Government Oversight of the Turbine Car
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.
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.