Gear Head Tuesday – The Chrysler Gas Turbine Program

Gear Head

Much of today’s post was adapted from an article on Chrysler’s turbine program at


Chrysler commissioned Ghia in Italy to build 50 of these 1964 gas turbine powered cars which were put into the hands of some 200 drivers across the U.S. to gather data on how the turbine-engined cars would perform in the hands of actual drivers, not just on the test track.

Two weeks ago we covered Ford’s gas turbine truck, “Big Red”, from 1964. In that post we alluded to the work done by Chrysler in developing gas turbine powered cars. Today we return to the subject of Chrysler’s work with turbines.

While both General Motors and Ford built experimental gas turbine vehicles, Chrysler did more than any U.S. manufacturer with its efforts to develop a gas turbine powered car that actually be brought to market.

Prior to World War II, Chrysler had begun experimental work toward developing gas turbine engines for use in automobiles. With the outbreak of the war, that work was shelved. The gas turbine engine for automobiles can trace its lineage back to the 1930s and the first aircraft jet engine developed by Frank White in England. Nazi Germany was the first to fly jet-powered aircraft just as Hitler’s “Thousand Year Reich” was collapsing all around him. Rolls-Royce furthered the development of gas turbine jets for aircraft after the war. Gas turbine powered jet aircraft proved their mettle in the Korean War.

As the Second World War began to wind down in 1945, the U.S. Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics awarded a contract to Chrysler for the development of a turboprop engine for aircraft. The program ended in 1949 and Chrysler had developed for the Navy a turboprop engine with almost the same fuel economy as piston-driven aircraft engines.

Chrysler’s work for the Navy paid dividends when in the early 1950s, Chrysler’s experimental engineers resumed their research into automotive gas turbine engines. Their turbine development programs worked to improve the engine components: compressors, regenerators, turbine sections, burner controls, gears, and accessories. Chrysler engineer George Huebner led the company’s gas turbine development efforts. He was known around Chrysler as “Mr. Turbine.”


George Huebner, “Mr. Turbine,” with a 1962 gas turbine powered Plymouth

Among the challenges the engineers faced were these: 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. Of these, one of the thorniest to overcome was the inherent lack of engine braking in turbine engines closely followed by the problem of achieving acceptable fuel consumption.

In addition, readily available and non-strategic high temperature component 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.

Chrysler research engineers were convinced that, despite the obstacles, that the potentialities of the 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 very, real. Among the advantages are:

• Maintenance is considerably reduced
• Engine life-expectancy is much longer
• The number of parts is reduced 80%
• Tune-ups are almost eliminated
• Low-temperature starting difficulties are eliminated
• No warm-up period is necessary
• No Antifreeze is 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

The disadvantages of the turbine engines other than those listed previously included:

• High internal heat (upwards of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit)
• Operating traits better suited to steady speeds, as in aircraft but typically not cars
• High oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions.

In the late fall of 1953, an early production 1954 Plymouth Belvedere two door hardtop was plucked from the assembly line and sent to the experimental shops to be converted into a gas turbine powered car, the first American production car to be turbine powered. (Rover in England put an experimental turbine-powered car on the road in 1952.) Chrysler’s turbine-powered Belvedere was used in the early summer of 1954 at the dedication of the new Chrysler proving grounds outside of Chelsea, Michigan.



Chrysler’s first turbine-engined car was this 1954 Plymouth Belvedere hardtop.

The engine in this first turbine-powered “Mopar” was rated at 100 shaft horsepower. This engine embodied solutions to two of the automotive gas turbine’s major problems – high fuel consumption and scorching exhaust gas.

Quoting directly from the article at AllPar:
“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 performed another important function. It reduced the exhaust gas temperature from about 1200º F at full engine power to a safe level of less than 500º F. Even more important, at idle the temperature was reduced to 170º. By the time the gases passed through the exhaust ducts to the atmosphere, the temperature was reduced even further.”

The same basic engine was installed in a 1955 Plymouth. This car was used for driving evaluation tests on Detroit area streets and was not placed on the car show circuit.

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

This 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 engine and its 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
• Engine controls were developed further, allowing the driver to operate the turbine car just as he would a conventional automobile.

We will cover the next steps in Chrysler’s turbine development next Tuesday.



Add yours →

  1. Dave Brownell 14/11/2017 — 05:12

    The one and only time I saw one of the fifty Turbines was in winter 1965 at the St. Louis Union Station where a salt encrusted car was being loaded up by what might have been a typical American family of four. It all looked so natural that I assumed turbines would be commonplace in just a few years. Now I suppose the only ones we can still see are in museums (H. Ford, Chrysler’s ex, and possibly GM Heritage.) Jay Leno might have the only one still street ready. Good for him and he has a video of it at his website.

    Liked by 1 person

    • One of the loaner cars came to the Chrysler dealer in my home town, Lubbock, TX because of some issue. The local dealer, Fenner Tubbs (what a name!) called Chrysler in Michigan. They flew an engineer out to address whatever the issue was. Word spread around town quickly that the Turbine car was at Fenner Tubbs. All of us high school age Gear Heads made a pilgrimage to the dealership to see the car.


  2. Funny I never even thought of the gas turbine. All this happened and I didn’t know. Good read. the heat of the dude is HOT. Good read thanks

    Liked by 1 person

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