimental engine) had just completed a 290-mile test run from Detroit to Chicago.

From February 17 through 25, three gas turbine-powered vehicles (the Plymouth, Dodge, and Dodge Truck) were exhibited at the Chicago Automobile Show.

On March 7, 1962, George J. Huebner, Jr., Executive Engineer of Research for Chrysler Corporation, received an award from the Power Division of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers "for his leadership in the development of the first automotive gas turbine suitable for mass -produced passenger automobiles." It was the first such award ever given to an automotive engineer.

Chrysler Corporation then built 50 turbine-powered cars and placed them in the hands of typical drivers for evaluation in everyday use.

Front of Chrysler gasoline turbine car Back of production Chrysler turbine car

the Chrysler twin-regenerative gas turbineThis program was an outstanding point in the history of turbine vehicles for two key reasons. First, this was the first time any company had committed itself to build a significant number of gas turbine vehicles. (In the past, gas turbine installations generally were limited to one or two test vehicles.) Second, for the first time, turbine-powered automobiles would be driven and evaluated by private individuals outside the corporation. (Previously, only research specialists and a few automotive writers had been permitted to drive the turbine-powered cars.)

Since the sole purpose was to determine the reaction of typical American drivers to turbine-powered vehicles, the engine was placed in a family-type car designed for everyday use which forms a familiar evaluation background for the driver. The styling theme is designed to provide an exciting setting for the vehicle itself. The over-all impression is a fresh styling appeal with strong emphasis on a contemporary and luxurious appearance. Ornamentation is based on the bladed turbine motif which is characteristic of the engine. The interior features a full-length center console and extensive use of leather.

The Turbine is offered as one body style - a four-passenger, 2-door hardtop. The exterior and interior are turbine bronze. Power steering, power brakes, power window lifts, automatic transmission, and all other available equipment are standard.

The turbine power plant for the car is an entirely new design, more advanced in concept than the previous Chrysler turbines. It is Chrysler Corporation's fourth generation turbine power plant design. It has a new configuration with two regenerators rotating in vertical planes (one on each side) and a centrally located burner. Compared to the previous model CR2A, the new engine is more lively, lighter, more compact, and quieter. Acceleration lag (see page 15) is reduced to slightly over one second. And, of particular interest, the new engine design is more adaptable to production techniques.

Turbine car instrumentation and controls

The operation of the Turbine Car is much the same as that of a car with a piston engine and an automatic transmission. To start it, place the transmission shift lever in the "Idle" location and push down to engage the "Park/Start" position. Turn the ignition key to the right and release it. Starting is automatic. Within a few seconds, the inlet temperature and tachometer gauges on the instrument panel will read about 1700 F and 18, 000 rpm, respectively, indicating that the engine is started.

The present performance and economy of the Turbine are comparable to a conventional car with a standard V-8 engine. The engine will operate satisfactorily on diesel fuel, kerosene, unleaded gasoline, JP-4 (jet fuel), and mixtures thereof. And, even more interesting, it is possible to change from one of these fuels to another without any changes or adjustments to the engine. The users of the cars also will appreciate the many other advantages of the turbine engine.

The cars were built at Chrysler Corporation's Engineering Research Laboratories in Detroit. At the assembly area, the Chrysler-designed car bodies, which are built by Ghia of Italy, were lowered onto the new engines and chassis components. The turbine engines were built and tested at Chrysler's Research Laboratories.

Chrysler turbines behind the third-gen turbine car

The objective of the program is to test consumer and market reaction to turbine power and to obtain service data and driver experience with the turbine cars under a wide variety of conditions. Each selected user will drive the car for a period up to three months under a no-charge agreement. The car then will be reassigned to other users to provide a broad consumer sampling base. In total, the 50 cars will be distributed to about 200 motorists on a rotating system over a two-year period.

Under the user selection procedure, Chrysler gave its accounting firm the date and metropolitan area location of each planned delivery. Random selection of user candidates for each location were then made by the accounting firm according to the selection and distribution criteria specified by Chrysler to meet market test objectives.

To qualify initially as a turbine prospect, a candidate must own a car (or, be a member of a household in which a car is owned by the head of the household) and must have a valid driver's license.

