George Huebner was a production engineer for Chrysler during World War II and was the chief contributor in the development of the V-16 engine used in the P-47 fighter plane. Huebner had become familiarized with turboprop engineering and it was this interest that enabled Chrysler to get post-war contracts for gas-turbine engine research.
Huebner's greatest contribution to that technology was his design of a regenerator, a device which takes heat from the turbine's exhaust and directs it to the incoming air (what goes on from that point would take a few pages to explain, so please accept the fact that the regenerator makes turbines much more efficient and controllable).
Then came the 1950s. It was during this decade that automobiles — and nearly everything else — were made to resemble airplanes. The more fins and gaping intakes the better, the average buyer felt.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. Chrysler's management started looking at alternative powerplants for future cars and a natural candidate was the turbine engine. As early as 1954 one of Huebner's engines was installed in a Plymouth. Another set of engines was tested in 1956 models.
By 1960 Chrysler was testing its third-generation turbine engines and there was no turning back on the development program. In early 1962 the company announced plans to build 50 to 75 turbine-powered cars which would be loaned to "typical motorists" whose names would be selected by an accounting firm.
The public and press went wild when the Chrysler Corporation Turbine Car was introduced on May 14, 1963. The car looked like something right out of the future. It was colored bronze, it had jet-intake headlights, a sleek smooth body and reverse-slanted rear "exhaust" bumpers which gave the car a real space-age effect. It was a gorgeous car!
The cars became known in the press as the Chrysler Ghia Turbine Cars, but Ghia only formed the bodies in Italy. In fact, designer Elwood Engle created the shape. The steel, glass and upholstery was all shipped to Ghia from the U.S. and the craftsmen over there pounded the fenders and body panels into shape as supplied from drawings. The finished unit-construction bodies were shipped to Chrysler for installation of the turbine drivetrains and suspensions.
All of the turbine cars were two-door coupes and, as announced, 230 individuals were chosen to drive the cars and report their impressions. Each set of 50 persons would have the use of the car for 90 days and the only rule was that the car must be kept clean at all times.
Chrysler, meanwhile, touted the advantages of turbine power. They stressed that the cars started easily in cold weather (remember carburetors?), the heaters were warm instantly, no lead additives were required, no oil changes and only one sparkplug. In addition, the engines had 80 percent fewer parts, would operate on anything combustible and were vibration-free.
What Chrysler found from its testing program were two consumer complaints. First, there was a several-second turbine lag each time one started off from a light. Second, fuel consumption was very high, roughly equivalent to 10 miles/gallon. Add to these the inherent sensitivity to airborne particles and the very high production costs of turbine components and there quickly developed pro-con factions in the boardrooms at Chrysler.
The consumer test program was essentially a failure. This was due mainly to the turbine lag problem, even though Chrysler's technical people tried to train the drivers to operate the cars correctly. (That is, plant the throttle to the floor while holding the brake. When the engine gets to 52,000 rpm (that's right!), let go of the brake.) When driven properly the turbine car could do 0-60 in less than 6 seconds. Also, its fuel economy was much better the longer the turbine was kept at high rev, because that's how turbines work.
Not quite. Of the 55 total Ghia cars produced, all but eight were destroyed at the end of the testing program (27 months after its start). Only one is known to run today. All things considered, though, the turbine program was successful. The negatives could be overcome, thought Chrysler, and turbine projects continued well into 1974. By that time transmission development had solved the lag problem, pollution concerns were overcome, mileage was acceptable and the tooling was in place for a larger run of vehicles. On top of that, unleaded fuels had become mandated (didn't need it in turbines) and the engine didn't need a catalytic converter.
Two things killed the project, however. The first was that Chrysler ran out of money in 1975, almost ending its place in the auto business. The second was the Arab oil embargo, which forced the tooling for smaller, fuel-efficient front-wheel drive cars. The futuristic turbine car passed into automotive history.
Don't even ask what one might be worth!