1950s and 1960s Chrysler Turbine Concept Cars

Image Gallery: Concept Cars The best-known Chrysler Turbine concept car was this bronze coupe. Chrysler lent 50 of them to 203 people between 1963 and 1966 for public test drives. See more concept car pictures.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Many remember the Chrysler Turbine Car, the bronze-colored hardtop that looked like a Thunderbird and whined like a banshee. But that copper rocket was just one result of a broad development program that produced a remarkable number of 1950s and 1960s Chrysler Turbine concept cars.

The program seemed to promise that turbine power would soon be in your driveway -- as indeed it was for the couple hundred people who drove the 50 Turbine Cars built in a three-year consumer test program. But though Chrysler came closer than anyone to perfecting a practical turbine automobile, events rendered the futuristic powerplant just so much hot air, and its promise went unkept.

The gas turbine relates to the jet engine, patented by England's Frank White in 1930. Rolls-Royce speeded the development of jet fighter planes, which came too late to significantly affect World War II but which proved decisive in Korea.

Between those wars, America's Big Three automakers began working on aircraft turbines (Chrysler built a turbo-prop for the U.S. Navy Bureau of Aeronautics in 1948), but didn't begin thinking about roadgoing applications until the mid-Fifties, perhaps inspired by Rover of Britain's 1952 experimental turbine car. Of the Detroit producers, only Chrysler seemed as serious about turbine-powered automobiles; Ford and GM put most of their turbine emphasis on trucks.

Like a jet, the turbine's basic element is a wheel ringed with blades or vanes; a fuel/air mixture flows past the vanes, causing the wheel to rotate and produce power. In many designs, including most of Chrysler's, this "power turbine" also ran a "first-stage turbine" linked to a compressor; the latter, of course, squeezed the mixture for firing, which was accomplished by a spark plug-like device called an igniter.

This simplicity appealed greatly to Chrysler and others because it meant fewer parts, which implied less maintenance. For owners, the turbine promised operating smoothness unknown in reciprocating engines, because it produced rotary motion to begin with.

This 1954 Plymouth was an early Chrysler turbine concept car. This photo illustrates the cool-running nature of the turbine despite its high internal heat.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Other attractions included near instant warm-up (and available engine heat in winter), dependable cold-weather starting, the ability to run on a wide variety of fuels (Chrysler claimed the turbine could gulp everything from peanut oil to Chanel No. 5), negligible oil consumption, and no need for antifreeze.

Offsetting these pluses were four big minuses: high internal heat (upwards of 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit); operating traits better suited to steady speeds, as in aircraft but typically not cars; no inherent "engine braking," vital on the road; and high oxides of nitrogen (NOx) emissions. Nevertheless, Chrysler would solve or at least minimize all of these problems over some 25 years of development.

High heat was the biggest problem. To attack it, Chrysler engineers under George Huebner, Jr., soon known as Highland Park's "Mr. Turbine," developed what they termed a "regenerator." This was essentially a rotating heat exchanger that removed exhaust-gas heat to reduce internal temperature and boost fuel mileage above what it would be otherwise.

Also studied early on were improved operating flexibility and development of materials resistant to ultra-high temperatures.

Learn about the development of Chrysler's turbine engines on the next page.

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CR Gas Turbine Engines

A 1954 Plymouth Belvedere hardtop was the testbed for the Chrysler CR1 gas turbine engine. Project engineer George Huebner Jr. is on the right.
A 1954 Plymouth Belvedere hardtop was the testbed for the Chrysler CR1 gas turbine engine. Project engineer George Huebner Jr. is on the right.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

By 1954, the first of Chrysler's CR gas turbine engines designed for cars was ready. Dubbed "CR1" and rated at a modest 100 horsepower, it was installed in a stock-looking 1954 Plymouth Belvedere hardtop that ran successfully at the opening of Chrysler's new Chelsea, Michigan, proving grounds. A similar engine went into a 1955 Belvedere four-door.

