Chrysler's turbine 'jet car' project lasted 25 years

By Bob Erickson
NTC Communications





DETROIT – For a quarter of a century, Chrysler Corp. worked to develop a practical "jet car," spending millions on the gas-turbine engine project that finally ended in the scrap yard.

It was in March 1954 that Chrysler disclosed the development and successful road testing of a production model Plymouth sport coupe powered by a turbine engine. In June of that year, the car was demonstrated at the dedication of the Chrysler Engineering Proving Grounds near Chelsea, Mich.

Two years later, another turbine-powered Plymouth, a four-door 1956 sedan, was driven more than 3,000 miles, from the Chrysler Building in New York City to the Los Angeles City Hall, in four days. It got 13 miles to the gallon on unleaded gasoline.

From 1960 through 1962, Chrysler continued to retrofit individual models from its Plymouth line with various gas-turbine engines. These engines represented significant advances over the one used in the 1954 model; they were more compact and generated more horsepower.

All the research and engineering culminated in a grand experiment in 1963 when the company built 55 Chrysler Corporation Turbine Cars and then loaned 45 of them – free of charge – to "average citizens" to drive for three months each, with comments and feedback encouraged at the end of the period.

More than 200 families took Chrysler up on the offer, and together they logged more than a million miles in the unique cars over the two-year program.

These really were jet cars. They had stylish bodies produced by Ghia to carry the experimental Chrysler turbines, which operated at speeds up to 48,000 rpm and had exhaust temperatures above 500 degrees. And – like a jet plane -- they were really loud.

The 1963-project cars produced 130 horsepower with one-fifth the number of parts in a piston engine, had a top speed of 115 mph, and could run on just about any fuel: alcohol, kerosene, diesel, even cooking oil, perfume and liquor.

But at a time when gas cost only about 30 cents a gallon, people considered their ability to run on alternative fuels just a novelty. Instead, the public’s focus was on the car's appearance and the uniqueness of the engine.

Most of the reports published about these cars were glowing, and drivers waxed poetic over their futuristic look and smooth and easy operation. Unlike diesels they needed no warm-up time, there was very little engine vibration, and highway mileage was fair, though city mileage suffered from a 22,000 rpm idle speed.

Still, Chrysler did not seem confident enough that the remaining noise and heat problems could be solved without pushing the price of a production car too high for consumers, and the project went back to the drawing board.

Then in the 1970s, the project ran into a fatal combination of problems.

Though work continued – a seventh-generation engine was even put into a 1977 Dodge Aspen – a major gasoline shortage and subsequent tough emission-control standards made it impossible for the gas-turbine engine to compete with rapidly evolving internal combustion designs.

Finally, in 1979, mounting economic woes forced Chrysler to turn to the government for a $1.5 billion "bailout," and the turbine-engine program (which had cost $120 million by that time) was terminated.

Only a few of the cars remain, nearly all of them in museums or private collections. Forty-six of those that had been in the 1963 loaner program were simply fed into a crusher to avoid import duty on their Italian-built bodies.