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Technical Curiosities: The Turbine Car

March 13, 2012 by Matt

Chrysler Turbine Car Jet Engine Gas Burnt Orange Red Concept

Forget that “nibbling around the edges” school of technological innovation; here’s an example of a car that went all the way, as it were, and adopted a completely different powerplant.

Built in ’63 to the tune of 55 examples, Chrysler’s Turbine Cars were never mass-produced, but did log an impressive number of miles as a demonstrator fleet. Essentially a completely normal car that happened to be powered, via the wheels, by a jet engine, the Turbine Car was a promising innovation dogged by politics all during its long gestation.

Chrysler Turbine Car Jet Engine Gas Engine Motor Powerplant Cutaway Diagram Schematic Drawing

How did it work? Quite simply. The turbine, which spun at up to 44,500 rpm, was connected to an ordinary torque converter and automatic transmission via a gear reduction unit. From there the power was transmitted to the back wheels by means of a basic Hotchkiss axle. The turbine required no liquid cooling system, and the bearings were sealed, so it needed no oil changes. A single spark plug provided the ignition source upon startup; after that the combustion flame was self-sustaining, much like the pilot light in a home furnace. Power output? A respectable 130 hp, and a startling 425 lb-ft of torque available just off idle, a characteristic of the turbine engine not unlike modern electric motors, and one that enabled the Turbine Car to hustle from a standstill to 60 mph in around 12 seconds, decent for the day.

What were some other upsides of the engine, besides the ones mentioned above? The engine could run on just about any combustible hydrocarbon (gasoline, diesel, kerosene, etc), and the operation of the turbine was exceedingly smooth. In addition the simplicity of the peripherals, the engine itself was blessed with only 60 or so moving parts, in contrast to the many hundreds of a typical piston engine. The reliability of the 55 demonstrators affirmed the turbine’s quality: They were an order of magnitude more durable than contemporary reciprocating engines, and that from a powerplant with a miniscule fraction of the development time undergone by its rivals.

Chrysler Turbine Car Jet Engine Gas Concept Cutaway Diagram Schematic Drawing

Disadvantages? In an era used to big, throbbing pushrod V8s, the vacuum cleaner-like sound of the turbine was off-putting. The engine did produce an excessive amount of exhaust heat—being, as it was, an actual jet engine—and Chrysler fitted an oversized and flattened exhaust system to absorb and diffuse as much of the heat as possible. Also, because of the temperatures inside the turbine, some exotic materials were used in its construction, raising the price tag a bit—though mass production and economies of scale would have certainly lessened the blow. One of the biggest downsides to the engine, and one Chrysler worked tirelessly to correct, was persistent throttle lag, caused by the time it took for the turbine to spool up and deliver power to the wheels. Drivers in the muscle car era of the ’60s expected instant power when they punched the gas pedal, and throttle lag cooled considerably whatever enthusiasm they might have felt for the new technology.

It’s a shame the Turbine Car wasn’t picked up for production, killed by politics and a general lack of public enthusiasm in the early ’70s. Perhaps if the red tape hadn’t been present, and the engine had had a company whose devotion to the engine was as strong as, say, Mazda’s for the rotary, we might see a handful of gas turbine-powered models for sale today. Who knows.

Editor’s note: This post is part of an ongoing series spotlighting obscure automotive engineering solutions. Read the other installments here:

Filed under: Chrysler, Technical, Technical Curiosities

5 Comments

  1. areopagitica says:

    You did not touch on the specific fuel consumption which was horrendous. Even passenger jets were not thought economically feasible in the early fifties with their thirst at low altitudes. The burner of the turbine consumes a lot of fuel stoking the fire that is discharged as spent heat in that huge tailpipe. When the Granatelli turbo car ran at Indy it was said (not confirmed by me) that the air thruput it discharged equalled the sum of all the other cars on the track. The opposite of an intercooler was devised for the Chrysler. There were two spools rotating on a crosswise driven quill shaf. These were of a honeycomb material, probably of stainless, that the tailpipe heat kept warmed while the inlet was drawn thru this cherry red core to use some of that otherwise spent heat instead of burning new fuel.

  2. zeitghost says:

    The Rover Company designed various turbine powered cars in the UK.

    One took part in the Le Mans 24 hour race.

    Fuel consumption was horrendous.

    According to

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rover-BRM

    It used exhaust heat regeneration to improve the fuel consumption.

  3. Chrysler says:

    ‘Devotion to an engine’? You want to talk about devotion? Chrysler spent 25 years perfecting the turbine car engine. TWENTY FIVE YEARS. How’s that for devotion? Chrysler’s awesome metallurgists devised special cheaper metals to use in the engine, efficiency was increased by heat regenerators. They had all the tooling designed for production – for optional installation in New Yorkers – in 1981, when the gov’t – who bailed out Chrysler at the time – said no. They had everything worked out, and the fuel consumption was a very acceptable 22 mpg.

    It would’ve been a thing. Lee Iacocca wanted it to be a thing. The gov’t didn’t.

  4. SteveD says:

    “The turbine, which spun at up to 44,500 rpm, was connected to an ordinary torque converter and automatic transmission via a gear reduction unit.”

    The power output shaft of the engine leading to the transmission was connected to a second bladed power turbine wheel (item “E” in the picture) that was driven off the exhaust of the jet engine.

    “B” is the compressor wheel and “H” the turbine wheel of said jet engine, connected to each other via a power transfer shaft as they are in conventional jet engines. Said turbine wheel “E” was not mechanically connected to the rest of the jet engine in any way, as it might be with a turboshaft or turboprop engine.

    Said turbine wheel E that actually connects to the car’s transmission and spins the wheels was not mechanically connected to the jet engine.

    And while the car could run on gasoline, the leaded gas of the time was forbidden due to the damaging lead deposits it left in the engine.

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