By on October 24, 2010

First things first: having stuck my neck out a quite a bit with a piece I wrote last year The Truth About Why Chrysler Destroyed The Turbine Car, I approached this book with a mixture of eagerness and trepidation to find out if my own theory held any water. It does (whew!). This well researched book by Steve Lehto confirms it: the myth that Chrysler had the bronze beauties scrapped because of import duties that needed to be paid is utter junk and a baseless urban myth. It even confirms my speculation that the Ghia bodies cost about $20k each, and therefore any import duties would have been insignificant:

“The reality was the import duties at that point would have been peanuts. They didn’t want the cars hanging around, getting into people’s hands and messing up the image of the program, people getting them and putting V-8s into them, that was the real reason” (Chrysler’s) Bill Carry explained.

It also confirms that only six museums responded with Chrysler’s offer to donate them (without cost) for display. So feeling vindicated on those accounts, how does the book stack up otherwise? Like the turbine program itself, it never really got me fully spooled up.

OK, that might be my problem, having long ago decided that the whole Chrysler Turbine program was more about the promotional value and the zeitgeist of the jet age than the likelihood that the automobile turbine engine was ever going to be mass produced. And this book reinforced that more than ever, even if that wasn’t the intent. Even the subtitle “The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation” unwittingly (presumably) reinforces my jaded perspective: jets were cool in the fifties and early sixties, and Chrysler wanted in on the coolness, regardless of the obvious obstacles to mass production.

If that’s a little harsh, I admit that some genuine progress came out of the program, but it wasn’t so much at Chrysler itself. Although George Huebner Jr. was the public face of the program, and milked it for all the personal and corporate glory and publicity possible, it was Sam Williams, a quiet scientist that really made the Chrysler turbine workable in its first few incarnations. But he left early on, and founded Williams International, which has found considerable success, especially with its micro-jet engines for small jets. His ability to see the inherent problems in adapting the turbine to automobiles and instead focus on replacing the piston engine in small airplanes perfectly underscores the whole turbine issue: it was always way too expensive to put in production, period. Airplanes? that’s a different story.

Chrysler really never faced that reality properly during the Turbine Car’s heyday for a good reason: the huge amount of publicity it generated nationwide for several years was grossly in excess of what it was spending, so who cared whether it was financially viable or not. Detroit, like most businesses, lives on the short term buzz, and the Turbine Car was giving it plenty of that. The book even speculates that Chrysler’s dramatic resurgence during the years of the Turbine Car program may be attributed to it, to one degree or another. Quite plausible.

A substantial part of its pages are spent documenting the experiences of the ordinary folks who got to “own” a Turbine for a few months. It was a hugely popular program, and those that had one never forgot it. The reason is simple: they became instant celebrities in their towns and cities, the forerunners of today’s reality show stars. The shortcomings of the cars themselves were mostly lost in the haze of excitement; no wonder so many wanted to buy them. When Chrysler asked them if they would hypothetically pay $20 k for one ($140k adjusted), they all blanched. That was more than most of their houses cost back then. And Chrysler was only feeling them out; even they didn’t know if they could actually build them for that amount even on a large scale.

The book also details those shortcomings, and they were very substantial. Fuel consumption in city driving was abysmal. The cars had to be fed diesel or kerosene; ironically, the leaded gasoline then would have damaged them. Yet the multi-fuel abilities of the turbine is extolled too often here; one too many references to them being able to run on perfume or tequila. How cool is that?

There’s lots of detail about what an effort behind the scenes it took to keep the Turbines running, and avoiding public scrutiny of that aspect.

A minor gripe with the book: calling them “jet cars”. A jet engine is one that specifically uses its thrust to propel a vehicle or plane. A gas turbine is related, but not the same. Call me a grouch, but…

The book may indulge in the”cool factor and it’s obvious from reading the publicity reviews on the back cover, that it will feed many folks’ notions that the turbine car program was madly cool and the innocent victim of changing government standards or other externalities. Shades of GM’s EV-1 program and “Who Killed The Electric Car?” Did they read a different version? What I kept getting out of it was the the program’s overwhelming limitations that assured its inevitable death. I guess this book is able to be interpreted in multiple ways. Or maybe they didn’t really read it.