Turbine candidates were being picked as follows:

  1. From Chrysler's letter inquiry file which currently contains 25,000 names. These applications were in the form of unsolicited letters from people in hundreds of cities in all 50 states (and 15 countries). Requests range from that of a 12-year-old boy asking that his father be given a car to that of an 83-year-old retiree.
  2. From major population centers in the 48 continental United States. Chrysler specified this to assure a high degree of market exposure to turbine-powered vehicles and to test the cars in a variety of geographical areas and in all kinds of weather and terrain.
  3. In accordance with the make, price category and age of the new and used cars owned by candidates at the time they wrote their letters to Chrysler. In this respect, the program intent is to select users whose car ownership pattern will reflect the great variety of the types and ages of cars on the road today.

turbine logoIn return for the use of the turbine car, each user was asked to furnish Chrysler with information needed for the market evaluation program. In general, Chrysler handled the service, insurance and other costs involved in the use of the turbine car. Each user bought the fuel for driving it. He also was expected to maintain the physical appearance of the car, exercise reasonable care to protect it from damage, and supervise its use by others. And, in the event of some difficulty, he was instructed to report the situation to a turbine service representative.

The world's first consumer delivery of a turbine car took place October 29, 1963 in Chicago. Mr. Lynn A. Townsend, president of Chrysler Corporation, presented the keys to the turbine car to Mr. and Mrs. Richard E. Vlaha of Broadview (a Chicago suburb). Typical of the 200 scheduled deliveries, the presentation was observed by newsmen and reported in various newspapers, magazines, and on radio and television.

The objective of this program is to learn just how this new kind of car performs in the hands of typical drivers and in typical everyday usage - on long trips and short trips - and over a wide range of climatic conditions and terrain.

In addition to the user evaluation program, a traveling exhibit began visiting large shopping centers across the United States in January, 1964. The exhibits include a turbine car, turbine engine displays and regular production Chrysler Corporation products. Each stopover is scheduled for several days or weeks and is announced in local newspapers. Chrysler representatives accompany the exhibits and explain the turbine and Chrysler's program to interested visitors.

A turbine car also was taken on a world tour. From September 12, 1963 through January 8, 1964, the car was shown in 23 cities in 21 countries. The 47,000-mile journey by a chartered aircraft included stopovers in Geneva, Paris, London, Turin, Bombay, Singapore, Tokyo, Sydney, Cape Town, Buenos Aires, and Mexico City.

Throughout all aspects of the consumer evaluation, shopping center exhibit, and world tour programs, Chrysler is trying to get reactions from the general public - from the millions of people who will drive, ride and view this new kind of car. This evaluation, Chrysler emphasizes, is designed to generate the information needed as the basis for decisions regarding the direction that should be taken in the turbine program. It is a necessary piece of research concerning the size and characteristics of the potential market for this new kind of automobile. And since it is a test -an experimental market-research project - it has no pre-ordained outcome. 

In 1966, Chrysler wrote:

Its body was designed by Chrysler engineers and stylists and built by Ghia of Italy. The gas turbine engine was built and tested at Chrysler Research Laboratories. It had a rated output of 130 bhp @ 3600 rpm output shaft speed. The Turbine Car was used to test consumer and market reaction to gas turbine power in one of the most ambitious consumer research programs yet undertaken. All told, the 50 Turbine Cars used during the test were loaned to 203 different drivers in 133 cities throughout 48 states. Each car was assigned to a user for a three-month period, at the end of which time he was asked to furnish Chrysler with information needed for the market evaluation program.

1964 turbine car specifications

  • 130 horsepower at 3,600 rpm (output shaft speed); 425 lb-ft of torque at zero rpm!
  • Weight: 410 lb - 25 inches long, 25.5 inches wide, 27.5 inches tall (without accessories, which make the overall length 35 inches).
  • Fuel requirements: what've you got? diesel, unleaded gas, kerosene, JP-4, others. No adjustments needed to switch from one to the other.
  • Compressor: centrifugal, single-stage compressor with 4:1 pressure ratio, 80% efficiency, 2.2 lb/sec air flow
  • First stage turbine: axial, single-stage, 87% efficiency, inlet temperature 1,700 degrees F.
  • Second-stage turbine: axial, single-stage, 84% efficiency, max speed 45,700 rpm
  • Regenerator: dual rotating disks, 90% effectiveness, 22 rpm max speed
  • Burner: single can, reverse flow, 95% efficiency
  • Maximum gas generator speed: 44,600 rpm
  • Maximum output speed, after reduction gears: 4,680 rpm
  • Exhaust temperature at full power: 500 degrees Farenheit.

The future of turbines, as seen in 1964.

Although the progress of the gas turbine and its advantages are impressive, additional progress in improved component efficiencies (particularly in the compressor) and the future possibility inherent in increased operating temperatures, are extremely promising. For example, a 400-degree increase in nozzle inlet temperature would mean a 40 per cent increase in specific output for a given-size power plant, or conversely, a reduction in size for a fixed horsepower. The same 400 degrees increase would improve fuel economy over 20 per cent without needing to take advantage of any further increase in component efficiency.

