Most every auto enthusiast knows about the Chrysler Turbine car. 55 were built through the early 1960s, 50 of which were offered to the public for use through a temporary program that ended in 1966. Nearly all of the cars were destroyed, but did you know Ford also dipped a toe into the turbine world?
Feast your eyes on a very curious 1955 Ford Thunderbird. Ordinarily, one would find a 292 cubic-inch V8 under the hood, making just shy of 200 horsepower (149 kilowatts). But as the gigantic exhaust outlet in the fender of this 'bird suggests, there's something radically different sitting between the fenders. In fact, it's a small gas turbine engine supplied by Boeing.
Ford archivist Ted Ryan shared the image of this prototype on Twitter, along with a snapshot of a document outlining the program. The engine is listed as a Boeing 8c creating 175 hp (130 kW), and presumably, a soundtrack that guarantees double-takes from every person in a one-block radius. Whereas the Chrysler Turbine car had an exhaust system exiting out the back, this Ford prototype dumps it out behind the front wheel. Observations in the document mention "undesirability of front exhaust" along with considerable lag in start-up acceleration as design drawbacks. We can only imagine the sound and heat experienced by the driver in this jet 'Bird.
Did Ford discover any advantages of a gas turbine engine in a first-generation Thunderbird? The document mentioned good medium-speed acceleration, smooth operation, and a favorable power-to-weight ratio. And with the turbine's simpler design versus a piston engine, there's less routine maintenance. Perhaps with additional development – including an exhaust not blasting anyone standing next to the car – a jet-powered Thunderbird could've been a thing. Of course, we know it wasn't meant to be. The Chrysler Turbine car certainly evolved the concept much further, literally taking it to a point of being streetable if a tad impractical.
We see that Ford ultimately paid $188,000 to create this one-off using an already established vehicle platform. Mind you, that's in 1955 terms. If built today, it would translate to nearly $2 million. It's quite a price tag for what amounts to an engine swap. Production cost ended up being a significant factor that killed the turbine with Chrysler. It's possible that Ford came to a similar conclusion back in the day.
Still, we really like the idea of a Thunderbird actually dishing out a bit of audible thunder.