In this series, we’ve been covering Chrysler’s automotive gas turbine program. Last week, we left off with the transcontinental trip of a 1956 gas turbine-powered Plymouth. As we’ve written previously, Chrysler took their turbine car program further than any other auto builder.
Each production Chrysler corporation car fitted with a turbine engine showed Chrysler’s continuing development and improvement of the engine. Following the 1956 turbine-powered Plymouth were 1959 and 1962 models. One key area of Chrysler’s progress was in their metallurgical development. The earliest Chrysler gas turbines used metals found in aircraft gas turbine engines. The drawback to this was the scarcity of the metals which translated into unacceptably high costs for volume auto production. Chrysler engineers successfully engineered costs out of the metals used their automotive gas turbine program.
The 1961 Chrysler Turboflite show car showcased the third generation gas turbine engine. Note the stripe in the center of the tires – an attempt at bringing style to plebeian tires that never saw production.
In 1961, the company showcased its third generation gas turbine engine in the Turboflite show car. In addition to the engine, other advanced ideas of the Turboflite were the retractable headlights, a deceleration air-flap suspended between the two stability struts, and an automatic canopied roof. The Turboflite received wide public interest and was shown at auto shows in New York City, Chicago, London, Paris, and other venues. In addition to the show car, Chrysler fitted the third generation engine into a near-stock 1960 Plymouth and a two-and-a-half-ton Dodge truck.
Next up were the 1962 Plymouth Turbo Fury and Dodge Turbo Dart cars based on a production Plymouth Fury and Dodge Dart.
Above: 1962 Plymouth Turbo Fury seen at the top of California Street in San Francisco. That’s the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge in the background. Note the 1958 Cadillac to the left of the cable car. The building next to the Cadillac is the Fairmont Hotel. Below: Dodge also got a publicity-building version of the turbine car, in this case, the vehicle is a ’62 Dodge Dart. The Plymouth was driven coast-to-coast, New York to San Francisco. The Dodge was driven New York to Los Angeles.
Styling modifications to the Turbo Dart reflected its very unconventional power plant. The bladed wheel motif of the grille and wheel covers reflected the appearance of the vital components of the gas turbine and were similar to the wheel covers on the 1961 Turboflite show car.
The Dodge Turbo Dart left New York City on 27 December 1961 on a coast-to-coast engineering evaluation. After traveling 3,100 miles through severe winter weather and headwinds, the Turbo Dart arrived in Los Angeles on 31 December.
The gas turbine in the Turbo Dart not only lived up to but exceeded all expectations. Fuel economy was consistently better than that attained by a conventional Dodge Dart 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 CR2A gas turbine was its new variable turbine nozzle mechanism.
Quoting from the AllPar.com article on Chrysler’s gas turbine program:
“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.”
These turbine-powered cars were shown at some 90 Plymouth and Dodge dealerships in major cities across the United States and Canada.
Hundreds of thousands of people came to see the turbine cars. 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, in February of 1962, Chrysler 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.
Of the announced 50 – 75 units, 55 turbine cars were built. Of the 55 built, 9 survive, one of which is in the hands of Jay Leno. At the end of the test program, Chrysler destroyed most of the cars, as seen in the infamous Turbine “Snuff Film”.
The styling was largely the work of Elwood Engel who had recently arrived at Chrysler from Ford where he had worked on the 1961 Lincoln Continental and 1961 Ford Thunderbird programs. Thus it is no accident that the overall shape of these special Chrysler Turbine cars resembles the ’61-’63 Thunderbirds. Engel has replaced the controversial Virgil Exner as Chrysler’s chief stylist. Exner’s attempt at asymmetrical styling on the 1962 line was vetoed by management – fortunately. Exner had become derisively known as “Virgil Excess” and his increasingly controversial designs led to his ouster.
Shared DNA – Elwood Engel did much of the design work on both Chrysler’s Turbine car and the 1961 Ford Thunderbird.
This program was an outstanding point in the history of turbine vehicles for two key reasons:
1) This was the first time any company had committed itself to build a significant number of gas turbine vehicles. Prior to this, gas turbine installations generally were limited to one or two test vehicles.
2) 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.
Because the sole purpose of the program was to determine the reaction of typical American drivers to turbine-powered vehicles, the engine was placed in a luxurious Ford Thunderbird-like four passenger coupe designed for everyday use.