But the conclusion is presented starkly here, even if one chooses to ignore it: Chrysler finally admitted what it knew all along: the key parts of the turbine were way to expensive to build cost-effectively.

And since then, the internal combustion engine has solved all the problems that bedeviled it back the. Today’s engines are quiet, smooth,  economical, multi-fuel capable, long-lived, reliable, clean and very cheap to build. The turbine’s appeal as a replacement, regardless of building cost, evaporated with modern electronic controls and new technologies.

That’s not to count out the turbine in the future; but if it does become a viable option, presumably it won’t be because of its “coolness”. Note that I said “presumably”. Hydrogen fuel calls were mighty cool just a few years ago. And we’re about to embark on a very large scale public (and publicly-subsidized) test of EVs. The turbine will undoubtedly not be Detroit’s last “cool” creation.

So the book successfully reinforced my own skepticism about the Turbine program, although that was probably not the author’s intent. It’s a common problem: are we looking for facts or coolness? The facts are here, but getting them to support the cool factor not so much so.

Published by Chicago Review Press; who supplied the book.

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42 Comments on “Book Review: Chrysler’s Turbine Car – The Rise and Fall of Detroit’s Coolest Creation...”


  • avatar
    jmo

    Fuel consumption in city driving was abysmal

    So, you’d think turbine/electric hybrid would solve many of the problems inherent in a pure turbine car.  Indeed, it would seem like the perfect luxury car powertrain – super smooth with unparalleled durability and reliability.

    The time between overhauls is generally a function of the complexity of the engine. Piston-based engines are much more complex than their turbine-powered cousins, and generally have TBO’s on the order of 1,200 to 2,000 hours of running time. They tend toward the lower number if they are new designs, or include boosting options like a turbocharger. In comparison, jet engines and turboprops often have TBO’s on the order of 3,000 to 5,000 hours.

    • 0 avatar
      Tstag

      Jaguar think so. And Land Rover (born of Rover) also played with turbines a la Chrysler.

    • 0 avatar
      HerrKaLeun

      where do you get those numbers? most cars run more than that in a few years without needing overhaul.
      Even if you account for equivalents to 100% load the numbers you provide are too small.
       
      Jet engines sure rune more hours (depends on what you define as overhaul).
       
      Power plant turbines run at 100% load for several thousand hours a year without need for major overhaul (again, depends on what you define as overhaul) for many many year.
       
      Cargo ship diesels run continuously for years.
       
      either your hours are off, or the definition of overhaul is different (I’d think replacing pistons and valves etc. counts as overhaul, but not changing oil and adjusting some things)

    • 0 avatar
      JimC

      All of those numbers are about right for aviation engines.
       
      Auto engine longevity, sure- it’s not unusual nowadays for an auto engine to run far past 5,000 hours and continue to put out smooth, reliable, efficient power.  But the numbers for auto and aviation engines are an apples-to-oranges comparison.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      Herr,
       
      Those are for aircraft operations.
       
      The main point is that, in general, turbines are far more reliable and require less maintenance than a piston engine used in the same application.
       
       
       

    • 0 avatar
      HerrKaLeun

      the comparison to aviation engines isn’t really valid. For aviation the engine weight is much more important and they often run at near full power.
       
      in cars we can invest a (little bit) more weight to extend the life and power output often is less than 10% of rated power (think of cruising and idling, even at acceleration we don’t use 100% since that is the power at 6000+ rpm.)

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Which is why they’re so common in airplanes. Different criteria and priorities. Airplane piston engines have a short TBO not because they’re necessarily worn out, but for safety reasons. Having an engine die in a plane is a bit more worrisome than in a car.

