1963 Chrysler Turbine
1963 Chrysler Turbine. Click image to enlarge

Story and photo by Bill Vance

Gas turbines develop power in a smooth and continuous stream, a far more elegant flow of power than the “monkey motion” associated with starting and stopping pistons thousands of times per minute. Since turbines have fewer parts, require no cooling system, are lighter and can burn practically anything, they have long fascinated automotive engineers. Maybe this was the Holy Grail they were seeking.

An automotive gas turbine should not be confused with a pure jet engine, which propels an airplane by the thrust of expelled gas. While the principle is the same, a car’s turbine, like a piston engine, rotates a shaft geared to the vehicle’s driving wheels.

Turbine pioneer Dr. Sanford Moss of General Electric began experimenting with gas turbines early in the 20th century. There had been wind, water and steam turbines, but driving a turbine with a continuous flow of burning fuel was new.

In the 1930s, Dr. Moss turned his attention to the related field of exhaust-actuated turbine-driven superchargers, or turbochargers. These enabled aircraft piston engines to maintain sea level performance at high altitudes. Moss became known as the “Father of Turbocharging.”

Moss met George Huebner, a Chrysler Corp. experimental engineer, in the mid-1930s during a demonstration of a turbocharged Chrysler experimental car. Moss encouraged Huebner and Chrysler to pursue a turbine car engine. This was high level inspiration indeed.

During the Second World War, Chrysler had designed a V16 aircraft engine in which the exhaust gases spun a turbine that fed its power back to the engine’s crankshaft. The war ended before production began, but it led to a Chrysler military contract to develop a turbine “prop-jet” aircraft engine. When the project ended in 1949, Chrysler’s turbine had achieved fuel economy almost competitive with aircraft piston engines.

In 1950, Chrysler began pursuing automobile turbines. It wasn’t the only one doing so; others such as Rover in England and Renault in France were also developing a turbine-powered car.

Chrysler unveiled an experimental Plymouth in 1954 with the corporation’s first-generation gas turbine engine. It had made good progress in alleviating two of the knottiest automobile turbine problems: high exhaust temperature and poor fuel economy.

The two were closely related. Passing the exhaust gas through a heat exchanger, like a radiator, reduced the temperature significantly. Utilizing this recovered heat to raise the temperature of the incoming air reduced the amount of fuel required to heat the air. Heat exchangers became essential components of automotive gas turbines.

The second Chrysler turbine, a 1955 Plymouth, was for engineering evaluation only, but the third, a 1956 Plymouth, made history by becoming the first turbine-powered automobile to be driven across the continent. It left the Chrysler Building in New York City on March 26, 1956, and arrived at the Los Angeles City Hall, 4,862 kilometres (3,020 miles) and four days later. It had coped well with a variety of driving conditions, and averaged 16 miles per gallon (14.7 L/100 km) on a mixture of unleaded gasoline and diesel oil.

The cross-country car had the same basic turbine that had been used in the first prototype, but more experience refined each succeeding experimental vehicle, particularly in burner efficiency and heat recovery.

Chrysler made significant progress in the development of inexpensive materials to replace the exotic metals required by turbines for such parts as combustion chambers, turbine wheels and blades. In aircraft use the cost of materials was a less serious consideration, but a mass-produced passenger car engine needed readily available, reasonably priced components.

Much of the turbine’s initial acceleration lag and lack of engine braking was eliminated by developing variable nozzles that changed the angle of the gases hitting the turbine wheel. And a new vertical twin-disc, rotating heat exchanger was more efficient at capturing exhaust heat.

After another coast-to-coast run, Chrysler was ready to test its turbine in the hands of typical motorists. It developed an all-new body style which looked remarkably like a Thunderbird, not surprising since Chrysler’s styling head, Elwood Engle, had recently come over from the Ford Motor Company. The bodies were built by Ghia of Italy and mated with their chassis in Detroit at the rate of about one per week.

Between 1964 and 1966, Chrysler passed its fifty-car turbine fleet through the hands of 203 randomly-chosen ordinary drivers, accumulating 1.7 million kilometres (1.1 million miles) in the process.

By the later part of the test, reliability had improved to the point where the average out-of-service time was only one percent, a remarkable achievement for a new type of engine. The comments of the drivers were generally favourable, with the outstanding feature noted being the engine’s extreme smoothness.

Chrysler continued turbine development until about 1980 but it never came close to replacing pistons, because the piston engine is very good, very entrenched, and constantly improving. Of more immediate concern for Chrysler by then was simply surviving as a corporation. Thus ended Chrysler’s brave turbine experiment.

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