Improvements followed thick and fast. A modified CR1 with more exotic metallurgy powered a 1956 Belvedere "Turbine Special" sedan on a cross-country run that year. It performed well except for returning only 13 miles per gallon, excessive even for those times.

Next came a more efficient CR2 with about 200 horsepower, aided by cheaper but sturdier alloys that better withstood heat and oxidation.

The Turbine Special, a 1956 Plymouth with a CR1 engine, got only 13 mpg on a cross-country run.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

This powered a second 1956 Plymouth sedan as well as a 1957-58 version before making its public debut in a 1959 Fury-based Turbine Special hardtop sedan. That car turned in a more creditable 18 mpg on a 1,200-mile demonstration run from Detroit to Princeton, New Jersey.

The third-generation CR2A was ready by 1960. Its two big advances were a pivoting fuel nozzle mechanism and first-stage turbine vanes that could assume one of three angles depending on throttle position.

Together, these provided a measure of engine braking (the lack of which was a serious drawback of turbine engines), plus stronger acceleration; they also greatly reduced the irritating "throttle lag" that had plagued earlier versions. Where the CR1 needed a full seven seconds to go from idle to full power output, the CR2A took only 1.5-2.0 seconds.

Note the four central exhaust outlets on this 1958 Plymouth carrying the CR2 turbine engine.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

CR2As were initially installed in three different 1960 vehicles: a near-stock Plymouth Fury hardtop, a 2.5-ton Dodge truck, and the amazingly befinned TurboFlite, which wasn't shown until 1961.

The last was designed by Maury Baldwin, who later termed it the final "Virgil Exner" show car: "We incorporated a lot of interesting things in it. Entrance-wise, the whole cockpit above the beltline lifted to admit passengers. Mounted between the fins was a deceleration flap, such as used on racing cars. The headlights were retractable. The car was built by Ghia; we did a 3/8-scale model and then full-size drawings. It was probably one of the best engineered show cars we ever did."

To find out how these models led to the Turbine Car, keep reading on the next page.

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Chrysler Turbine Car

One of the two 1962 Dodge Darts with a turbine engine showed marked mileage improvements over Chrysler's 1950s gas turbine experiments.
One of the two 1962 Dodge Darts with a turbine engine showed marked mileage improvements over Chrysler's 1950s gas turbine experiments.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

The Chrysler Turbine Car of the 1960s had been in development since the 1950s, when Chrysler went through three versions of turbine engines.

The third such engine, the CR2A, was fitted to a quartet of 1962-model hardtop coupes -- two Dodge Darts and a pair of Plymouth Furys -- that preceded the Turbine Car. One of the Turbo Darts, as they were called, traveled from New York to Los Angeles on a durability run scoring better fuel economy than the piston-powered "control" car traveling with it and taking less time than the 1956 Turbine Special.

The 1962 turbines were also shown at various Dodge and Chrysler-Plymouth dealers, and even went to Europe for track demonstrations at Montlhery in France and Silverstone in England. Buoyed by the uniformly favorable reaction to all this, Chrysler decided to build 50 turbine-powered passenger cars for consumer evaluation.

The result was the now-famous bronze hardtop, unveiled in May 1963. It was designed expressly for the consumer program by Elwood Engel, who had replaced Virgil Exner as head of Chrysler Styling two years before.

Engel had come over from Ford after working on the 1961-63 Thunderbird, and his work on that car was clearly evident here. In fact, the resemblance was so strong that some referred to the Turbine Car as the "Engelbird."

Of course, there were many differences even apart from the powerplant. At 110 inches, Turbine Car wheelbase was three inches trimmer than the T-Bird's, and styling was unique at each end. The front was simple, if unfortunately blunt, but the back was wild, with deep "boomerang" cavities holding large, angled taillights astride backup lamps in big "turbine-styled" housings.

