Jay Leno Drives One of the Last Chrysler Turbines - Article
April 26, 2011 12:00 AM
The gas turbine engine made a jet-like wooooooshhhhh noise as the car went around and around in a little circle. But I didn't get a ride. My dad said, "We're not waitin' in line all day just to ride in a goddamn cah." I've always remembered that.
Just 55 Turbines were built. Chrysler held on to five for evaluation and made 50 available for testing by 203 families nationwide who were chosen from 30,000 volunteers. Each family kept the car for three months. As part of the deal, the drivers recorded impressions and mileage in little logbooks. Chrysler had a special team of mechanics on call who flew out and fixed the cars right away if anything went wrong.
The families who tested the Turbines were treated like rock stars in their towns. It was a time when kids went crazy for cars; I still meet guys who remember where they were when they saw a Turbine go by. The test program lasted 27 months, and everybody who tried the Turbine liked it.
The car was the brainchild of chief engineer George Huebner, who began studying the feasibility of turbine-powered vehicles in the mid-1940s. The engine's smoothness and durability seemed to be a viable alternative to the piston engine. It has few moving parts—just fan blades on a shaft separated by a combustion chamber—one spark plug and no cooling system. A compressor at the inlet pressurizes incoming air, which then combines with fuel and ignites. The expanding charge spins the turbine section that is geared to the output shaft. The car was rated at 130 hp and 425 lb-ft of torque at stall speed, about the same as a contemporary 318-cubic-inch V8.
Huebner built a few ordinary-looking prototypes in the '50s, but the pilot-program cars would be driven—and seen—by the public, so Elwood P. Engel crafted an all-new, futuristic body. Before joining Chrysler in 1961, Engel had worked at Ford, where he designed the 1958 Thunderbird; hence the Turbine's resemblance. The unit bodies were hand-built by Carrozzeria Ghia in Turin, Italy, and shipped to Detroit for final assembly.
In 2008 I finally got a chance to drive one, when I bought mine from the Chrysler Museum. It's one of only three that are still operational. Most were destroyed by Chrysler for tax and liability reasons, which is a shame, because to this day everyone who rides in a Turbine says, "Whoa, this feels like the future!" You turn the key and there's a big woosh and a complete absence of vibration. Put it in drive, and you just press the gas pedal and go. It's like taking a '60s-era Buick Electra or Cadillac up to 60 mph, then putting it in neutral and coasting. There's a tachometer, but you're idling at 22,000 rpm! It's reasonably quick, but not a rocket, and the engine is so well-integrated that anyone can drive it.
One aspect of the car that really hurt it back in 1963 was that drivers couldn't use the most widely available fuel: leaded gas. Tetraethyl lead eroded the turbine fins. Nobody cared about alternative fuels when gasoline was 27 cents a gallon, so the diesel fuel that the Turbine required wasn't easy to find. You had to go to a truck stop or drive around to the back of a gas station to the diesel pump, and it was smelly No. 2 diesel—the same as heating oil—not the nice, clean diesel we get today. Back then, drivers didn't like diesel fuel because it was dirty and messy, and the pump handle was always greasy.
With a few simple adjustments, the Chrysler Turbine actually runs on nearly any fuel. In France, the tank was filled with Chanel No. 5. In Mexico, at the request of the president, it was run on tequila. The Turbine was demonstrated all over the world, and people wondered, "Wow! What's America going to do next?" It was a really inventive time, when the best stuff came from the U.S.
Of course, there were a lot of myths associated with the Turbine. Years later, one automotive editor wrote, "Other than setting the grass on fire and melting the asphalt, they were great cars." I called him on it, and he admitted, "I just assumed a lot of heat was coming out the back."
I said, "No, the whole genius about the Chrysler Turbine was they invented a regeneration feature that made the exhaust cooler than a piston engine's." The engine temperature is 1400 degrees, but two spinning regenerators force hot exhaust gases into the incoming airstream. Using regeneration kept the exhaust temperature down to 140 degrees.
The high cost was one reason the Turbine never made it into series production. Back then you could buy a V8-powered car for $5000, or this jet- engine car that would have cost around $16,000. They had about equal performance, and the Turbine car wasn't especially efficient. On the highway, you got about 19 mpg, which wasn't bad. But in town, idling at 22,000 rpm, it used a lot of fuel. So, given the choice, most people would have said, "I'll take the V8."
Between 1949 and 1981, Chrysler built seven different generations of turbine test vehicles. The company's shaky finances, the challenge of reducing the engine's NOX output, the oil embargo and the need to downsize cars for front-wheel drive all hurt the Turbine's chances. I think it's the most collectible American car—it was so different. Most of all, the Chrysler Turbine is a reminder that all the cool stuff used to be made in the U.S. I hope it will be again.
By Jay Leno
Published April 11, 2011 on Popular Mechanics.