Whatever Happened to the Chrysler Turbine Car?
The current generation of car shoppers have likely never heard of the Chrysler Turbine car , though it is perhaps one of the most innovative American cars ever created.
You won’t find one at your local Chrysler car dealership , they have since been relegated to museums and private collections of some automotive enthusiasts, like Jay Leno.
But, as arguably the most cutting-edge chapter in the Chrysler story, the Turbine car is worth a look.
America Meets the Chrysler Turbine
Chrysler came up with a very creative plan for introducing the Turbine to the American public.
After receiving more than 30,000 applications, the manufacturer released 50 of the vehicles to a select 203 households across the country over the course of a two-year period, specifically, 1962-1963.
Each family was instructed to drive the car for three months before it was then collected and passed on to the next family chosen so that those drivers could give it a try.
The only stipulations were that the cars were not to be taken out of the country and could not, under any circumstances, be used for racing of any kind.
According to Bill Carry, who was in charge of the service program for the 50-car distribution program, the first car released came back to the shop almost instantly.
Mrs. R. Vlaha, of one of the chosen households, was rear-ended on her way home with the Turbine car.
Apparently the driver was so distracted by the sight of it and that distraction eclipsed the fact that the car had stopped.
One young man, Mark Olson, whose father was also selected to test-drive the Chrysler Turbine for three months put it this way, “You never got to drive the car. You’d start it and stop it for people.”
Or, it seems, they would stop if for you via fender-bender.
So, what exactly did this distraction look like?
The Chrysler Turbine on the Road
This was the one and only consumer-driven and tested gas turbine-powered car, which was able to run on diesel, unleaded gasoline, kerosene, JP-4 jet fuel, and even vegetable oil.
Basically, if you had any combustible resource, you could power up the Chrysler Turbine.\
After introducing the car internationally, the Chrysler Turbine was presented with some interesting fuel alternatives, authentic to particular countries and cultures.
In France, the Chrysler Turbine powered up with Chanel No. 5, while the President of Mexico reportedly requested that Chrysler give tequila a try.
But how does a turbine engine work?
Unlike the pistons powering most automotive engines that are on the road today, a turbine engine is not dependent on petrol fuel, and its higher power-to-weight ratio makes it ideal for big jobs, which is why they most often are found in jets, helicopters, and airplanes.
Because they run best at high speeds and high temperatures, typical automotive action, like accelerating or idling, kills the turbine engine’s efficiency, making it guzzle whatever is powering it, whether that’s vegetable oil or tequila.
So, while their lack of dependency on gasoline is poses a significant benefit, in some ways, the turbine engine is better in theory, not practice.
It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane…
Designed by Elwood Engel, who was responsible for designing the 1961 Lincoln Continental, everything about the Chrysler Turbine was evocative of jet airplanes, both to the eyes and the ears.
Engel also worked on the 1961-1963 Ford Thunderbird models and some people thought the Chrysler Turbine’s design was so very similar to the Thunderbird’s that they dubbed the Turbine the “Engelbird.”
But this was no bird.
The Turbine was roaring loud, like a jet engine, and looked more like it should have been parked in a hangar, rather than a home garage. Or a nest.
Built on a mid-size Chrysler 2+2 chassis, the two-door coupe had a hardtop body which was manufactured in Ghia, Italy.
Once built, the bodies of the car were then shipped to Chrysler’s turbine research center in Detroit, where their assembly was completed.
Equipped with a fourth-generation Chrysler turbine engine, the Turbine car was able to get 130 horsepower with 425 lb.-ft. of torque, and had a fuel economy of 14.5 mpg, 18-19 on the highway.
Operated by a three-speed TorqueFlite transmission, the Turbine was unlike any other engine on the automotive scene at that time.
The Edge on Engines
So, other than being powered by pretty much anything, what was such a big deal about the Chrysler Turbine, compared to other cars?
Overall, the engine was easier to maintain than conventional engines because it only had one-fifth of the moving parts of a regular engine.
Also, the turbine engine did not need oil changes and reduced the amount of damaging emissions released into the atmosphere.
There was no carbon dioxide, unburned carbon, or raw hydrocarbons released by the exhaust.
You could almost think of the Chrysler Turbine as the godfather of green cars, certainly the paternal predecessor of today’s ongoing hydrogen fuel-cell research and development.
If that’s true, then where exactly did he disappear to? And why?
A Few Roadblocks
Although the Chrysler Turbine didn’t release too many of the usual-suspect damaging emissions that other cars are criticized for, relative to environmental concerns, it did produce nitrogen oxides.
By way of a mini-science lesson, nitrogen oxides are considered a major pollutant by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which lists them as a “ criteria pollutant ,” alongside ozone, lead, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, and particulate matter.
Smog regulations, in development at the time, and eventually ratified as the 1971 Clean Air Act, would have hindered the ultimate production of the Chrysler Turbine, unless Chrysler could figure out a way to control those harmful emissions.
Additionally, drivers complained of the car’s sluggish acceleration and frequent stall outs.
It’s performance was very loud and the car required a spectacular amount of fuel to run.
Chrysler just could not find a way around these persistent issues and so the car, despite its exceptional innovation, never made it to the showroom and was ultimately discontinued in 1964.
First Class Pricing
One major issue the Chrysler Turbine couldn’t address was the cost.
Not that they were ever sold in a showroom, but had they been, the cost for this inefficient jet-engined car was estimated around $16,000.
At the time, you could purchase a more fuel-efficient, V8-powered car with similar, if not improved performance, for $5,000.
That’s quite a gap.
And one that Chrysler didn’t have a chance to bridge.
Most of the cars, specifically forty-six of the total fifty-five produced, were turned into scrap metal so that Chrysler could avoid paying import taxes on the Italian-manufactured bodies.
The rest were handed over for safekeeping and entrusted to the following automotive museums: the Walter P. Chrysler Museum, the National Museum of Transportation, the Detroit Historical Museum, the Henry Ford Museum, the Petersen Automotive Museum, as well as the Smithsonian Institution.
A few private collectors do have one of the remaining Chrysler Turbines in their possession, including Jay Leno, who purchased his because it represents a time of impressive American innovation.
He says, “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 in the U.S.”
The Past Maps the Future
In 2013, Chrysler commemorated the fifty year mark since the original release of the Chrysler Turbine by unveiling the Chrysler-Turbine at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
The car was exhibited for two weeks, a reminder of the turbine technology and innovation that drove, and continues to drive, the Chrysler brand.
Be a part of that ever-evolving innovation by visiting your Chrysler car dealership and explore the current lineup of cars that Chrysler has to offer.