Chrysler Turbine Car
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|Chrysler Turbine Car|
|Body and chassis|
|Body style||2-door coupe|
|Engine||Chrysler A831 gas turbine|
|Wheelbase||110 in (2,794 mm)|
|Length||201.6 in (5,121 mm)|
|Width||72.9 in (1,852 mm)|
|Height||53.5 in (1,359 mm) (loaded)|
Chrysler Turbine Cars are automobiles powered by gas turbine engines that Chrysler made from 1962-1964. Bodies for the Chrysler Turbine were made by Ghia in Turin, Italy, with final assembly taking place in a small plant in Detroit, Michigan, USA. After a period of testing, the vehicles were reclaimed by Chrysler; all but nine were destroyed.
The Chrysler Turbine Car was the first and only consumer test ever conducted of gas turbine-powered cars. Of the total 55 units built (5 prototypes and 50 "production" cars), most were scrapped at the end of a trial period, with only nine remaining in museums and private collections. Though Chrysler's turbine engine project was terminated in 1977, the Turbine Car was the high point of a three decade project to perfect the engine for practical use.
The fourth-generation Chrysler turbine engine runs at up to 44,500 revolutions per minute, and could operate using diesel fuel, unleaded gasoline, kerosene, JP-4 jet fuel, and even vegetable oil. Chrysler claimed "the turbine could gulp everything from peanut oil to Chanel No. 5." The President of Mexico, Adolfo López Mateos, tested this theory by running one of the first cars—successfully—on tequila, after Chrysler engineers confirmed that the car would operate successfully.
The turbine car had some operational and aesthetic drawbacks. The car sounded like a giant vacuum cleaner, which was unexpected to consumers who were more familiar with the sound of a large American V8. That said, some observers admired the sound. High altitudes also caused problems for the combined starter-generator. Additionally, failing to follow the correct start-up procedure would cause the engine to stall; some drivers thought they could warm up the engine similar to the way they did with a conventional piston engine. They would press the accelerator pedal to the floor before the engine had reached proper temperature. Instead of warming the engine, the excess fuel slowed the turbine down and resulted in the opposite of the desired effect. Doing this, however, did not do any permanent damage to the engine. In fact, it was possible to apply full throttle immediately after starting the engine without much fear of excessive wear. The engines were remarkably durable considering how fragile turbine engines are when compared to internal combustion piston engines. Troubles were remarkably few for such a bold experiment. It is not known how many testers made the mistake of using the leaded pump gas of the era; the tetraethyl lead left debilitating deposits within the engine. It was the one flammable liquid Chrysler recommended not be used; it was also by far the easiest fuel to obtain. Even so, more than 1.1 million test miles were accumulated by the 50 cars given to the public, and operational downtime stood at 4%.
The bodies and interiors were crafted by Ghia in Italy. The mostly completed bodies were shipped to Chrysler's Greenfield Avenue turbine research center in Detroit for final assembly. Between the expensive Ghia bodies and the cost of the engine, each car may have cost as much as $50,000 to build, equivalent to $381,000 in 2015. A total of 50 "production" Turbine Cars were built between October 1963 and October 1964, plus five prototypes (three of which differed in roof/paint schemes). As each body was finished and shipped to Detroit, Chrysler employees installed the gas turbine engines, Torqueflite transmissions, and electrical components to prepare the cars for use by the 203 motorists – 23 of them women – who were chosen to test them throughout the country.
The Turbine Car is a two-door hardtop coupe with four individual bucket seats, power steering, power brakes, and power windows. Its most prominent design features are two large horizontal taillights and nozzles (back-up lights) mounted inside a very heavy chrome sculptured bumper. Up front, the single headlamps are mounted in chrome nacelles with a turbine styling theme, creating a striking appearance. This theme is carried through to the center console and the hubcaps. Even the tires were specially made with small turbine vanes molded into the white sidewalls. It is finished in reddish-brown "Frostfire Metallic" paint, later renamed "Turbine Bronze" and made available on production automobiles. The roof is covered in black vinyl, and the interior features bronze-colored "English calfskin" leather upholstery with plush-cut pile bronze-colored carpet. Front suspension is upper and lower wishbones with coil springs and shock absorbers.