The tremendous potential of the turbine to satisfy the characteristics desired in a power plant fires the imagination and the energy of Chrysler engineers. They feel that the turbine has great promise for propelling automobiles more smoothly, more economically, and more dependably.

See details on the costs of the turbine engine and car.

After the 1964 report

LeBaron-based 1977 Chrysler turbine carThis 1977 turbine car, based on the LeBaron body, was the last unique-bodied turbine car made.

In February 1978, Chrysler delivered its first turbine-powered vehicle to a waiting buyer: the XM-1 (later M-1 Abrams) tank, delivered to the United States military, which was already buying M-60 series tanks from Chrysler Corporation. While Chrysler never sold a single turbine sedan, it did sell M1 series turbine tanks.

The final turbine powered Chrysler Corporation vehicle was a 1980 Dodge Mirada which is still in existence. J. Ditman wrote that this car used the seventh generation turbine, which was quieter and had less lag that prior models.

The turbine cars that became the Dodge Charger

A Chrysler employee wrote: “I remember Tom Golec from when I began working in Building 135, which housed the turbine research area. Building 135 also housed the NVH lab, suspension and brake lab, part of engine lab with 16 engine dynos (including infamous Cell 13, Race Room), the turbine garage area, dynos and office area for turbine personnel. One of the guys that was a mechanic in that group back then is still working as a facilities coordinator. He still has his promotional Gia body Turbine car they made up and gave out to the group.”

According to the original history of the Chrysler Gas Turbine program published in Hemmings Special-Interest Autos magazine and written by gas turbine expert Leon Dixon, the Dodge Charger was originally intended to be a turbine car. His original article stated that the Chrysler turbines had reached the point where production would be practical, and the decision to make a special, limited-production turbine car with different styling was reached. Tom Golec, supervisor of car development, said that low-volume tooling for a 500-vehicle production run had already been ordered, and a no-slip clutch unit was developed (but not used because of its cost). The project was cancelled, and the special body became the Charger (but with a different grille and different tail lights and ornamentation).

The turbine engine that went into production

Chrysler did put a turbine into full scale production... in the M1 “Abrams” tank.

Major General Robert J. Sunell said in an interview:

XM1 tankEarly on, I wasn't sure about the turbine engine because it was new. I wasn't completely sure about how well it would do. As I look at it now, that engine has turned out to be excellent. It eats a lot of fuel, but it's a very reliable engine, and it gives you the power you need, and it saves you space. ... Of course, that had considerable impact on the industry, specifically Chrysler. As you know, pieces and parts of the M1 come from forty-one states and Canada. ... There's nothing wrong with the [German] Leo [tank which was an alternative to the M1], but it didn't have the protection of the M1. It didn't have a lot of the other features, and eventually, the test showed that the M1 was a better tank. The test was done by Aberdeen Proving Ground, not by the project.

Why the turbine program ended

Bob Sheaves wrote:

When the Corporation was in such dire straights, back in 1979, Chrysler got some loan guarantees from the US Government. That Chrysler (as a condition of those loans) had to sell off Chrysler Defense and the M1 turbine-powered tank program is lesser known, but still public knowledge.

What is known only to a priviledged few is that the government killed a dream of a lifetime for a group of 70 people at the Chrysler "skunkworks" in Highland Park.

Chrysler was, at the time, days away from making a production decision (one which Iacocca favored) on a rather unique vehicle...

The 1981 Chrysler New Yorker (M-body) Turbine car was ready to be tooled, according to the head of the program, Mr. George Scheckter, whom I met when I got to see and touch the 1963 Turbine Car again in 1989. There was no more design work to be accomplished, just tool and start production.

The turbine was a fifth generation (not a third generation, like the 1963 car) engine capable of 22mpg in the EPA test cycles. One of the prototypes is still in existence (at least it was in 1989), stored in the same building as the 1963 car, with its tooling and all the remaining spare parts (enough to build 3 more of the 1963 cars).

Your government thought it was too much of a risk and ordered the car cancelled as "too risky, from an economic standpoint." Just imagine what COULD have happened!

A working turbine engine

Randy Knox wrote: I was recently in the basement of the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles along with the museum's curator, Leslie Kendall, and noticed a crate marked with Chrysler logos. It is a new, complete turbine engine and transmission for the 1963 Turbine. They also have a mockup of the engine and transmission that was used at auto shows which is on display with their Turbine car.

When Chrysler distributed the remaining few cars to museums years back they were supposed to have disabled the engines. The car the Petersen got has an untouched, perfectly working engine and it was, apparently, a "mistake" to have delivered that car without modification. But if the mistake had been caught, the Petersen had a new engine to replace it with...

