1964 Chrysler Turbine Car

By: Guy Allen, Photography by: Gabor Mayer, Hyman Classic Cars, Chrysler, Unique Cars Archives

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Chrysler's amazing gas turbine adventure

Imagine receiving this: "The driver of a turbine car will encounter new sensations, notably acceleration smoothness and absence of engine vibration that he has become used to with piston engines. Otherwise, normal driving of the turbine car is the same as any piston-engined car with automatic transmission." That’s the introduction to the pretty basic printed instructions you’re given when Chrysler America has dropped in your driveway one of its 50 precious gas turbine test fleet cars.

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It’s circa 1963-66, and you happen to be one of the lucky 203 people (just 23 of them women) nationwide who has been selected to ‘own’ this car for three months as part of Chrysler’s test program. You’re expected to use it as you would your own car and, when you hand it back, get ready for an in-depth de-brief on what you thought of it.

And the cost? Nothing, except for the fuel, which for most users was probably diesel. However you could run it on kerosene and almost any other liquid that burned. Chrysler very much preferred you avoided normal petrol, as in the sixties we’re talking lead additives which left unwelcome deposits on the expensive internals.

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Imagine that loan program happening now – it’s really unthinkable. A major car company not only ‘playing’ with an entirely new powertrain, but letting (albeit ‘vetted’) punters loose with your unimaginably valuable prototype with the cheery advice ‘just get out there and use it’.

Here comes the depressing part: more than likely ‘your’ turbine would end up being crushed. Once the program finished, Chrysler decided it didn’t want people playing with these things as second-hand projects. Just nine of the total fleet of 55 (including five early prototypes) survived and they were originally locked up in museums.

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Yep, they got to see plenty of real-world use. An amazing program

What got us on to these amazing cars was one of the two running examples now in private hands (the other is owned by high-profile comedian and collector Jay Leno) was recently offered for sale by Hyman Classic Cars in Missouri, USA. The price wasn’t disclosed, but think well into seven digits – so millions. It lasted on the market for about a fortnight. And no, we don’t yet know who bought it.

It’s worth thinking back to the time we’re talking of. Jet aircraft through the fifties and early sixties were seen as cutting edge technology and were having a major influence on car design. While a gas turbine is several development steps back from a jet engine, the technologies have common elements and it wasn’t a huge leap of imagination to wonder what would happen if you stuck a gas turbine in a car.

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Chrysler in fact had a history with gas turbine vehicle development dating back to the 1930s. For an engineer, the design had a few major advantages over a piston powerplant. They could be made lighter and more compact; Had fewer moving parts and were surprisingly robust; And could run on a variety of fuels. Perfect.

The firm’s first public unveiling of a turbine car happened in 1954, with a powerlant fitted to an otherwise standard Plymouth Belvedere. This was the first of a string of public reveals, including a 1956 Plymouth that was driven from New York City to Los Angeles and a 1959 Plymouth that was driven from Detroit to New Jersey.

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Along the way, the company played with one-off designs for a turbine car, including a wild winged creature penned by the legendary Virgil Exner.

This generation however was penned by former Ford stylist Elwood Engel while George Huebner headed up the engineering. Ghia of Turin, Italy, constructed the bodies.

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Bodies came from Turin

Under the paint was the fourth-generation A-831 turbine. It developed peak power by 36,000rpm, reduced to 3600 at the output shaft. However the turbine shot up to 60,000rpm at the car’s top speed of 120mph (293km/h). It claimed a relatively modest 130 horses (97kW) and a more substantial 576Nm of torque.

That was hooked up to a modified three-speed Torqueflite automatic transmission.

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Exner’s flamboyant turbine design study

Acceleration under normal circumstances was fairly leisurely – a touch over 12 seconds to 100km/h. However that number could be more than halved if you were cruel enough to ‘torque load’ the driveline by holding the brake against the transmission and winding up the powerplant to max before letting it go.

The chassis departed a little from usual Chrysler practice by having independent coils in the front end instead of a torsion bar, plus leaf springs on the rear. Brakes were power-assisted drums.

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Inside you scored leather trim and were faced by three instruments: speedo, tacho (reading the abnormally high turbine speeds) and a pyrometer showing the 930-degrees centigrade turbine inlet temp.

Chrysler went to great lengths to simplify the otherwise somewhat abnormal gas turbine starting procedure for its 203 test-drivers. The end result was this advice in the operating instructions: "The turbine will start easily under conditions that would thwart a piston engine (such as extreme cold). Its starting procedure is actually simpler than a piston engine since the driver merely turns the key and releases it, and then all the functions are carried out automatically. To ensure easy starting, the driver should keep his foot off the accelerator pedal until the engine is running under its own power.

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"One started, the gas-cycle reaches full operating temperature almost instantly and the engine can be driven immediately at high power if desired, without a warm-up period."

And the feedback? It was a little sluggish – something that could have been addressed with later developments – thirsty, but uncannily smooth and quiet. In fact it was the lack of noise, other than the ‘whooshing’ sound of the turbine, which seemed to spook drivers more used to a rumbling V8 under the bonnet.

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It’s hard to imagine the majority of these gems being crushed and that this really was the pinnacle of the program’s achievement. Chrysler did further its research into gas turbines all the way through to the late 1970s, but reluctantly concluded there wasn’t a long-term future for the idea. What a shame.

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TURBINE DREAMS

AS RARE as the Chrysler turbine is you don’t have to look far to recognise design elements used in other production cars of the era. As the owner of a ‘61-63 generation Ford Thunderbird the front of the Turbine is bizarrely a familiar sight and is explained by Elwood Engel’s time at Ford working on Thunderbird and Lincoln designs prior to moving to Chrysler in 1961.

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After physically seeing a Chrysler Turbine on display at the Peterson Museum in Los Angeles back in 2008, my first impression clearly lured me as a fan not only by the striking orange lustre but that unmistakable simulated turbine console that runs through the entire vehicle.

Amazingly items from the Turbine campaign still exist, including some that I have acquired such as a brass Perpetual Calendar that spanned from 1962-1989 and an original sales brochure complete with a Chrysler ink stamp. If only they built the ragtop version in candy apple red!

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1964 Chrysler Turbine Car

NUMBER BUILT: 55
ENGINE: Engine Regenerative two-stage gas turbine, 25 in. long x 25.5 in. wide x 27.5 in. tall
POWER AND TORQUE (SAE gross): Power and torque 130 hp @ 3600-rpm output shaft speed, 425 lb-ft @ zero rpm output shaft speed
TRANSMISSION: three-speed TorqueFlite automatic, (minus torque converter), RWD
BRAKES: front & rear drum
SUSPENSION: front: unequal-length control arms, coil springs; rear: live axle, leaf springs

 

From Unique Cars #452, April 2021

 

 

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