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The book: “Chrysler’s Turbine Car,” by Steve Lehto

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The book: "Chrysler's Turbine Car," by Steve Lehto

by Michael Dickens

Imagine a turbine engine that could run on any kind of flammable liquid - diesel, peanut oil, perfume, kerosene, heating oil -even tequila. Talk about alternative fuels. That's thinking outside the box.

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In 1964, Chrysler used cutting-edge engineering to build a fleet of spectacular, snazzy turbine cars that were the coolest creations coming out of Detroit. Chrysler not only let the public touch them, but also lent them out at no cost to the public across the country and, thus, brilliantly marketed a coast-to-coast media frenzy with each delivery. It was an unprecedented publicity campaign that worked to perfection.

Over one million trouble-free miles were logged by the Jet Age fleet, and Chrysler elicited meticulous feedback from each test driver. By all accounts, this public exercise was a tremendous success. Unfortunately, it became a story about a future that never was.

In Chrysler's Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit's Coolest Creation (published in 2010 by Chicago Review Press, Inc.), Steve Lehto, an adjunct professor at University of Detroit - Mercy, has written a fascinating book about the Chrysler turbine cars. He interviewed all the surviving members of the turbine car program, and wove these lively and interesting firsthand accounts into an insider's narrative. The result is a complete book with a lot of interesting technical facts and anecdotes that not only is engaging and entertaining, but very readable. This book will appeal to a wide audience, from automobile enthusiasts to cultural anthropologists.

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By all accounts, the 130-horsepower turbine engine that Chrysler's engineers designed was simpler than the common piston engine because it contained fewer moving parts and required a lot less maintenance. For instance, the turbine engine cars had no radiators or fan belts and they never needed an oil change. However, the cars were expensive to build, and not just because each Italian-designed Ghia coupe had a brilliant metallic bronze body. At a time when most cars retailed for two to three thousand dollars, each turbine-engine car cost in the range of $50-55,000 to build.

"Strangely, Chrysler never officially gave the turbine car a name. In an era when nameplates seemed to be more and more descriptive -- Fury, Charger, Thunderbird -- Chrysler placed only a single nameplate on the sides of this car. It read, simply, 'Turbine'," wrote Lehto. And customer demand skyrocketed throughout the program's history.

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According to Lehto, these futuristic cars were equipped with all the basic comforts except air-conditioning. "They had power steering and power brakes, demonstrating to people that the turbine engine could run the same accessories as a big V-8 piston engine."

Each customer selected by Chrysler was allowed three months to test-drive their Chrysler turbine car. Most became instant celebrities in their communities and, in some instances, curiosity turned to pandemonium. When people heard the whoosh of the engine, they realized that the car was "radically different from everything else on the road at the time." The consumer input Chrysler elicited was unprecedented for this era in the American automobile industry, but dealing with a turbine engine was not without its foibles.

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As Lehto explained in a chapter entitled "The User Experiment:"

Some people wondered what would happen if a Turbine Car were brought in for service to an old-fashioned mechanic unfamiliar with turbine engines and without access to the technical expertise of a Chrysler-affiliated dealership. Sixty years of working on piston engines would presumably create a skill vacuum at these repair facilities, since almost none of the experience of working on piston engines would help a technician diagnose or repair a turbine engine.

Buy Chrysler's Turbine Car

Chrysler's Turbine Program proved this would not be a problem. For the fifty-car test fleet, Chrysler employed five field service technicians and two supervisors. These seven oversaw the repairs and maintenance of all fifty cars for two years to all four corners of the country. Even with the small crew, repairs on the Turbine Car fleet were swift and easy. Early in the program, the total downtime for the cars was 4%. By the end of the run, the technicians had reduced the downtime to 1%. Chrysler proudly pointed out that much of that downtime was taken up by the time it took to ship parts from Detroit to wherever the car sat. Presumably, if there were a dealer network with a supply of parts on hand, the downtime would have become a fraction of 1%.

