The video showing the destruction of 46 of the 55 Chrysler Turbine Cars we posted recently generated lots of heated discussion. The key issue is, and has been for years, whether import tariffs played a material role in Chrysler’s decision. There is a wealth of sites and reprinted vintage articles dedicated to the TC, and the import duty conspiracy theory reoccurs throughout them. Interestingly, Wikipedia, which is not to be trusted in all things automotive, is the only source that throws some doubt on that story: “The story at the time that this was done to avoid an import tariff was incorrect.” Lacking that citation, it was time to do some further sleuthing, and either join the tariff theorists, or put a stake through it once and for all.
US import tariffs on cars average 2.5%, and numerous searches did not find any evidence that they were significantly higher in the 1960′s. Given the import boom during the fifties and sixties, they were presumably the same, if not less. A substantial tariff of 10% or more would have been punitive, and made imports significantly more expensive than they actually were.
The second issue is the value of the bodies that Ghia built for Chrysler. Various wild guesses have been thrown around ($250k each), but it’s not that hard to come up with a credible estimate. Ghia and the other Italian carrozzerias were almost solely in the business of designing and building small batches of custom bodies. We have an excellent comparison in the form of the Cadillac Eldorado Brougham that was coach-built by Pininfarina for the 1959 and 1960 model years. Reliable estimates place the cost at $25k for each ’57-’58 model, and less for the Italian built ’59-’60 models. These are for the complete final vehicle. They were sold for about $14k; a loss-leading halo car that Caddy could well afford back then. Pininfarina built and trimmed 200 of the ultra-luxurious Broughams for Cadillac.
Coach-built bodies built in small batches were still common in the sixties, and almost all of the Italian exotics used them. Maseratis and the like with coach built bodies were selling for $15 – $20k. It seems quite unlikely that the Ghia bodies cost Chrysler much more than about $10 to $15k each, maybe $20k tops. The Ghia contract was just for bodies, without any mechanicals, suspension, or running gear.
Assuming the high end $20k number and applying the 2.5% rate results in a tariff of $500 per car. The total for 55 cars would have been $23k. These are utterly insignificant amounts compared to the millions Chrysler was spending on the turbine program. Was it cheaper than $500 to have the cars destroyed? In 1963, undoubtedly. But it certainly wasn’t the motivating factor.
Destroying the cars was the only realistic solution, for a number of reasons. First of all, selling the cars to the public was totally out of the question. Maintenance and support infrastructure would have been nonexistent . It took a team of five specially trained mechanics dedicated full-time to keep the brand-new Turbine Cars running during the public trials. Not surprisingly, the bronze beauties were far from trouble-free. Expensive materials to contain the initial (not final) 500 degree exhaust and certain performance aspects unique to the turbine (see below) were also considerations. The Turbine Cars had to be fed kerosene or diesel, neither of which was all that convenient to buy. Leaded gas left problematic deposits on the turbine blades.
In 1963, there certainly weren’t 55 car museums willing and able to adopt and care for these cars. The nine that were saved and allocated to museum seems about right for the times. Super-rich private collectors like Jay Leno were not common in those days of high incremental tax rates. The Turbine Car program had fulfilled its purpose of gaining potential customer feedback, and it was time to wrap it up.
There were numerous functional challenges and limitations with the Turbine Cars, of which sluggish throttle response was the biggest. This is an inherent design limitation of turbines, as they need to spin up to over 40,000 rpm to develop full power. The Turbine Car had a one and a half second lag from first pressing the throttle. That could be considered dangerous; it certainly would by today’s standards. Throttle lag was noticeable at higher speeds too. Performance was reasonable, about 12 seconds 0-60, but substantially less than if a 383 V8 were under that sleek hood. One extended test produced an average fuel economy of 11.5 mpg. Not terrible, but far from good. A comparably-quick conventional car at the time would be expected to achieve about 15 mpg.
The turbine offers the potential for superb longevity, but that depends on the extent to which exotic and expensive materials are utilized. Chrysler’s own test found that its turbine had a lifespan of “up to 175k miles”. Good for the times, but not really exceptional. Chrysler’s own slant sixes would typically go that far or further.
The scope of this article is not to fully explore the pros and cons of Chrysler’s turbines and their theoretical development potential. Suffice it say, the changing climate on emissions and fuel economy played their part in finally ending the turbine program during the seventies. But the biggest single hurdle was cost. In Chrysler’s own words: “the technology did not exist to produce turbine engines at a price anywhere near competitive to conventional internal combustion engines”. One thing is certain; having spent vast sums to build them, a $500 tariff was not the reason they were destroyed.