Headlamp bezels and wheel-cover centers had a similar rotary-blade motif. All the "consumer cars" wore a black vinyl roof covering to contrast with the "Turbine bronze" paint.

Test driver George Stecher with one of the famous bronze 1963 Turbine Cars and the turbine engines Chrysler had developed to that point.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Interiors were also done in bronze, and offered seating for four on individual vinyl-covered seats, plus a full-length cylindrically shaped center console. Other amenities included power steering, brakes, and windows, plus modified TorqueFlite automatic transmission, radio, air conditioning, and appropriate instruments like tachometer and turbine-inlet temperature gauge.

Under the hood sat Chrysler's latest fourth-generation gas turbine, designated A-831. Its chief innovations were constantly variable first-stage turbine vanes, again controlled by throttle position, and twin regenerators rotating in vertical planes, one on each side of a central burner.

Smaller and lighter than the CR2A, the A-831 was also quieter and more responsive, with throttle lag reduced to 1.0-1.5 seconds. Maximum-output engine speed after gear reduction was 4680 rpm, versus the CR2A's 5360. Horsepower was down 10, to 130, but torque went from 375 to a mighty 425 pounds-feet.

In other respects, the Turbine Car was utterly conventional, though its TorqueFlite automatic had no torque converter (it wasn't needed), and there was "Unibody" construction per Chrysler practice.

Because of the small number involved, the 50 "production" Turbine Cars plus the five prototypes (three of which differed in roof/paint schemes) were contracted to Ghia in Italy, which could build them for less money than Chrysler.

Go to the next page for more on how the Chrysler Turbine cars performed.

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Turbine Car Evaluation Program

The public heaped praise on the styling on the 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car. All were Turbine Bronze inside and out, and had a black vinyl roof.
The public heaped praise on the styling on the 1963 Chrysler Turbine Car. All were Turbine Bronze inside and out, and had a black vinyl roof.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Chrysler's headquarters in Highland Park was swamped with more than 30,000 inquiries about its after announcing its Turbine Car evaluation program, which called for each "consumer representative" to use a Turbine Car for about three months.

Ultimately, the field test included residents of all 48 continental states ranging in age from 21 to 70. A total of 203 people drove 50 Turbine Cars between 1963 and early 1966.

The results were in by the following year, when Chrysler issued a report stating that little or no maintenance had been required compared with comparable piston-engine cars.

However, the firm never divulged mileage figures, which were apparently embarrassing. One out of four drivers complained about gas guzzling (they must have been out of peanut oil), and one out of three groused about throttle lag. But there was also plenty of praise, especially about the vibration-free operation and snazzy styling.

Though Chrysler never released one to a journalist, writer John Lawlor managed to drive a Turbine Car toward the end of the consumer test. He, too, was impressed by its smoothness, but annoyed at the relative lack of engine braking -- and at the throttle lag, which he reported as the claimed 1.0-1.5 seconds.

His mileage also disappointed -- just 11.5 mpg -- though he usually ran on cheap kerosene. Lawlor did laud acceleration, which at under 10 seconds to 60 mph was sparkling, especially for a 4,100-pound car. So much for rumors that turbines couldn't be quick.

Yet even as the Turbine Cars were being passed around, Chrysler was moving ahead, testing a fifth-generation engine (A-875) in a 1964 Plymouth. But that would prove short-lived, for a sixth-generation design was ready by 1966.

This 1966 Dodge Coronet 500 hardtop was a testbed for a sixth-generation turbine engine.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

Fitted to a Dodge Charger fastback and Coronet 500 hardtop, this offered improved engine braking, plus a novel split accessory drive by which ancillaries like the power steering pump were driven directly from the power turbine; the compressor turbine continued running the fuel pump and other engine-related systems.

Chrysler had actually planned to build 500 turbine-powered Coronets for retail sale, but nixed the idea because of imminent new government emissions standards. Still, that one 1966 hardtop hung around Chrysler Engineering until 1972, when the turbine tale took a somewhat surprising turn.

