[We need to preface this month’s unusual selection for “Muscle Cars You Should Know” by saying that, yes, the famed Chrysler Turbine is not typically hailed as a muscle car. Yet, in the Turbine’s defense, the platform which it was based upon later became the original ’66 Dodge Charger, but more importantly, illustrated more fully Detroit’s ingenuity than any other car during the 1960’s and therefore is worthy of its place here. -Ed.]
In September of 1941, the USAAF began a program to build America’s first jet airplane. Working under absolute secrecy and in close collaboration with the Bell and General Electric companies, three planes and 15 jet engines were produced. Barely a year later, the first XP59A was airborne. While this experimental aircraft was not without its problems, it clearly demonstrated that turbine-powered flight was feasible. In an AAF report dated Feb. 27, 1945, the enormous merits of the turbojet engine were outlined:
“The jet engine is of simple construction — it has only about 10 percent of the moving parts of the usual reciprocating engine, it has no ignition system, no carburetor and no automatic throttle control. No warm-up of the engine is needed.”
Debuting at the 1954 GM Motorama and dubbed the X-21 Firebird, GM’s turbine experimental styling was little more than a stub-winged fighter plane equipped with road wheels. Image: Motor Trend
All of the Detroit car manufacturers had been involved in the war effort and relations carried on after the war. At one point, GM’s head of styling, Harley Earl, along with a number of other GM executives were invited to Selfridge Air Force Base to preview some jet aircraft, although they were still highly secret at the time.
General Motors had been involved with turbine engine development during the war and Earl was aware of its strengths. However, he did not see much short term potential in the technology. That did not stop him from showing it as a future technology. At the 1954 GM Motorama, Earl showed an experimental car using a gas turbine engine. Dubbed the X-21 Firebird, the styling was little more than a stub-winged fighter plane, equipped with road wheels and ventilation.
Two additional Firebirds – promoted at GM’s Laboratory on Wheels – were built during the 1950’s. It was about as much publicity as the gas turbine department at the GM Research Laboratories, headed by W.A. Turunen, would ever get.
Across the city, Chrysler had been working on turbine engines since the end of the war. Awarded an R&D contract by the Navy’s Bureau of Aeronautics in 1945, Chrysler had developed a turboprop engine with a highly favorable gas consumption profile.
At the close of the contract in 1949, Chrysler researchers returned to more familiar ground – development of a practical automotive turbine engine. There was no shortage of challenges. Materials and manufacturing techniques needed to be improved or invented in order to be competitive with the established standard of the day – the conventional piston engine.
There were practical limits on how large the engine could be, how much noise was acceptable and how responsive the engine would be to driver inputs. Any of these could doom the project in spite of the inherent benefits of the turbine engine. Chrysler was aiming higher than General Motors. A few short months after GM’s Firebird III experimental car was introduced to the public, Chrysler revealed that they had successfully road tested a 1954 production car that was powered by a turbine engine.
Using 1/5th of the moving parts of a conventional piston-driven engine, the Chrysler Turbine made only 130 horsepower but an impressive 420 ft. lbs. of torque while standing still! Capable of spinning upwards to 44,500 rpms, the Turbine could run on darn-near anything and average 18mpg on the highway.
The car was publicly demonstrated at the Chrysler Engineering Proving Grounds in June of 1954. While the first practical automotive turbine engine was rated at just 100 horsepower, Chrysler innovations were included that addressed the practical issues of fuel consumption and exhaust gas temperatures. Hot exhaust gases were redirected to preheat the incoming combustion air, reducing the exhaust temperature and saving the use of fuel to heat the incoming air. The system was so effective that, at idle, exhaust temperature was reported to fall as low as 170 degrees F.
By 1962, Chrysler was ready to put the turbine car into the hands of the public. Fifty cars would be built for this purpose. Contracted to Ghia of Italy and designed by Elwood Engel, hired to replace Virgil Exner as head of design in 1961, the 50 Turbines were built between October 1963 and October 1964. The Turbine was built as a two-door hardtop coupe in 2+2 fashion, with four individual bucket seats. Other amenities included power steering, power brakes, and power windows and electroluminescent gauge pods.
Externally, the Turbine carried the jet fighter theme even further with two large taillights surrounding back-up lights disguised as nozzle fixed inside a heavily-sculpted rear bumper. Single forward headlights were mounted in chrome nacelles giving the Turbine a strong air intake look. The tires were specially-made to fit the jet theme with small turbine vanes molded into the white sidewalls.
Inside, the jet theme was carried over as well as the Turbine Bronze coloring. Image: Motor Trend
The first delivery of a turbine-powered car took place October 29, 1963 in Chicago. Each consumer selected for the test program would have the car for three months and then give it back, along with their reactions and feedback about the car in everyday use. The “Turbine Bronze” two-door, four-passenger car they received showed unique turbine-influenced styling and luxurious appointments including a black vinyl roof and bronze-colored English calfskin leather upholstery with bronze carpeting.
Equipped with an automatic 727 TorqueFlite transmission, the 130hp engine itself weighed 410 pounds and could run on just about any fuel – from diesel to gasoline to JP-4 jet fuel. In fact, the engine’s ability to run on virtually anything led to the President of Mexico purportedly testing the theory by running one on tequila! Best of all, switching from one fuel to another required NO adjustments.
Although the horsepower output seemed slim, the Turbine produced 425 lbs. of torque at ZERO output shaft speed rpms while advertised that the turbine engine could spin upwards to 44,500 rpm! All of this sent the Turbine from 0-to-60 mph in 12 seconds. Unlike the other B-Bodies which its body shared much of its architecture with, the Turbine featured independent front coil springs at each wheel with leaf springs and direct-acting shock absorbers in the rear.
By the end of the program, 203 different drivers in 133 cities throughout the 48 states had participated. Drivers were initially put off by the high-pitched whine that many compared to as a “big vacuum cleaner,” yet were impressed with the Turbine’s super smooth acceleration, surprisingly efficient 14.5mpg (city) and 18-19 mpg highway mileage, vibration-free powertrain, and advertised potential to outlive any piston-driven engine thanks to its having a fifth as many parts as a conventional V8.
Yet, this was an experimental program and no production plans were made. Development continued and, as new materials and technologies became available, the turbine engine became ever more feasible. In fact, the first Chrysler vehicle powered by a turbine was sold in February of 1978. The XM-1 main battle tank program began in 1972 and concluded in favor of Chrysler, who had been selling M-60 tanks for years.
When Chrysler hit financial straits in 1979, a condition of the government loan guarantees it received was to divest itself of the Chrysler Defense division and the turbine-powered M-1 tank program with it. According to reports, the company had been just days away from making a production decision on a turbine car. The government apparently thought the program too risky and insisted that Chrysler focus on getting its house in order.
With that ended an almost thirty year quest to bring turbine technology to the public. All but a few of the 1963 turbine cars were destroyed, but some remain in museums around the country; a silent testament to what could have been.