Chrysler’s Jet Age Turbine Car Narrowly Missed Production
The jet age must’ve been the coolest. Smoking and drinking at work, from what Mad Men tells me, was not only acceptable, it was encouraged. Gas cost something like a nickel per metric liquid ton, red meat was healthy, the space race was in full “whose is bigger?” mode, you could actually see the Beatles in concert, and everything, everywhere was scattered with Danish mid-century furniture. Never mind the whole social upheaval, blatant racial and gender inequality, and fruitless war things, I want to wear a sharp suit to the grocery store while heavily buzzed on expensive gin, damn it.
They called it the Jet Age, presumably, because everything was jet-themed. I remember an already ancient microwave my parents had when I was really young, and there were at least a dozen references to airplanes scattered around it—turbine-shaped dials, a door handle shaped like a stylized wing, and a whole lot of chrome (I know jets have never had chrome). It was no doubt extraordinarily dangerous and almost certainly contributed to my little brother’s abnormally shaped ears, but it looked absolutely fantastic. Of course, cars didn’t escape this treatment, as most famously evidenced by the nearly two-foot tall fins of the 1959 Cadillac Series 62s. Though that car represented both the figurative and literal height of the trend, other jet themes continued on in American automobiles for nearly another decade—the most spectacular of all being the car with an actual jet engine.
First released as a 1963 model in late 1962, the Chrysler Turbine Car (its official name) was offered to a select group of customers on a trial-only basis. 55 were built, five as prototypes, the remainder as public test group loaners. Under a scheme designed to gauge consumer reaction to a mass-produced turbine-engined car under a wide range of conditions, each user would drive the car for a period of up to three months completely free of charge (aside from fuel), after which it would be reassigned to a new user in order to further broaden test results. Over a two year period, nearly 200 different lucky motorists would call a Turbine Car their own, at least for a few weeks. In turn, testers were asked to keep a detailed log of their impressions and experiences.
The Turbine Car used a purpose-built engine designed and manufactured by Chrysler themselves, and although quite torquey with 425 ft/lb from idle, it wasn’t especially powerful, producing roughly 130 peak horsepower, but the way in which it was delivered was definitely very futuristic—it was absolutely vibration free from idle to 45,000 RPM redline, and furthermore ran on literally anything combustible, as Mexican President Adolfo Lopez proved by running one on Tequila! Other advantages of the design included heavily reduced complexity, parts count, and maintenance resulting in much increased engine longevity, lower weight, instant warm-up, and negligible oil consumption with no need for regular changes, to name but a few. Fuel economy was on a par with normal V8-powered cars of the day.
Though styled in-house, Ghia in Italy was responsible for producing the car’s bodies, after which they were then shipped to Detroit for final assembly. Mechanically, the cars were quite sophisticated in areas apart from their engines, too, with then traditional Chrysler torsion bar front suspension replaced with double wishbones and coil springs, but retaining a more pedestrian solid axle/leaf spring arrangement at the back. Power was taken directly from the turbine’s output shaft, transferred through a reduction gearset, and then coupled directly to a largely standard TorqueFlite automatic transmission—all without the use of a fluid torque converter. Interestingly, though not offered for public consumption until ’62, Chrysler had been running various turbine-powered prototypes from the mid-1950s.
Sadly, as the public testing period was wrapped up, Chrysler consigned 46 of the original 55 to the crusher, ostensibly to avoid stiff tariffs, but more likely out of a standing industry practice designed to limit liability with non-standard production machines; see GM’s handling of the EV1 project for a more recent example of this. Today, only two remain in private hands, and unsurprisingly, one set of those hands belongs to Jay Leno—the man’s a hero.
Chrysler would continue to experiment with turbine powerplants for another 15 years or so, in everything from pick-ups to LeBarons, but was forced to abandon their jetcar ambitions as stipulated by the US government as part of a 1979 bailout. According to some sources, Chrysler were then mere days away from making a production decision on the 1981 New Yorker Turbine—a decision reportedly favored by Chairman Lee Iacocca. In fact, development was said to be 100% complete, with only the big green “go” switch needing to be thrown in order for production to start.
Oh, what could have been…