To find out what happened next, continue to the next page.

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Government Oversight of the Turbine Car

The seventh and final Chrysler turbine-engine design powered a pair of 1976 Dodge Aspen sedans.
The seventh and final Chrysler turbine-engine design powered a pair of 1976 Dodge Aspen sedans.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

NOx emissions remained a thorny problem for Chrysler's Turbine Car program, especially as government oversight of the Turbine Car began in the 1970s. Surprisingly, though, in 1972 the newly created Environmental Protection Agency was persuaded -- partly by a sales pitch from project engineer George Huebner -- to give Chrysler $6.4 million to continue turbine development.

Besides NOx control, specific objectives of the grant were to increase mileage, lower manufacturing costs, and provide at least comparable performance and reliability relative to "conventional piston-powered compact-size American cars" [emphasis added].

After tests with a trio of 1973 mid-size Dodge/Plymouth sedans, Chrysler unveiled a seventh-generation turbine. Though it reverted to a single regenerator, it boasted more precise electronic fuel control.

Initially installed in a pair of 1976 Dodge Aspens, this engine also powered a one-off T-roof coupe, basically a 1977 Chrysler LeBaron with knife-edge front fenders, hidden headlamps, and slim vertical grille. Horsepower was only 104 versus the sixth-generation's 150, but this newest turbine ran somewhat hotter, so 125 horsepower was available via water injection at the compressor inlet and repositioned inlet guide vanes.

Next, Chrysler landed a similar contract (along with GM and Ford) from the Energy Research and Development Administration (ERDA), which was later combined with several other agencies into today's Department of Energy (DOE).

Still seeking turbine perfection, engineers soon virtually banished throttle lag, brought hydrocarbon and carbon-monoxide emissions within prevailing statutory limits, and attained fuel economy that approached that of comparable piston engines. Per contract terms, Chrysler stationed its two turbine-powered Aspens in Washington, D.C., where they ran flawlessly.

But by then it was 1979, and lower NOx levels still seemed impossible. Worse, Chrysler was racing toward bankruptcy, and a deep new recession was triggering federal program cuts all over.

This stock-looking 1980 Dodge Mirada was the last turbine-powered car from Chrysler.
©2007 Publications International, Ltd.

With that, the DOE withdrew funding in early 1981, and Chrysler soon abandoned turbine research entirely after more than a quarter-century and more than $100 million of its own money, plus $19 million from taxpayers. In an eerie echo of the way it all began, the very last turbine car built was a near-stock-looking 1980 Dodge Mirada.

It's unfortunate things ended when they did. According to one project official, left stillborn was an eighth-generation turbine designed, ironically enough, for Chrysler's all-important new front-drive K-car compacts and their future derivatives. With a single turbine shaft (versus two), electronic fuel delivery, and a projected 85 horsepower, it would have been the simplest turbine yet, and likely the cheapest to build in quantity.

There were also hopes that a new variable-geometry burner would be the long-sought answer to NOx. But time and money had run out, so this engine went no further than blueprints and a foam mockup.

Fortunately, Chrysler showed a sense of history about the Ghia-built Turbine Cars, coughing up enough cash to save 10 from the torch. The rest were cut up under the watchful eye of U.S. Customs. They had to be. Import duty on these "foreign" cars had been waived only for purposes of the testing program; once that ended, Chrysler had the choice of either returning them to Italy or paying considerable sums to keep them on American soil.

Of the 10 that were saved, nine have been accounted for. Chrysler still has three; the remaining six have gone to various museums.

Turbine power now has as much relevance to our automotive future as rumble seats and tailfins, especially with the modern-day emphasis on hybrid powertrains and alternative fuels. At least we have Chrysler's turbine tale and a few of its artifacts to remember a future that almost was, but in the end never could be.

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