With gas averaging over $3.00 a gallon at the time of this writing, automakers are making a great show of trying to find more fuel-efficient ways to propel an automobile. But way back in 1963, Chrysler
pioneered development of a vehicle that had many of the features researchers are trying to create today.
It could run on multiple fuels, including diesel, unleaded gas, kerosene, jet fuel, vegetable oil, and even tequila. It had 1/5th the moving parts of conventional engines, never needed an oil change, and burned much cleaner than other motors of its time. It was the power plant under the hood of the 1963 Chrysler Turbine
, one of the most ambitious experiments ever launched by a US corporation.
In its simplest form, a turbine engine uses a heated fluid or gas to spin a series of rotary blades, which in turn drive the shaft that does the work. You’ve seen one yourself, if you’ve ever looked at a water wheel. They’re used today to drive coal and nuclear power plants. Jet planes use them as well.
During a 12-month period between 1963 and 1964, Chrysler built 50 production versions of turbine-powered cars, and chose 203 motorists, 23 of them women, across the country to test-drive them. The components were actually built by Ghia in Italy and shipped to Detroit for assembly. The reasons for this decision remain a mystery, as outsourcing the job to the Italian firm led to a production cost of approximately $50,000.00 per vehicle, about $350,000.00 each in 2012 dollars.
The final product was a hardtop coupe with bucket seats, two doors, and power brakes, windows, and steering. Overall design was influenced both by the fascination with space travel in the early 1960s and the adoption of key components from the earlier Dodge Polara. The rear bumper was an extremely heavy sculptured chrome. The nozzle-style backup lights had an uncanny resemblance to the warp drive nacelles on Star Trek’s USS Enterprise. The front had a sloping grille and twin headlights encased in circular chrome. The car had both a simple and imposing appearance that set it apart from most models of the day.
Futuristic approaches were employed throughout the Turbine. Instead of conventional bulbs, the dashboard was lit by high-voltage currents passing through electro-luminescent plastic, a system not unlike modern LED lighting systems. Instead of torsion bar suspension, each front wheel had an independent coil spring. The rear used a combination of leaf springs and direct-acting shock absorbers.
Black vinyl covered the roof, and the interior was appointed with bronze-colored leather upholstery and pile carpet of the same shade. The exterior was painted in a reddish-brown tone called “frostfire metallic” and later known as “turbine bronze.”
Mechanically, the engine was simple in design and operation. With only 60 moving parts, it had the potential for extremely long life with minimal maintenance. That wasn’t exactly a selling point to dealers who relied on revenue from their service departments.
Since no engine contaminants mixed with the lubricants, there was no need to change the oil. The vehicle ran on practically any combustible fuel. This was proven by the president of Mexico at the time, who ran his on tequila. Acceleration was a decent, but by no means spectacular, 0-60mph in 12 seconds.
Despite all of the ingenuity and care that went into its design, the Turbine did have its drawbacks. Exhaust gasses were dangerously hot, presenting a potential hazard to both vehicles and pedestrians close behind it. Trying to warm it up by pushing the accelerator pedal to the floor during cranking, a common practice with older cars, caused it to stall. From a marketing point of view, perhaps the biggest drawback was that the Turbine sounded more like a massive vacuum cleaner than a car with a conventional engine.
Ultimately, neither the 1963 Turbine or any of the versions that followed it led to mass-produced vehicles. Chrysler continued to develop engines based on the technology, until the federal government forced it to abandon the project as a condition for receiving a bailout in the 1970s.
Happily, insights gained from the work paid off in the company’s development of another kind of vehicle, the M-1 Abrams tank, which was released in 1980 and remains the US military’s standard battle tank to this day. If today’s auto pioneers are as visionary as those who developed the ’63 Chrysler Turbine, then the future of transportation will be bright indeed.
See more of the Chrysler Turbine here