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      For aviation the engine weight is much more important

      Well, to read TTAC the same is true for cars- add lightness and all that.  To get 20 year/200,000 mile service reliability, without a massively heavy diesel engine, might require a turbine hybrid.   A GE T700 weighs 400lbs and generates 1,536 shaft horsepower by comparison the 1001 bhp W16 in a Veyron weighs 800lbs.  The battery pack in a Prius weighs 68kg.

      To add lightness to a massively powerful, super refined, utterly reliable luxury car might require a turbine/hybrid configuration.

    • 0 avatar
      JimC

      I agree with everything so far said… sort of…

      Aviation engines spend hours cruising at about 75% rated power or a bit less and with only a few minutes at max power for takeoff and initial climbout.  This is is arguably better for durability (fewer heating/cooling cycles).  On the other hand a lot of small plane and helicopter engines (military, police, EMS, executive, training) usually lead relatively abused service lives- frequent, wide power changes between high power-cruise-low power-high power-low power…

      For very recent auto engines (last 5 years) rated for 200-300+hp, the 10% figure is about right for most of their lives, with frequent stints lasting only several seconds at much higher power, and shut down and started up more often.  For many wheezy 1980s engines I would say it was more like 20-30% of rated power (lower max power).  Well, except for long-haul bus/truck engines, whose service lives have a lot in common with aviation engines…

      Food for thought- emergency power in an aircraft engine is a lot like the highest few hundred rpm in an auto engine.  The average operator rarely or even never uses it.

      I think I covered apples, oranges, and probably bananas and a few other things.  Did I confuse anyone other than just myself?

    • 0 avatar
      xyzzy

      re: aviation use.  It is deceptive to use overhaul intervals to imply turbine engines don’t need as much maintenance as piston engines.  It’s true a turbine can go 4000-5000 hours to overhaul as opposed to 2000 for a piston, but turbine engines require a hot section inspection and maintenance halfway through their run, or at about equivalent time to a piston engine needing overhaul.  This hot section work is easly 2-3x more expensive than a piston overhaul.  And when the turbine does need overhaul, that will be 4-5x more expensive than the piston overhaul.

  • avatar
    jmo

    Fuel consumption in city driving was abysmal

    So, a turbine/electric hybrid would seem to solve many of the problems inherent in a pure turbine vehicle.  Indeed, a turbine/electric hybrid would seem like the perfect luxury car powertrain – super smooth with unparalleled durability and reliability.

    The time between overhauls is generally a function of the complexity of the engine. Piston-based engines are much more complex than their turbine-powered cousins, and generally have TBO’s on the order of 1,200 to 2,000 hours of running time. They tend toward the lower number if they are new designs, or include boosting options like a turbocharger. In comparison, jet enginesand turboprops often have TBO’s on the order of 3,000 to 5,000 hours.

    x2

  • avatar
    Educator(of teachers)Dan

    Why is Al Franken leaning against that Turbine Car?
     
    But seriously.  Don’t forget that GM played around with the turbine concept too with their early “Firebird” series in the 1950s.  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/General_Motors_Firebird Apparently GM didn’t know how to milk it for publicity for as long or to try to come up with something that looked like it could be put into production.

    • 0 avatar
      Paul Niedermeyer

      Theirs weren’t really road ready; all show and no go.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Ford also played the turbine game.  There was at least one turbine-powered heavy truck, and there remains to this day a building on the Ford campus in Dearborn called the Gas Turbine Lab building.

    • 0 avatar
      mcs

      I actually saw the early 1970′s version of the Ford Turbine Truck on the road in the Dearborn area as a teenager. It made a turn into a driveway near me, then backed out. It was definitely a turbine – no mistaking that whine and the smell of the exhaust. Appearance-wise, it looked like a conventional w-series from the 70′s.

  • avatar
    jmo

    I’d have to say, if I were a Hyundai executive, I’d be pressing for a nEquus power train that would allow the offering of a 20 year 200,000 mile warranty.  I’m thinking that would require a gas turbine/hybrid power plant to provide that level of service reliability.

    Even if it boosted the price by 10 or 15k or 20k, I could see people lining up to buy a turbine/hybrid with a 20/200,000 transferable warranty.

