Imagine, a jet-powered car. Chrysler made it a reality back in the 1960s, even though the idea was unfortunately short lived. The Chrysler Turbine is just what the name says – a jet turbine powered car. It’s quite a remarkable engineering feat, and not only reflects an era when not only the chrome was thick and the women were straight (Michael Savage’s great line) but an era when American car companies were fearless instead of gutless.
Jay Leno has one of the last surviving Turbines. You can watch Leno driving his Turbine around as well as demonstrating a cool, vintage technical video about how the Turbine works on YouTube. It sounds like a jet sitting on the tarmac when he fires it up and whisks away in it. Leno says of the Turbine:
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 whoosh and a complete absence of vibration… 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.
Other than a couple handfuls of survivors (nine in total), all Chrysler Turbines were recalled and crushed. Perhaps because a turbine engine, once realized and after a few generations of engineering could likely eliminate the need for most mechanics. The turbine engine only used 1/5 of the number of moving parts as a regular car engine, and turbines are dead reliable as they power jet aircraft all over the world. Of the 1.1 million miles of driving accumulated by testers, downtime on the cars stood at only 4% and was the result of owners incorrectly using leaded gas. The Chrysler Turbine could also use just about any type of fuel, an engineering feat that surely upset the Seven Sister oil companies of the day. Gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, vegetable oil, and even Tequila – as demonstrated by Mexico’s then-President Adolfo Lopez-Mateos – could power the Turbine.
The Turbine is all the more impressive since Chrysler engineers worked hard to have cool exhaust coming out of the back of a very hot engine, and succeeded as exhaust gas temperatures were LOWER than other automobiles of the day. Also in the “cool” department, the Turbine does not have a traditional “coolant temp” gauge, it has an inlet temp gauge which reads 500, 1000, 1500, and 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Performance and fuel economy from the engine was good for its day, and continued refinement of the design would have no doubt advanced the design.
Other than the engine, everything else about the Turbine is pretty much stock 1960s Chrysler, except the body of the car which was manufactured in Italy. Its design is not gaudy but elegant, another impressive achievement in an era in which automotive styling could in your face. The project was totally abandoned by 1977.
The Chrysler Turbine is a symbol of time when America was self-confident in its ability to do just about anything, like put a man on the moon, and the car reflects that pride. It also reflects the ballsy nature of men who ran corporations back then. They were fearless and willing to try new ideas instead of rehashing old ideas in pursuit of quarterly profits. How unfortunate for us the micromanagers and bean counters took over.
The fear of failure is worse than failure itself. Something we should remember as men and as a nation. While the car was never a commercial success, perhaps because it was so costly, the idea was sound and continued development of the Turbine should have continued. The shelving of this idea by Chrysler means the dominance of a 100-year old design, the internal combustion engine continues to this day. How many more great ideas were shelved because of the influence of big oil companies?
For now, all we can do is enjoy this little slice of history and wonder about what might have been.
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