Chrysler Turbine Car

From the early 1950's to approximately 1980, the Chrysler Corporation built a series of dedicated automotive gas turbines. There were at least seven generations of Chrysler turbine engines designed, built, and run, at a cost the company to this day will not disclose, but certainly in the high tens of millions of non-adjusted dollars. None of the company's designs saw commercial sale, and as far is as known only one of the hundred or more engines ever left the ownership of the company for a outside buyer. However the company indisputedly built more turbine automobiles than any other company and in fact probably more than all others put together. In addition, although the company's stockholders never benefitted, aspects of Chrysler's technology did enter commercial service on a very profitable basis.

To this day, Chrysler is remembered as the turbine car pioneer despite being at best the third company to build one and despite the total failure of Chrysler to market its technology for any application. Primarily this is because unlike others who built only display prototypes, Chrysler built 50 identical, uniquely designed test cars and loaned them to various customers for a three-month trial period. At the end of the trial, most of the cars were destroyed for semi-cogent purposes, and only one was ever put on the market for open sale, when the Bill Harrah car collection was largely liquidated.

The 50 test cars were coachbuilt to a very high standard by Ghia in Italy and were styled by Elwood Engel, who was hired to replace the fired Virgil "Excess" Exner. They were beautifully designed in the 'tapered' style found on the Engel-designed Ford Thunderbird and contemporary Chryslers afterward. The front end had headlight bezels styled to resemble turbojet engine inlet stators and the rear was a copy of the fuselage aft center of the then obsolete, and unsuccessful,Chance-Vought F7U Cutlass fighter. This design has been a perennial favorite of plastic and diecast car modellers ever since.

The engine used in all the test cars was the fourth generation Chrysler automotive gas turbine. It was a simple, productionable design using a single stage centrifugal compressor (which looks for all the world to be a scaled down Rolls-Royce Goblin section, and I suspect it is), a single compressor (gasifier) turbine and single power turbine with simple two-gear reduction, a single-can burner with a Champion igniter fired by an automotive ignition coil, and a pair of Cercor regenerators to provide thermal feedback to linearize the part-power fuel efficiency in housings on the side of the engine. A single, substantially oversized aircraft starter-generator was fitted, making hot starts or hung starts most unlikely and depriving onlookers of the traditional sturm und drang of turboshaft engine start sequences.

The engine could operate successfully on a variety of common fuels, except leaded gasoline. Unfortunately, in 1963, leaded gasoline was typically the only available common fuel at filling stations. Fuel economy was not outstanding, but surprisingly not substantially worse than many production cars of the day, and exhaust temperatures were never a serious issue in terms of fire or damaging other vehicles or pavement. In fact, at idle, it could be quite pleasant to stand behind in cold weather as it would gently warm one's feet.

After the test period was concluded, most of the 50 production and 5 program prototype cars were dismantled and their bodies and frames crushed. Several reasons were given, but ultimately it came down to the basic kid's refusal to let anyone else play with one's own toys. Afterward, the company built at least three more generations of turbine engine, which were placed in modified production vehicles (as had the first three generations of engine prototypes) often at the financing of the EPA. It was certainly at least partially a corporate sop as the Clean Air Act was a major contributor to the company's disinclination to produce a turbine engine for sale: it had a great deal of trouble meeting NOx limits and the R&D money was desperately needed to get the conventional engines to comply. Ironically one of the stated purposes of the Clean Air Act's draconian standards was to "force technology"; as is so often the case when technically ignorant legislators and unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats wield power their efforts backfired and made the conventional piston engine the only possible alternative for the auto makers.

Sadly for automotive enthusiasts and Chrysler stockholders, Chrysler never made a dime off their ill-fated Turbine Car effort. This is not to say Chrysler's simple and small turbine engine concepts did not prove successful and in fact immensely profitable. Sam Williams, the number-two engineer under program czar George Huebner, left Chrysler to found Williams Research, a Michigan company making very successful small turbine engines for primarily military uses. Williams Research is a privately held company which operates in unusually tight secrecy and does not divulge any information regarding its products to those it doesn't consider serious customers, and then usually under nondisclosure: even the prices of its engines are unknown generally. However, a copy of Jane's All The World's Aircraft will reveal a large array of engines used in several military applications, most famously the Tomahawk missile. It is generally conceded by everyone in the aircraft engine industry that Williams Research is one of the most profitable companies of its size in the industry. And there is little question that a great deal of the core Williams technologies, such as centrifugal injection investment casting of one piece turbine wheels, were pioneered by Chrysler.