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One of the main characters in the book is Bill Carry, who headed the service program for the Ghia Turbine Car program throughout the nation. A photo of Carry, nattily-attired, smiling, and leaning against one of the turbine engine cars, graces the cover of the book. According to Lehto, Carry's conclusion at the end of the program was that turbine technology posed "no greater problem to the Automotive Service Industry than the introduction of the automatic transmission did some years ago."

In spite of the positive response and media attention the turbine program generated, it wasn't meant to be.

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Chrysler's decision in 1967 to abandon the Ghia Turbine Car was a major disappointment to all. Further, Chrysler destroyed nearly all of the Ghia Turbine Cars (largely to avoid paying the rather substantial duties). Most were sent to a scrap yard south of Detroit.

According to Lehto, Chrysler management, specifically George Huebner Jr., the company's director of engineering research, knew that the fourth-generation turbine engine still had problems and issues that would be formidable and expensive to resolve.

"(Huebner) wouldn't state it publicly yet, but he believed the Ghia Turbines were too loud, even when they were simply idling," Lehto wrote. "The lag at acceleration was also a problem, and the lack of engine braking would need to be dealt with. The gas mileage was a problem, and the Ghia cars did not have air-conditioning. At the time, air-conditioning was becoming a quite popular option, but the addition of a compressor under the hood would have wasted even more horsepower that the little engine couldn't afford to spare. While the public relations people spun the program as a wild success, Huebner knew it would just send his engineers back to the lab."

Had Chrysler gone ahead with mass-producing the Ghia Turbine Car -- the automobile that was dubbed "the coolest car" -- we might be driving cars that don't require filling up with $4/gallon, petroleum-derived fuels. Just a few of the cars remain and are located at various museums around the country, including one at the Walter P. Chrysler Museum in Auburn Hills, Michigan. In 2009, Chrysler sold one of its three cars to television talk show host Jay Leno (who contributed the forward to the book).

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Looking back nearly five decades later, it's easy to contemplate how the turbine engine cars could have changed the whole dichotomy of automobiles and eased our reliance on oil. Lehto asks: "How different would America be now if we all drove turbine-powered cars? It could have happened. But government interference, shortsighted regulators, and indifferent corporate leaders each played a role in the demise of a program that could have lessened U.S. dependence on Middle East oil."

Q & A with Steve Lehto, author of "Chrysler's Turbine Car"

What made the Chrysler car so cool?

What I thought was so cool about the turbine car -- the Ghia in particular -- was that Chrysler actually made such a spectacular car and lent them out to the public. Talk about putting your money where your mouth is. How often does big business taunt the consumers with show cars and other prototype projects -- showing them to us but not letting us touch them? Here, they handed the cars out and proved that they were roadworthy. That, and how COOL they looked! You gotta love the lines on the Ghia.

Why did Chrysler and not any other U.S. automakers get behind the turbine car?

Allpar's history of the turbine cars

I think the reason Chrysler embraced the turbine so much more than the other companies was simply because of (George) Huebner. He made it his mission to get the cars made and found a receptive audience at a company which, at that time, was known for its cutting-edge engineering. I suspect if Huebner had worked at Ford, we might be talking about the Ford Turbine Car being Detroit's Coolest Creation (assuming Huebner could have sold Ford on the project).

Do you think Chrysler regrets abandoning the project?

I don't know about Chrysler as a whole (as in the top people there), but I know a lot of the men I spoke with who worked on the program hated to see the program killed. I think to many of them the problems appeared solvable. They had done so much of the work heading toward a goal, they felt like the race was called off when they could see the finish line. I know a few who say that the case might not have been that rosy, but most of them think quite fondly of the program, and of the Ghia turbine car in particular.

Is there a backstory about the book's cover photo?

Many people don't catch that the man on the cover is Bill Carry, the mechanic who ran around the country doing maintenance and delivering the user cars to people. He is still around -- he's the one who had the picture -- and he's a great guy. He's even come to a book signing with me and signed books! I think the picture captures the moment and the era perfectly.

Turbine information at Allpar
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