Book Review: Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation

[UPDATE: Where are the remaining turbine cars currently?]

[ If you’re a regular reader here you might wonder why it seems I love every book I review. The reason is that I’m very selective about the books I start, and I’m not hesitant to bail on a book I don’t care for. So by the time I decide to mention it here on the blog, only the “good” ones are left. ;-) ]

I first saw this book mentioned in a WSJ review last year. The book is Chrysler’s Turbine Car: The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation by Steve Lehto, with a forward by Jay Leno. Yes, that Jay Leno, noted car nut.

It was published in 2010 and the hard-cover edition is 224 pages.

It’s quite an amazing story that touches on engineering, PR, marketing, politics, and environmental issues.

 [ Read the Tale of the Olson’s turbine car ]

The very short version of the story … back in the 5os Chrysler put together it’s own brain-trust of engineers with an ambitious mission. See if they could create a turbine engine that would be appropriate for use in mainstream daily-driver cars. The idea of a turbine engine had become popular with the jet age and actual jet airplanes after WWII. The advantages over traditional piston powered engines were notable, but could they overcome the problems in order to make the platform work in automobiles?

For those not aware of what a turbine engine is, it’s essentially a jet engine, albeit with some necessary modifications for a much different application.

Some advantages of the turbine engine (off the top of my head an not an exhaustive list):
– no reciprocating mass like a piston engines
– many few parts, including moving parts
– much less need for lubrication and oil changes
– engines lasted much longer, much less wear
– would run on nearly any fuel: gas, kerosene, jet fuel, tequila, peanut oil, diesel, etc. with no modifications necessary
– always started in the coldest weather
– near instant heat in the passenger compartment
– really shined at highway speeds

[ Don’t miss the great pics of the car (including interior) on Flickr ]

Some disadvantages of the turbine engine (off the top of my head an not an exhaustive list):
– required much greater machining/manufacturing tolerances
– much more expensive to manufacture, not easily conducive to mass production at the time
– required expensive metals and alloys
– no service infrastructure in place
– quite poor with respect to tailpipe emissions
– not the best gas mileage
– could be a bit of an under-performer in stop-and-go traffic
– ran at over 40,000 rpm

Some of the advantages were big advantages over the common piston engine. And many of the disadvantages or issues were well on their way to being solved or mitigated to a great extent. But a couple of them were real killers. For example, because of the tight tolerances required many of the components had to be made individually, making them much more expensive to manufacture. And some of the raw materials required for the core of the turbine were quite expensive. Though by the 70s they had discovered that ceramics may be the answer to some of these problems.

Check out these rare videos from the program:
Riding the Whirlwind
Taming the Tornado

I knew that the Chrysler turbine program began in the 50s and stretched in the early 60s. But I had no idea how late the program was still at least partially active, well into the 1970s! Though by the 70s it had clearly lost momentum and was no longer the shining star of the company it had once been.

 [ The current M1 Abrams tank is powered by a  turbine engine. Specifically, a Honeywell AGT1500C multi-fuel turbine engine. ]

Chrysler made around 75 or so turbine cars, much of them by hand. The bodies were also hand-made by Ghia in Italy and shipped to the U.S. for pairing with the hand-built engines. Over the length of the program seven or eight generations of the engine were created, each building on the success of the previous one, and solving engineering problems along the way.

The clear highlight of the program was the much-publicized free loaner program of the early 60s. A few hundred families were selected in a very public and successful PR campaign to have one of the cars to drive at their whim for three months. Chrysler never missed an opportunity to make every selection and car delivery a news event. Their timing was brilliant. The U.S. was near the tail end of the Jet Age and anything associated with jet engines was popular (and of course the space race was in full-swing). The turbine car was definitely considered the car of the future. The Ghia cars were works of art. They missed no opportunity to make the car as “space age” as possible. Every little detail about the car’s look, inside and out, screamed The Future.

Nearly all of the recipients of the cars absolutely loved them and desperately wanted to buy one. But it wasn’t to be. In the end, Chrysler was never able to make the final leap to mass-producing cars with the turbine engine.

In the end it wasn’t some grand conspiracy that killed the turbine car. It was a combination of technical hurdles, government continually tightening tailpipe emissions (each time Chrysler thought that had met the limits, they were tightened yet again), and the company’s continued dismal financial situation.

The book is an easy and very enjoyable read, beginning with it’s Mad Men-esque cover. This is a quick read to pick-up if you’re at all interested in the era, cars, or engineering. At the end of the program, like GM’s EV1, most of the cars were officially destroyed. Oh, and a small handful of the cars still exist in museums around the country, with an even smaller number in running condition. Jay Leno has one of the few that still runs.

Additional links:
Jay Leno’s Garage – Chrysler Turbine
Tale of the Olson’s turbine car
1964 Chrysler Turbine Car – Road Test – Motor Trend Classic
Chrysler turbine engines and cars – AllPar
1963 Chrysler Turbine Car
The Truth About Why Chrysler Destroyed The Turbine Cars
Chrysler turbine engines and cars

Additional Reviews:
Book review: Chrysler’s Turbine Car – WSJ.com
Book Review: Chrysler’s Turbine Car – The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation

  • Spiritof67

    I like the statement about Mr. Leno having one “that still runs”. Chrysler disabled the power units of all the remaining items to keep them from exactly the kinds of stuff discussed in the comments here. I am sure Mr. Leno MADE his run – the obvious solution.

    That, or like any good hot-rodder, find another gas turbine to fit under the hood and drive on. Just like Mr. Leno did with his Mazda rotary…..

  • Steve Lehto

    Jay bought his directly from Chrysler. It was one which had not been disabled.

    • Chris Meisenzahl

      Wow, thanks very much for posting, Steve!