  • avatar
    Daanii2

    Some ideas work. Some don’t. It’s always nice to see efforts like Chrysler’s even if they do not end in success.
     
    In many ways, technological evolution mimics biological evolution. Good ideas are born only at the expense of many more ideas that die.
     
    Here’s a tip of the cap to the losers, like these cars. May they rest in peace.

  • avatar
    PeriSoft

    Ahh, turbine cars. Turbine cars and electric cars were featured every five years in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, each time confidently portrayed as being ready for prime time in five years.
     
    There’s a great article in a ~1980 PopSci that describes GM’s new electric car, which would do 0-60 in 8 seconds, top out at 100+, and go 100 miles on a charge…

    • 0 avatar
      jmo

      Peri,
       
      It is OPEC policy to attempt to keep the price of oil below the point at which any of these competing technologies become economically viable.
       
      http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/automobiles/04COAL.html
       
      GM even developed a turbine engine that could run on powdered coal.  The US is the Saudi Arabia of coal…

    • 0 avatar
      PeriSoft

      Powdered coal? Man, I hope they’d have found a good way to package it – I ran a coal stove for heat for a winter, and it was *horrible*. Plus, the burn efficiency was awful – it seemed like 1 cubit foot of ash for two cubic feet of burned coal.
       
      The wood pellets I’m using now are fantastic by comparison; clean, easy to light, and they leave about 1% ash instead of 50%. I doubt the energy-per-volume ratio would be enough to run a car, though!

    • 0 avatar
      Educator(of teachers)Dan

      The only thing I could figure that would have worked with powdered coal is making it like a giant toner cartridge.  Good bye self serve, here comes the “Coal Jockey” with a small crane and a heavy cartridge of coal.  As long as they recycled the cartridges…

    • 0 avatar
      Mike66Chryslers

      Ahh, turbine cars. Turbine cars and electric cars were featured every five years in Popular Science and Popular Mechanics, each time confidently portrayed as being ready for prime time in five years.
      I would add hydrogen powered cars to that list.  Even before fuel cells were on the radar, they were talking about burning hydrogen in IC engines.  I have a PopSci from the mid-70′s with a big article on that.
       

  • avatar
    jmo

    Paul,
     
    You really need to a post about the coal/turbine powered Eldorado.
     
    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/04/automobiles/04COAL.html

  • avatar
    gslippy

    Some things don’t scale well; the gas turbine powering a car is one of them. Poor throttle response and noise would be insurmountable issues with consumers who are used to a refined V8 engine. It will be very interesting to see how the new EV cars are received by consumers – price, range, resale value, and infrastructure will be obstacles to mainstream acceptance.

    Besides the obvious speed increases, the jet engine provided a remarkable decrease in airline deaths per passenger mile due to its relative simplicity and high power density, something airlines and passengers are willing to pay for.  A blown 350 rarely results in death or even danger, so most consumers don’t want to pay extra for ultra-high reliability when pretty-good reliability will do.

    I predict lessons for the green EV industry along the same lines – people won’t be willing to pay a premium for a ZEV when ULEV is affordable. The only thing which might alter such a market is the use of government regulation which forces us to buy ZEVs.

  • avatar
    E30-LS1

    Lets not forget:
    The Redstone rocket, the Jupiter-C rocket, the Saturn 1-B, and the Taliban’s favorite, the Tomahawk Cruise missle.  All built by Chrysler’s aerospace division

  • avatar
    view2share

    I saw this car at Sparks, NV, Harrah’s Car Collection many years ago.  An attractive car, which to these eyes looked like a Thunderbird.  I was thinking they had stolen the Ford design.

    • 0 avatar
      Mike66Chryslers

      Elwood Engel defected from Ford to Chrysler in 1961 to replace Virgil Exner as head of the styling department.  I’m sure he had a strong influence in the design of the Turbine.

  • avatar
    V572625694

    Didn’t C&D have an article about the Chrysler turbine a few years back, in which they actually got a hold of one and drove it? Main thing I recall was big-time turbo lag, which seems logical.