The dashboard is lit using electroluminescent panels in the gauge pods and on a call-out strip across the dash. This system did not use bulbs; instead, an inverter and transformer raised the battery voltage to over 100 volts AC and passed that high voltage through special plastic layers, causing the gauges to glow with a blue-green light. Instead of a water temp. gauge, the Chrysler Turbine has a Turbine Inlet temp. gauge with numbers 500, 1,000, 1,500, and 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
The car itself was designed in the Chrysler studios under the direction of Elwood Engel, who had worked for the Ford Motor Company before his move to Chrysler. The designer credited with the actual look of the car was Charles Mashigan, who designed a two-seat show car called the Typhoon, which was displayed at the 1964 World's Fair in New York City. Engel used many older Ford styling themes. The rear taillight/bumper assembly was copied directly (with revisions) from a 1958 Ford styling study called the "La Galaxie". He used none of the themes associated with his 1964 Imperial. As Engel incorporated many of the design themes from the 1961 Thunderbird, and because the car was a four seater of similar size and appointment, many enthusiasts call the Ghia Turbine the "Englebird."
Suspension did not follow Chrysler's ubiquitous independent front longitudinal torsion bar system of the time, but rather featured contemporary designs using independent front suspension with a coil spring at each wheel. Rear suspension was more typical of Chrysler, with leaf springs and direct-acting shock absorbers.
After Chrysler finished the user program and other public displays of the cars, 46 of them were destroyed. Forty-five of the destroyed Turbines were burned and crushed at a scrap yard south of Detroit. The 46th example was destroyed at the Chrysler Chelsea Proving Grounds during a crash test study. Chrysler announced that this was necessary to avoid a stiff tariff, but that was only part of the story. The destruction of the cars was in line with the automobile industry's practice of not selling non-production or prototype cars to the public. This practice was also later used by General Motors with its EV1.
Of the remaining nine cars, six had the engines de-activated and then they were donated to museums around the country. Chrysler retained three operational turbine cars for historical reasons. One turbine car that is functional, owned by the Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, was photographed for Mopar Action magazine, and appears at car shows around the United States from time to time.
Only two Chrysler Turbine Cars are in the hands of private collectors: One was purchased by private automobile collector Frank Kleptz of Terre Haute, Indiana and is functional. Kleptz's Turbine Car was originally donated to the former Harrah museum in Nevada and then purchased by Domino's Pizza founder Tom Monaghan before finally being sold to Kleptz at the 1989 Antique Automobile Club of America Fall Meet at Hershey, Pennsylvania. The second one is owned by comedian and television host Jay Leno, who purchased one of the three Chrysler Turbine Cars which had been originally retained by Chrysler. Leno wrote that
- Most were destroyed by Chrysler for tax and liability reasons, which is a shame, because to this day everyone who rides in a Turbine says, "Whoa, this feels like the future!" You turn the key and there's a big woosh and a complete absence of vibration... I think it's the most collectible American car—it was so different. Most of all, the Chrysler Turbine is a reminder that all the cool stuff used to be made in the U.S. I hope it will be again.
A Chrysler Turbine Car, painted white with blue racing stripes, featured in the 1964 film The Lively Set. The car, loaned to the producers by Chrysler, was one of the test 'mules', and was returned to Chrysler after production. It was among the cars scrapped.
Surviving examples, location and operational status
- #991211 - Museum of Transportation, St. Louis, Missouri – Active
- #991225 - Gilmore Car Museum, Hickory Corners, Michigan – Inactive
- #991230 - Walter P. Chrysler Museum, Auburn Hills, Michigan – Active
- #991231 - Private Collection in Terre Haute, Indiana – Active
- #991234 - Henry Ford Museum, Dearborn, Michigan – Inactive
- #991242 - Jay Leno's Private Collection in Burbank, California – Active
- #991244 - Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, Los Angeles, California – Inactive
- #991245 - Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. – Inactive
- #991247 - Walter P. Chrysler Museum, Auburn Hills, Michigan – Active
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- A film clip Sentinels. Building Rushed on Radar Defense, 1956/04/09 (1956) "Arctic Sentinels. Building Rushed on Radar Defense, 1956/04/09 (1956)" is available at the Internet Archive Chrysler turbine test car crossed country, arrived in Los Angeles