Where the engineers went

Seth Brasile wrote: that a group of Chrysler's engineers quit Chrysler and moved to GM in 1990 or thereabouts to continue working on the turbine project. GM had also been working on tubines for many decades.

Could Chrysler sell a turbine now? and other answers

Barry Dressel, manager of the Walter P. Chrysler museum, offered a number of insights (responding to Russell Richardson's request) as to why the turbine never made it into full production, and why it would be difficult to offer it now.

Chrysler Engineering began working on automotive applications for gas turbines because they were attracted by the multi-fuel capability, along with the reduced number of moving parts and the absence of vibration. The difficulties to overcome included the fact that turbines, even at the lowest end of their operating spectrum, turn at very high rpm and thus consume considerable amounts of fuel at idle, plus the fact that the application of throttle does not produce instantaneous response, but a lag while the turbine "spools-up." This is basically the same characteristic as the "turbo lag" in turbocharged piston cars.

Turbines also have a high operating temperature, requiring use of special--and expensive--alloys, and the exhaust generates considerable BTUs and exits at a very high temperature.

Turbines are also very loud. Addressing the heat and noise requires considerable more sophistication than required by the piston engine exhaust system. And while our experience with turbine cars even today is that they are quite reliable and require little maintenance, when something does break, its makeup guarantees it will expensive to replace.

For these reasons it's easy to see why aircraft and naval applications are ideal for turbines. Today the US and the British navies use destroyers powered not by steam turbines--which require constant maintenance by a comparatively large and well trained crew--but gas turbines, which are "pod" installations requiring less crew to operate and are "overhauled by replacement" during refits. The noise of these units can be dealt with fairly easily, the rpm range required is narrow, and the heat produced can be scavenged for other purposes.

By 1962 Chrysler engineers ameliorated most drawbacks to using a turbine in a domestic automobile so that the renowned fleet of fifty experimental turbine cars with custom built Ghia bodies could sent to consumers for a two-year evaluation program. The verdict the consumer evaluators was favorable overall, although throttle lag remained an issue--especially noticeable in those days of big V-8s.

The big complaint from the consumers was poor fuel economy at idle and lower speeds. Unfortunately, this wasn't something further refinement could alter very much, since high rpm is inherent in gas turbine operation. I suspect this was the main reason that the U.S. Government ended its support for Chrysler's turbine research--the Goverment's goal was to lower fuel consumption in vehicles, not increase it, never mind the fuel flexibility.

Parenthetically, based on our present day experience with our two operative turbine cars, high fuel consumption at idle does result in a lot of exhaust heat BTUs. This may not be a problem with one car, but the possibility of traffic jam including numbers of turbine vehicles, occurring, say, on a steamy summer morning in Atlanta, might have resulted in some interesting thermal pollution problems.

Ultimately the cost of producing turbine vehicles and the inherent drawbacks to their use in an automotive application would have produced very limited market acceptance. In talks about making cars cleaner and more fuel efficient with engineers here, I've asked whether a small turbine, turning at a constant rate, wouldn't be an ideal way to power the generator of an electric motor-driven car. Alas, the noise, high rpm and heat are still expensive problems, and turbines small enough to serve such a purpose are prohibitively expensive compared to existing alternatives, such as small diesels. In a sense, that's where Chrysler left off. In this context, the allure today of the fuel cell becomes clear.

I do know that both Volvo--the truck and bus company, not the car division now owned by Ford--and NASA have developed the sort of gas-turbo-electric hybrid I mentioned before, but the application has evidently not been feasible in an automobile--only in bigger machines, like buses.

All the types of automotive turbine uses seem to be targeted for larger vehicles--tanks, road equipment, busses, etc. The use of new ceramic materials in place of metal alloys seems to offer thermal efficiencies and economic efficiencies unheard of earlier, and the various researchers interested in gas turbines keep mentioning the future development of practical small automotive gas turbines, but no auto company I know of is currently experimenting with cars in the manner of Chrysler from the 1950s to the 1970s. In the future a small, efficient turbine may be developed that can replace the small diesels presently touted for hybrid cars.

Cole Quinnel, Engineering and Technical Affairs Public Relations Manager, noted: “You are correct that the turbine engine has evolved as well in those 40 years and that may be an advantage. The fact that Chrysler built some of these cars in the 1960s is interesting trivia, but it may not be of any real value in considering whether a turbine car is viable in the future. You really must start from a clean slate of paper considering all of the changes in customers, environment, and technology.”

The turbine engine is only part of the cost of a turbine car. See Bob Steele’s article for more on the total costs.

Other Chrysler turbine engine resources

Bob Steele’s turbine memories • 1963 Chrysler Ghia turbine car photosJim Benjaminson’s turbine car history • turbinecar site.

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