    • 0 avatar
      rudiger

      Yeah, there was one in private hands where the guy was able to keep it running through all these years. IIRC, he had connections with some Chrysler engineers that would help him keep it going.

      That was always one of the great things about Chrysler. More than Ford (and certainly more than GM), if you had something special and/or unique, it was invariably possible to get hooked up with someone at Chrysler willing to help out.

  • avatar

    Back in the day, William International’s headquarters out in Walled Lake, MI used to be regularly picketed by anti-war nuns because their engines were used on [nuclear tipped] cruise missiles. I’m kind of glad Mr. Huebner help create cruise missiles. They probably save a lot of US lives.

    • 0 avatar
      Robert.Walter

      Beat me to it.  My mom’s buddy from high school, now deceased, was working for Sam Williams as V.P. of IT, and I can recall him telling the same thing regarding Cruise Missles and peacenik-picketers (I even think the seemingly leftist Detroit Aux. Archbishop T.G. was walking the lines from time to time.)  

      In my mind’s eye, I recall the W.I. complex being ringed by heavy-duty iron gating painted white, and in the lobby of the HQ there was either a full-scale photo, or a full-scale mock-up, of a Tomahawk CM. 

      In the area were two other facilities of note (IIRC), 1. the Schiller-Globe, later United Technologies Automotive, later abandoned??, steering wheel plant which produced wheels for many of the Big 3, 2. the Excell-o company which came out with the cardboard milk carton (Pure-Pak), and I think also had some of the early patents to the aceptic vacuum-packed block-shaped cardboard/mylar packaging for liquid materials, now owned by the swedish firm Elo-Pak.

  • avatar

    I think the National Museum of History and Technology in DC has one of these. I thought they were stunning looking when they came out, and I still think they are.

    • 0 avatar
      view2share

      So is the Thunderbird.  Looks to me like a Ford T-Bird.

    • 0 avatar
      Thomas Kent

      I don’t know if they still have it, but when the Los Angeles Museum of Science and Industry was located at Exposition Park, they had one. Plus a spare engine.

    • 0 avatar
      Mike66Chryslers

      @Thoms Kent: My guess is that is probably the Turbine that is now at the Peterson Museum.

    • 0 avatar
      jpcavanaugh

      View2Share:  There is a reason that the Turbine looks like an early 60s TBird.  Chrysler had just hired Elwood Engel to take over Chrysler Styling after the disastrous final designs under an ill Virgil Exner.  Engel had been in charge of Ford styling and was best known for his work on the 61 Continental and Thunderbird. 

      Engel came on board in 1961, IIRC.  He was too late to do much to the 62s, but cleaned up the 63s a bit before they came out.  The 64 Imperial restyle was clearly all Engel, as were the 65 full sized C bodies. 

  • avatar
    Conslaw

    Volvo briefly revived the automotive turbine with the ECC concept car in 1992.  The ECC was a turbine/electric hybrid.  I have know idea what the data revealed regarding whether the turbine’s steady-state efficiency made it  a good auxiliary power-plant, but I’m sure cost was still a big issue.
     
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Volvo_ECC
     
     

  • avatar
    geeber

    No doubt the Chrysler Turbine Car was designed as much for promotional purposes as to actually advance the use of turbine powerplants in automobiles.

    Remember, though, that in the early 1960s Chrysler was having one if its periodic meltdowns. The styling after 1959 progressed from unattractive (1960) to downright bizarre (1961-62). There was a 1961 Chrysler Imperial two-door hardtop for sale at this year’s Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) show in Hershey, and looking at it made me wonder if someone had spiked the water coolers at Chrysler headquarters with LSD.

    How that car was every styled, let alone approved for production, must be an interesting story. And then there are the 1961 Plymouth and Dodge, both of which look like giant insects. You had to be a real Mopar fan – or someone who worked for Chrysler Corporation – to choose a 1961 Plymouth over that year’s Ford or Chevrolet.

    Chrysler also had severe quality control problems during this time period. The cars were plagued with leaks, rattles, sloppy panel fit and premature rust.