The styling of the car was built around the turbine theme. Ornamentation was inspired by the turbine blades of the engine. The exterior and interior were “Turbine Bronze”, which was unique to these cars. All of the cars were fitted with power steering, power brakes, power windows and automatic transmission. The interior featured a full-length center console with a design evocative of a turbine shaft.
The turbine power plant for the car was the fourth generation turbine engine, an an entirely new design, more advanced in concept than the previous Chrysler turbines. It had 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 fourth generation engine was more lively, lighter, more compact, and quieter. Acceleration lag was reduced to slightly over one second. And, of particular interest, the new engine design was more adaptable to mass production techniques.
The performance and economy of the 55 Turbine cars was comparable to a conventional car with a standard V-8 engine. The engine would operate satisfactorily on diesel fuel, kerosene, unleaded gasoline, jet fuel, or mixtures thereof. It was possible to change from one of these fuels to another without any changes or adjustments to the engine.
The cars were built at Chrysler’s Engineering Research Laboratories in Detroit. At the assembly area, the bodies, which had been 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.
The objective of the program was 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 drove the car for a period of up to three months under a no-charge agreement. The car then was then reassigned to other users to provide a broad consumer sampling base. In total, 50 cars were distributed to about 200 motorists on a rotating system over a two-year period. The remaining five cars were used on the show circuit and on publicity tours.
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.
Turbine candidates were chosen from Chrysler’s letter inquiry file which contained 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.
Chrysler specified the the test cars be assigned to drivers from major population centers in the 48 continental United States 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.
The intent of the test drive program was to select users whose car ownership pattern reflected the great variety of the types and ages of cars on the road at the time.
In 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. In the event of some difficulty, the driver was instructed to report the situation to a Turbine service representative.
One of the test cars was brought in by its then-assigned driver to the Chrysler dealer in my home town of Lubbock, Texas because of some problem that had developed. Word quickly spread around town that one of the spectacular Turbine cars was in town and all of us young “Gear Heads” made a pilgrimage to the dealer, Fenner Tubbs, to drool over this exotic car. Chrysler flew an engineer to Lubbock to address the problem; what the problem was, I don’t recall.
The world’s first consumer delivery of a Turbine car took place 29 October 1963 in Chicago. Lynn Townsend, president of Chrysler, presented the keys to the Turbine car to Mr. and Mrs. Richard E. Vlaha of Broadview, Illinois, 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.
In addition to the user evaluation program, a traveling exhibit began visiting large shopping centers across the United States in January, 1964. The exhibits included a Turbine car, turbine engine displays and regular production Chrysler cars. Each stopover was scheduled for several days or weeks and was announced in local news media. Chrysler representatives accompanied the exhibits and explained the Turbine and Chrysler’s program to visitors.
A Turbine car also was taken on a world tour. From 12 September 1963 through 8 January 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 exhibits, and world tour programs, Chrysler solicited reactions from the general public. This evaluation was designed to generate the information needed as the basis for decisions regarding the direction that Chrysler should take in the turbine program. It was a necessary piece of research concerning the size and characteristics of the potential market for the turbine-powered automobile. Because it was a test market research project, there was no pre-ordained outcome.
The gas turbine engine had a rated output of 130 bhp @ 3600 rpm output shaft speed. The 50 Turbine cars used during the test were loaned to 203 different drivers in 133 cities throughout 48 states.
As the 1963-1964 Turbine car consumer evaluation program wound down, Chrysler very quietly continued further but limited development of the turbine program. This likely was because through the rest of the ’60s and into the early ’80s, Chrysler lept from one crisis to another, including the government bail out that saw Lee Iacocca installed as Chrysler’s chief and the introduction of the K-cars and the mini-vans that saved the company.
This 1997 Chrysler and a 1980 Dodge Mirada were the last two Chrysler cars to house turbine engines. Chrysler did, however, build a series of turbine powered Abrams tanks for the U.S. Army.
The last turbine-powered Chrysler cars were a 1977 show car and a 1980 Dodge Mirada, both of which housed Chrysler’s seventh generation gas turbine engine. Although no auto builder, Chrysler included, ever sold a production series turbine powered car, Chrysler did build a series of gas turbine-powered Abrams tanks for the U.S. Army. Turbine cars were the future that never arrived.
Video – Driving the Chrysler Turbine:
Listen to the turbine spooling up at the beginning!
And now, in closing (courtesy of “B-Squared”)