    Finally, there was a major stockholder suit in 1960-61 over conflicts of interest among top executives. It was found that several Chrysler executives held interests in Chrysler suppliers, and had looked the other way when shoddy parts were sent to Chrysler plants. A stockholder sued the company, and attempted to force Chrysler into receivership. A major shake-up occurred in the executive suite as a result. This was all happening as the downsized 1962 Plymouth and Dodge debuted with a resounding thud – at some points during the 1962 model year, AMC outsold all of Chrysler Corporation!

    The Turbine Car was a major distraction from all of this bad news, and showed that Chrysler still possessed some engineering prowess. It gave the corporation a major public relations lift when it desperately needed it. Granted, Chrysler quality control improved dramatically after 1961, and Chrysler styling underwent a revolution with the attractive, facelifted 1963 Dodge and Plymouth and all-new, handsome 1963 Valiants and Darts. But the Turbine Car program undoubtedly helped presuade more than a few new-car shoppers that they needed to once again put Dodge, Chrysler and Plymouth on their shopping lists.

  • avatar
    Mike66Chryslers

    OK, that might be my problem, having long ago decided that the whole Chrysler Turbine program was more about the promotional value and the zeitgeist of the jet age than the likelihood that the automobile turbine engine was ever going to be mass produced.
    Based on your review, it sounds like the book focuses solely on the 1963 Turbine car of which everyone is familiar and was clearly designed for maximum PR benefit.  There is more to the story.  Chrysler started the turbine program in the 50′s.  The engine that was in the 1963 Turbines was their second or third generation design.  They continued doing R&D on their turbine engine right up to about 1980, and came close to putting it in production.
    Chrysler Engineers came up with innovative solutions to many aspects of throttling, connecting the turbine to an automotive transmission, exhaust noise muffling, designing a heat exchanger to improve fuel efficiency, using parts and materials that could be economically mass-produced, etc.  I suspect that a significant reason that other automotive manufacturers didn’t pursue turbines more vigorously was because they would invariably infringe on Chrysler patents.

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    Mike, Ford and GM were working on turbines – as was Rover (particularly), Nissan, Toyota, Volvo and Fiat, plus Austin in the UK and others. 

    In fact, the TRUE “nearly first” gas turbine car could easily have been a ROVER in 1963, while Chrysler was playing with loaners.  In fact, the Rover 2S/150R (2 shaft, 150hp regenerative) gas turbine engine developed for automotive use DID get put into production by Rover – as auxiliary power units, etc., and for use as pumping engines, etc. 

    In fact, Rotax (later of snowmobile engine manufacturing fame) built a licensed version of this engine rated at 70 to 100 hp  for such use, in Canada. 

    The Rover car which came out as the Rover 2000 was somewhat similar to what would have been built as a turbine car with front wheel drive.  The articulated joint atop the double A-arm front suspension pushed against a coil spring attached to the firewall in a bid to free up much needed room for the rather wide and physically large gas turbine engine.  This in fact was retained in the rear wheel drive Rover 2000, with the tunnel being used for driveshaft instead of outsized exhaust. 

  • avatar
    Boxerman

    Don’t forget Fiat, they also had a turbine.
    Consider today small turbines for model aircraft abound. If a turbine was not going in a passenger aircraft it’s costs could be shrunk, especialy with ceramics.
    Now imagine a Volt, powered by say a 50HP turbine. The weight savings would mean less battery and lower weight, or for the same weight much more battery. Or btter yet a fisker karma, an upscale car where a 10K engine is going to make sense, and the tech feature make it appealing. The drawbacks to turbines are startup, throttle response and poor fuel economy at low a varied power settings. A turbine hybrid gets past all those problems, the car starts off on battery, so no spool up issues, the turbine only ever runs a its most efficient speed, and primary drive is electric so no response issue. the benefits of a turbine, excellent fuel economy when used at efficient speed, and excellent regulation of emissions at same speed.

    It all makes sense, but in a premium product/


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